Many people become lactose intolerant as they get older because the enzyme lactase, which converts milk into milk sugar, diminishes. This tends to send milk drinkers looking for an alternative that won’t cause gas, bloating, indigestion or other gastric problems, says Robyn Goldberg, a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Los Angeles and author of The Eating Disorder Trap.
And though almond milk was the first alternative to gain popularity, thanks to a large marketing push by suppliers, oat milk — only introduced in the United States in 2018 — is cutting into its business, experiencing the greatest sales increase, compared with competitors, in the past year, says Tabitha Sewell, category manager of dairy, nondairy and refrigerated beverages at KeHE, a grocery distributor.
In 2019, “Other and Blends,” a milk distribution category, neared $400 million in sales and 54 percent growth, with oat milk making up the majority of those sales, Sewell says.
Although the number of alternatives on the market may seem unlimited (coconut, soy, rice, hemp, among them), dairy milk still reigns supreme, with $16 billion in sales. Altogether, other alternatives sold under $5 billion. But sales of dairy milk are forecast to drop by some $3 billion by 2025 as more people choose other options, according to Sewell. “Almond will continue to be a huge segment of the category, but oat is quickly becoming the second-largest base type in the U.S.” Almond did $1.3 billion in sales, making up 61 percent of the alternative-milk market.
We asked the experts to break down the nutritional benefits of popular alternatives.
Oat milk vs almond milk
“If you are trying to minimize your carbohydrate intake or you’re wanting to look for a lower-carbohydrate alternative to a regular milk, almond milk can be a great option for that,” says Laura Yudys, clinical nutrition manager at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield, Illinois. “But just make sure that you choose those unsweetened versions, versus the flavored or sweetened varieties.”
Also, almond milk contains carrageenan, which serves as a thickener and can cause gastrointestinal challenges for those with a sensitive stomach, Goldberg says.
The oat alternative, favored by people who seek a stronger, creamy flavor that resembles dairy milk, is also the least allergenic on the market.But oat milk tends to have more calories and fat than almond. It also has about one gram more of fiber and protein per 8-ounce serving.
Both kinds are fortified with calcium and vitamins A, D and B12, as are most plant-based milks.
To meet your nutritional needs, Goldberg suggests consuming dairy milk or a lactose-free milk if you are intolerant to the enzyme.
“It is an essential source of protein, calories and fat. Soy milk is the only other one that’s comparable in regards to protein,” Goldberg explains. “It does have an allergen component. It just depends on what the person’s circumstances are.”