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Need some help choosing a plant-based milk?

Uploaded: May 8, 2022
A few weeks ago I found myself staring into a refrigerator case full of plant-based milks, with no idea which one to choose or why. A guy next to me was doing the same thing. “You know, you can buy them for less at Costco”, he offered, mentioning that they come in bulk packages. That was good to know -- these can be pricier than dairy milk -- but first I wanted to figure out which one to buy!

The number of choices can be paralyzing, making it harder to try any of them, so I thought I’d do a comparison for this week’s blog post. That way, next time you pass this case in the grocery store, you have an idea which one you want to grab and you don’t have to stand there puzzled and frustrated!

If you don’t want to read this whole blog post, my summary would be:

- Oat milks and pea milks have a low impact on our planet (emissions, land use, water use) and they also have much less sugar and saturated fat than dairy milk. (I did not try other versions like soy milk.) (1) (2)

- They tasted better than I was expecting, and I’d be happy to use most of them.

- The most milk-like oat milk in my opinion is Chobani. Try Chobani’s “Extra Creamy” if you like whole milk or “Original” if you like 2% milk.

- If you like non-fat milk, or generally prefer less fat and sugar, you might try Planet Oat. It is not quite as white or as creamy, but it tastes good and would be easy to get used to.

- Most of us get more protein than we need. However, if you want an alternative milk with similar amounts of protein as dairy milk, I would recommend Ripple, especially for those who like whole milk. It is creamy and smooth and tastes good, but it is pricey.

- Costs vary, with Califia Farms and Ripple being the most expensive. (They are also the only two to use plastic bottles.)

A note on the selections in this blog post: I only tried oat milks and pea milks. I tried the “original” versions of common brands along with a few variations. I did not try Silk’s oat milk, but I do have some nutrition information for it included below.

If you are wondering what these milks look like:

From left to right: Open Nature Oat Milk, Planet Oat Original, Oatly Original, Chobani Original, Chobani Extra Creamy, Califia Farms Original Protein Oat Milk, Not Milk (2%), and Ripple Original.

You can see that there is some variation in color. The two whiter ones in the middle are Chobani, which is one reason why I say this option is more milk-like. The two on the right are pea milks, which were also somewhat whiter. Open Nature on the far left seemed especially thin. Califia Farms and Planet Oat were both on the browner side, and Oatly had maybe a tinge of green. But in my opinion, most people would be happy with one of these options, depending on their preference.

Plant-based milk brands that correspond to the eight glasses shown above.

Many brands have “extra creamy” variations that have more added fat. Most use sunflower oil for the fat, but Chobani and Oatly use rapeseed oil and Open Nature uses canola oil. Nearly all also use gellan gum to help stabilize and thicken the liquid.

The taste of most of these was pretty bland and pleasant. Many have a slight taste of oats. Chobani may have been the blandest, which is part of my recommendation as the most milk-like. It didn’t taste much like oats or anything else, to my pallet. It was also pretty creamy. The ones that tasted the most different from milk in my mind were Not Milk, which was a little on the savory side, and Califia Farms, which seemed especially oaty. But your mileage may vary -- this part is very subjective!

The graph below summarizes the nutrition profile of some of the options that are available. Note that many brands have unsweetened versions, but I have only included Planet Oat’s. Similarly, many brands have creamy versions, but I have only included Chobani’s.

Nutrition comparison of some plant-based milks, with sugar (blue), protein (red), and fat (yellow) measured on the left axis and calories (green) on the right axis. Values are per serving (1 cup of milk). From left to right: Dairy milk (2%), Chobani Original, Chobani Extra Creamy, Planet Oat, Planet Oat Extra Creamy, Planet Oat Unsweetened, Oatly Original, Silk Oat, Califia Protein Oat, Open Nature Oat Milk, Not Milk (2%), and Ripple Unsweetened.

You can see that all of the plant-based milks have much less sugar than dairy milk, and also less protein, with Califia Farms and Ripple coming closest. (Both of those brands use pea protein, as does Not Milk.) Fat content varies, with Planet Oat generally having the lowest fat of the brands. The non-oat varieties (Not Milk and Ripple) have somewhat lower calories.

In terms of cost, there is considerable variation between brands, and all are more expensive than even organic dairy milk. One thing to notice is that many of the containers are smaller than a half-gallon, so the prices can be deceiving. There do seem to be occasional sales that get costs down to as low as $0.05/ounce. The prices shown are from Safeway (non-sale); there may be differences between stores.

Costs at Safeway of various plant-based milks, plus organic dairy milk.

The rest of this post shows the container and nutrition label for the varieties I tried, along with a few other notes.

Chobani is a well-known purveyor of dairy products that recently started making oat milks as well as yogurt-like products based on oat milk. It has several varieties of oat milk: regular, extra creamy, vanilla, zero-sugar, and zero-sugar vanilla. The two I tried seemed to have good color, texture, and taste. Chobani’s oat milk is more expensive than dairy milk, with a middle-of-the-road price compared with other plant-based milks that I looked at. Its products have similar fat and calories as dairy milk, and less sugar, saturated fat, and protein.

Planet Oat
Planet Oat is made by dairy company HP Hood. It offers several varieties, including regular, extra creamy, vanilla, unsweetened, unsweetened vanilla, and chocolate. These have much less sugar, saturated fat, and protein than dairy milk. These also tend to have less fat than other oat milks, and so less calories. Planet Oat also makes frozen desserts and coffee creamers, as well as shelf-stable milks that require no refrigeration.

Oatly is the first popular oat milk, originating decades ago in Europe. It has low-fat, full-fat, and chocolate varieties, as well as a creamer. Oatly also makes frozen desserts and yogurt alternatives. Oatly has somewhat more protein than other oat milks, and a less milky-white appearance than dairy milk. This brand is known for unusual marketing, as you can tell from its web site. It is one of the better values, coming in full 64-ounce containers and with a good overall combination of taste, looks, and nutrition profile.

Open Nature
Open Nature oat milk is the Safeway brand. I found it to be pretty thin and watery-tasting, so I would not recommend it as a top pick, though it is not offensive in any way. It is relatively inexpensive and has a nutrition profile similar to that of Planet Oat.

Silk Oat
I did not try this oat milk from Silk, which is better known for its soy milks. Silk also produces other plant-based milks as well as creamer and yogurt alternatives. I can’t comment on its looks or taste, but I do have its nutrition information.

Califia Farms
Califia Farms, based in Southern California, makes many kinds of plant-based milks, including almond milk and coconut milk. They have several varieties of oat milk, including creamy, low-sugar, vanilla, and protein versions, as well as an almond blend. They have some creamers as well as shelf-stable versions. Their product comes in a small (48-ounce) plastic bottle, and is among the most expensive of the products that I tested. The protein oat milk is light brown and creamy, and contains both oats and pea protein, as well as smaller amounts of sunflower seeds and flaxseed oil.

Not Milk
Not Milk, which started in Chile, offers 1%, 2%, and 4% pea-based milk. This is probably the most “different” of the products covered here, with a somewhat more complicated ingredient list. I did not love the taste at first try, but it does look and feel like milk.

Ripple, a local Bay Area company, makes a few different protein milks, plus an oat blend, as well as protein shakes and frozen desserts. The version I tried, unsweetened protein milk, was very creamy and white, with a nice mild taste. It reminded me of whole milk.

In case you are wondering, you can also make your own oat milk. It is a lot cheaper, but you need a good blender. I don’t have a Vitamix or similar, but mine seemed to do fine. I used this recipe. I thought it tasted pretty good, and it couldn’t have been much easier to make. It did separate after a night in the refrigerator, so I had to stir it. It was maybe a little bit more yellow than the store-bought oat milk and not as thick. I think it also separates more easily, so you have to stir it before using it.

To sum up, these plant-based milks are better than I was expecting. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been so hesitant to try them. You can look for the one that is most like the milk that you are used to using, or look for the one with the nutritional profile that you would like to have in your diet and spend a few days getting used to it to the extent you find it different. Or go for something in between.

I think any of these options would work well for drinking and pouring on cereal or mixing in a hot beverage. I have tried making pudding and quiche with oat milk, both of which seemed to work out fine. But I am generally a newbie at plant-based milks. Many of you have more experience than I do with these, so I’d love to hear your opinions, comments, or questions in the comment section. I’d also like to hear from people who are just trying one for the first time.

Notes and References
1. There are many types of plant-based milks beyond the oat milks and pea milks I tested for this blog. Soy milk is probably the biggest gap, as it has low impact and a good nutrient profile. Other types of plant-based milks are either harder to find (e.g., hemp milk) or have a larger impact on land or water use (e.g., almond or coconut). There are also cashew, macadamia, sesame, pistachio, hazelnut, and rice. Oof. Environmentally, I get the sense that oat, pea, soy, and hemp are the best bets, though there is no one conclusive study.

2. I don’t show data for saturated fat above, but dairy milk has 5g in a cup of whole milk, 3g in 2%, and 1.5g in 1%. Almost all of these plant-based milks have 0.5g or less.

I don’t show the data for fiber above either. Dairy milk has no fiber. Some of these plant-based milks have a few grams per cup, as shown on the labels.

Finally, all of the plant-based milks are supplemented with calcium and a few vitamins like vitamin D. On paper they have as much or more than dairy milk, but I don’t know how well the additives are absorbed. (Chobani is an exception in that its oat milk has somewhat less calcium and vitamin D than the dairy milk that I looked at.)

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Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 8, 2022 at 8:07 am

Bystander is a registered user.

Milk is produced from the mammary glands of mammals. Anything else is not milk and should not be called such.

I would suggest looking into how many bees are abused in the production of these products.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on May 8, 2022 at 9:17 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Bystander, thanks for the comment. You know, it was interesting to me that two of the biggest providers are dairy companies (Chobani and HP Hood), and both call it "oat milk" (or actually "oatmilk", one word). Some have it on the front of their cartons, others just on their websites. But that is why I was comfortable using the term in this post.

You should know this blog well enough by now that if you are going to imply that oat milks and/or pea milks are leading to bee deaths, you should include a reference. (I do not recommend almond milks as being especially environmentally friendly, but I admit that is crammed into footnote 1...)

Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 8, 2022 at 6:39 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

Sherry. I have read many articles about bees and almond production. I didn't say deaths, but abuse.

I am not sure how I feel about bees being transported thousands of miles to do their pollination job, but it sounds very artificial to me.

Here's one article. Web Link

Posted by Paly Grad, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on May 9, 2022 at 8:35 am

Paly Grad is a registered user.

Trader Joe's calls their product “Non-Dairy Oat Beverage"

Posted by Alan, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven,
on May 9, 2022 at 1:21 pm

Alan is a registered user.

@Bystander - oats are self-pollinating (i.e., do not depend on insects for pollination), so I'm pretty sure claims of honey-bee abuse in the case of oat milk is misplaced. You can make that case for almond milk.

Plant based milks have been around for about 1000 years, and the convention of calling them "milk" in English dates back to 1200. Background: Web Link

Posted by Darbat, a resident of Woodside: Woodside Glens,
on May 10, 2022 at 2:53 pm

Darbat is a registered user.

Hi Sherry, It's Darlene Batchelder from Valley Pres Church where we are intent on being more environmentally informed and conscious! I love my hemp milk, which I can only find at Whole Paycheck! However, am concerned about the packaging. Can you tell us which of the imitation milk products have biodegradable packaging. I was told that NONE of them do and that the "boxed" products are particularly harmful. It seems that moving away from dairy comes with other complications - like harmful packaging? I've also made hempmilk at home as you did your oat milk and that may be the best approach? Thanks for continuing your blog work!

Oh, and bees have been transported to pollinate crops for years and years. Is that really "abuse"? I ask, given that bees move hives and change locations regularly. Would like to know how transporting them is abusive if they return to their original bee farm?

Posted by Alan, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven,
on May 10, 2022 at 4:14 pm

Alan is a registered user.

@Darlene - There are mishaps when moving bees around; I believe disease is more likely to spread amongst bees during the moving of hives. This accident occurred recently: Web Link

Then there's another issue, unrelated to "bee abuse": do we want the trees in large swaths of land to be dependent on moving honey bees thousands of miles?

Posted by Paly Grad, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on May 10, 2022 at 4:27 pm

Paly Grad is a registered user.

Milk, Juice and Ice Cream cartons can be composted!

Web Link

Posted by bkengland, a resident of Whisman Station,
on May 10, 2022 at 5:43 pm

bkengland is a registered user.

One more comment on the Ripple product. At least at Nob Hill, it's the only one I've found in small cartons (8 oz in this case), which are just what some of us individual consumers need before it goes bad. I wish stores would provide more products in various sizes, both large and small, but that's a topic for another day, about potential food waste when consumers are compelled to buy the wrong size for their actual needs.

Posted by Matt Passell, a resident of Charleston Meadows,
on May 11, 2022 at 4:05 pm

Matt Passell is a registered user.

Thank you for the article. I'm going to try oatmilk now, switching from almond milk.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on May 11, 2022 at 5:39 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Darlene, I looked at the packaging for all of the cartons, and they all look like regular coated paper which you can either recycle or compost. It was interesting, because the Oatly carton is from TetraPak, but it is not the laminated (non-recyclable) kind. Here is a picture of the inside lids of the Oatly carton, the Planet Oat carton, and a laminated TetraPak carton.

And here are the cartons themselves.

I'd also note that for most products the emissions from packaging ("downstream emissions") are vastly exceeded by the emissions from production ("upstream emissions"). We worry about packaging because it's visible, but it's not as big or important as people think when it comes to emissions. More information here.

That brings me back to @Bystander's concern about bees. (BTW, thank you for providing the link.) I expect that we can find a fault with anything we drink, even water. The question imo is not "Is this drink perfect?" but "Is this drink better than alternatives?" Oat and pea milk are much, much lower impact than dairy milk, and also better in many ways than almond (for example). Here is one source of data if helpful. I think it's important to keep the bigger picture in mind. Wind farms kill birds, but the Audubon society still supports them, designed properly to mitigate the damage, because in the end they do much more good than harm, even though the harm may be easier to take pictures of.

@bkengland, that is a great point about sizes.
@matt, would love to hear what you think when you try it!
@alan, thanks for your helpful comments.

Posted by SKS, a resident of Palo Verde,
on May 13, 2022 at 7:43 pm

SKS is a registered user.

Sherry - Thanks, this is a helpful and well-researched post. I have been shifting to plant-based milks, but one of the things people need to consider when choosing a plant-based milk is the full list of ingredients that have to be added to give it the consistency of milk, with an acceptable flavor. Soy and pea on their own are on the bitter side, and don't suspend well, or for very long, in a "milk. Oat is, as you say, oaty. Particular ingredients of concern are sugar, canola oil and additives like dipotassium phosphate. Here's a very interesting blog post discussing these issues with respect to Oatly: Web Link .

The good news is that these issues are getting a lot of attention and, on the whole, plant-based milks are improving.

Full disclosure: I work for a start-up that will be introducing an alternative milk with more protein than diary, 100% of the daily requirement of B12 plus 15 other vitamins and minerals, zero sugar, zero sodium and only five ingredients, with lower water use and GHG emissions than soy, pea or almond (a water disaster) milk.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on May 13, 2022 at 8:15 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@SKS, thanks for the comment, and great to hear that you are working to innovate in this space.

FWIW, imo much of the information in that post is at best misleading. And I am not the only one who thinks so. See Oatly's response, the many comments on the post itself, and this article, for example.

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