Maybe you’ve got allergies, you’re vegan-curious or you’re wondering when hemp, oat, and quinoa became beverages, but you’ve probably noticed the proliferation of non-dairy milks on the market.
According to the Washington Post, 52 new nut- and plant-milk products have hit shelves this year, and milk alternatives are the fastest growing sector of the dairy market. So here’s a little brush up on four of the most popular ones, including their health benefits (or lack thereof) and what you can do with them.
Before we proceed, we want to clarify that this isn’t about throwing shade at dairy. Organic cow juice that isn’t filled with antibiotics or hormones is good for you—it’s full of protein, calcium, and Vitamin D—and it tastes good in coffee. But a little knowledge never hurt anybody, and it’s going to come in handy next time you’re standing behind someone cute in the Trader Joe’s checkout line.
Here’s what you need to know about the four most popular nut milks—plus recipes to use them in.
Pros: This is probably the most widely available alternative, and for good reason: It’s got almost as much protein as cow’s milk, is full of B vitamins and fiber, and can help lower cholesterol. It’s also got a thick enough consistency to be a convincing replacement for regular milk in recipes.
Cons: On the flip side, a lot of people are allergic to soy, and there are even (hotly disputed) claims that it’s linked to breast cancer. Soy beans are likely to be genetically modified unless you buy organic, and they’re naturally low in calcium, which is why most soy milks are fortified.
Recipe: Like we said, soy is a great stand-in for milk in recipes, but to really taste the stuff try this panna cotta-like soy pudding recipe from Serious Eats.
Pros: Almond milk has really blown up in the last few years, largely as a low-cal alternative to soy milk (oh, the irony). It’s low in fat, high in Vitamins D and E, and it’s got a really delicious nutty flavor.
Cons: Most nut milks are made by soaking the nuts in water and then straining the mixture, and nutritionally speaking, you’d be better off eating a handful of almonds than downing a glass of almond milk, which is why it’s usually fortified. It has almost no protein, and often includes carrageenan, a controversial seaweed-derived stabilizer and thickener that some say is unsafe.
Recipe: Almond milk adds a great nutty taste to smoothies, which can also be frozen to make dairy-free ice cream. Food & Wine recommends blending it with banana, honey and pieces of candied ginger to make soft serve; it also works really well with a scoop of crunchy peanut butter and/or Nutella.
A selection of plant milks. [Photo: Getty Images/Tetra images RF via TIME]
Pros: Rice milk is the least likely on this list to trigger allergies and digestive sensitivities, and contains a lot of minerals and B vitamins. It’s also naturally sweet, since the carbohydrates in the rice convert into sugars. (If you see an unsweetened version, it’s probably more processed and has additives).
Cons: Unfortunately, being naturally sweet also means it’s high in carbs and calories. And it’s negligible protein and calcium levels mean that it’s pretty much always fortified. Plus the consistency is watery, which makes it okay to drink but pretty useless as a dairy alternative when cooking.
Recipe: Rice milk is the main ingredient in horchata, which is hands down one of the most delicious non-alcoholic drinks there is. Most recipes call for making it from scratch, but this cheater’s version from Rachel Ray uses ready-made rice milk.
Pros: Not to be confused with coconut water, which is the clear liquid extracted from the central cavity, this is made by soaking coconut flesh in hot water. The coconut cream at the top is skimmed off, and the milk that remains is rich in fiber, minerals (like iron, calcium and magnesium) and vitamins (including B, C and E).
Cons: Coconut milk has almost no protein, and is high in saturated fat. Although some of these are good fats, like Lauric acid which has antiviral and antibacterial properties, you should limit your consumption if you want to be nice to your heart.
Recipe: Coconut milk is widely used in South East Asian, Indian and Caribbean cooking, three of the world’s yummiest cuisines. It’s especially useful for rich, silky curries like this Thai chicken recipe from BBC Good Food.