Soy, almond, coconut: Which milk alternative is right for you?

In recent years, the consumption of cow’s milk has declined rapidly as milk from soy, almond, coconut and other dairy alternatives has become increasingly popular. This shift away from traditional dairy is likely due to upticks in veganism, lactose intolerance, milk allergies, or other personal preferences.

But each type of milk alternative has its advantages and disadvantages. Before dumping your carton of cow’s milk down the drain, it’s important to first understand the health benefits of each alternative so you can decide which type will meet your nutritional needs.

Here’s a closer look into the most popular milk alternatives:

Soy Milk

Soy milk is most commonly produced through soaking, crushing, cooking and straining soybeans. Soy naturally contains B12, potassium and vitamin A and has the same amount of protein as an 8-ounce glass of milk.

Pros: Unlike other dairy alternatives, soy contains all of the essential amino acids, making it a nutritious dairy replacement for anyone in the vegetarian and vegan community who may be lacking adequate intake of plant-based protein. The average store bought brand of soy milk is fortified with vitamins and minerals such as calcium and vitamin D, again making it comparable to dairy’s nutrient profile.  Unlike dairy, a glass of soy milk is naturally cholesterol free and contains Omega 3 fatty acids plus fiber.  Because of soy milk’s sweet, yet nutty flavor, it can be easily substituted into smoothies or baking recipes in place of dairy.

Cons: Soy is one of the top common food allergens so this milk alternative is not suitable for those with a soy allergy. Almost 94 percent of soybeans in the United States are genetically modified so you’ll want to make sure that when buying this alternative, you purchase an organic NON-GMO brand. Keep in mind that there are sweetened and unsweetened options of soy milk. Choose unsweetened or you’re basically negating the health benefits of making the switch in the first place.

Nutrition Facts (unsweetened):Serving Size 1 cup, Calories 80 kcal, Fat 4 grams, Protein 7 grams.

Almond Milk

To make this alternative, producers grind almonds then mix in water, vitamins, stabilizers and sometimes sweetener.

Pros:  Almond milk is a low-calorie alternative that is naturally cholesterol and lactose free. While traditional milk and other alternatives need to be fortified with vitamins, almond milk is naturally full of nutrients such as vitamin E, magnesium, selenium, phosphorous, potassium, zinc and fiber. Because almonds contain vitamin E and omega 3 fatty acids, its consumption is linked to reducing the risk of heart disease.

Cons: Regular milk has naturally occurring sugars while almond milk has added sugars so you’ll want to make sure you purchase the unsweetened option. Though whole almonds are a beneficial source of protein, almond milk is not; providing only 1 gram of protein per 8 ounce glass. A lot of almond milk brands use Carrageenan, a thickening agent derived from red seaweed, which has been linked to ulcers, inflammation, and other gastrointestinal problems. Look for brands with no emulsifiers, or those that use sunflower lecithin and gums instead.

Nutrition Facts (unsweetened): Serving Size 1 cup, Calories: 40 kcal, Fat: 3 grams, Protein: 1 gram.

Coconut Milk

This alternative is made from fresh grated and pressed coconut meat, which helps give it a natural, creamy thickness.

Pros: Coconut milk contains healthy fats such as lauric acid, which is absorbed easily and can be used by the body for energy. Coconut milk naturally contains high amounts of immune-boosting vitamin C and E, antioxidants and minerals like magnesium, phosphorous, and potassium. Studies have shown that the consumption of coconut milk can help aid in lowering cholesterol and improve blood pressure levels. Coconut milk is naturally sweet, so always opt for the unsweetened variety.

Cons: One glass serves up almost 20 percent of your recommended daily value of saturated fat. Like almond milk, this alternative does not contain protein, averaging a mere gram per serving compared to 8 grams found in dairy.

Nutrition Facts (unsweetened): Serving Size 1 cup, Calories: 45 kcal, Fat: 4.5 grams, Protein: 0 grams

Theresa Shank, RD, LDN, is a Philadelphia based registered dietitian and the founder of Philly Dietitian.