Almond milks are a lot like jeans—the quality, cost, and nutrition can vary considerably, so you have to do some shopping to find the right one for you.

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Non-dairy milks have been flying off supermarket shelves, and plant-based milk options are now available at coffee shops and smoothie joints across the country. According to consumer research group Mintel, sales of non-dairy milks have increased by more than 60% since 2012, and one in five Americans say they are consuming less dairy for health reasons.

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Almond milk has become the most popular plant-based milk option, with sales at nearly $1.5 billion dollars in 2020 alone. But you may be wondering just how healthy almond milk really is and how it stacks up against its competition. Here's the lowdown, along with what to look for on the label and ways to incorporate almond milk into drinks, meals, and treats.

Almond milk nutritional breakdown

There's no one way to formulate almond milk. And because of that, the nutritional breakdown of almond milk is different for each product. Overall, though, the protein and carb contents in unsweetened almond milk (made from just filtered water and almonds) are quite low per cup, so the main macronutrient you're getting is healthful fat. But that can vary widely from product to product, depending on how many almonds a particular milk contains (because yes, the water-to-almonds ratio can vary from brand to brand). In other words, some products contain more almonds than others, which is one factor that impacts the drink's potential health benefits.

For perspective, an 8-ounce portion of Elmhurt's unsweetened almond milk ($5.99, amazon.com) provides 11 grams of "good" fat, 5 grams of plant protein, and just 3 grams of carbohydrate, with no added sugar. A 1-cup serving provides 6% of the daily value for iron and 4% for potassium.

Of course, that's just one product example. The simplest unsweetened versions (like the one described above) contain just two ingredients: water and almonds. But if a product is fortified (the addition of nutrients that aren't naturally there), the vitamin and mineral content of almond milk can vary considerably.

Some almond milk brands are fortified with calcium, which can bump up the mineral's daily value to meet or exceed the amount found in cow's milk. If they've been put into a product's formulation, vitamins D and B12 are other nutrients you may find in higher amounts in almond milk.

In addition, some companies add protein to almond milk, primarily pea protein, sourced from yellow split peas. Whether these products still qualify as almond milk is up for debate.

Almond milk nutrition vs. other milks

The main reason people choose plant milk is to avoid dairy, whether that's due to a dairy allergy or sensitivity or a desire to eat a plant-based diet. But both milks are very different nutritionally. One cup of cow's milk provides about 8 grams of protein, 13 grams of carb, and from 0 grams of fat in skim to 8 grams in whole milk. Cow's milk also provides about 25% of the daily value for calcium naturally. However, you don't need to get your calcium from dairy in order to develop strong bones, either as a child or as an adult. (Plus, scientists have noted that dairy production contributes to environmental issues, including greenhouse gas production, climate change, pollution, and antibiotic resistance.)

As for how almond milk stacks up against other plant milks, it depends on the alternative. One cup of unsweetened oat milk is also low in protein, with perhaps 3 grams at most, but it's much higher in carbs, typically about 16 grams, with a few grams as fiber. The fat content of oat milk also varies, as many brands add oil, and the vitamin and minerals levels differ based on the degree of fortification.

Many almond milk brands have added sugar

As for sweetened almond milk, including flavors like chocolate and vanilla, the amount of added sugar also varies by brand. One cup can provide as much as 12 grams of added sugar, the equivalent of 3 teaspoons—that's half of the recommended daily cap for added sugar for women, based on the American Heart Association's guidelines.

If you're only using a quarter cup in your coffee, the added sugar isn't really an issue. But if you're someone who is concerned about taking in too much added sugar, then an unsweetened or lightly sweetened version might be a better bet. Lightly sweetened versions contain about 7 grams of added sugar per cup, or just under 2 teaspoons.

Making your own almond milk

You don't have to be held to the almond milk formulations offered in stores, though. You can make almond milk at home. Typically, homemade almond milk recipes call for one part almonds and three parts water. But to determine your own optimal ratio—and if you don't mind a little mixology—you can now buy almond base and add water. One brand, Joi, sells shelf-stable tubs that contain a paste made simply from blanched organic almonds ($21.99, amazon.com). The company suggests mixing 1 to 2 tablespoons with a cup of water. Two tablespoons would provide 16 grams of fat, 6 grams of protein, and 6 grams of carb, with 4 grams as fiber. That's right on par with the macronutrient makeup of an ounce of raw almonds (about 23 almonds), according to the US Department of Agriculture.

Meanwhile, the plant-based meal delivery brand Daily Harvest offers Mylk: almond milk in the form of frozen wedges, made from just nuts, pink sea salt, and vanilla bean (starting from $7.99, dailyharvest.com). The wedges last six months in the freezer and can be blended with water alone (two wedges plus ¾ cup water) or added with liquid to smoothies, lattes, or oat bowls. Two wedges provide 8 grams of fat, 4 grams of protein, and 2 grams of carb, with 1 gram as fiber.

Almond milk may contain unwanted ingredients

One driver of "clean" almond milk products, including two-ingredient liquid options and concentrated bases, is simple, recognizable ingredients. If you flip over the container on some products, you may find unwanted additives—including preservatives; gums, such as gellan gum; and oils, like sunflower oil. Pre-pandemic, I used to meet clients at their local markets and walk the aisles together to compare products and identify the best brands. Many clients were surprised to spot add-ins they didn't expect to find in pricey almond milk. But again, there's no standard formulation, which is why reading ingredient lists is key.

Bottom-line advice

Almond milks are a lot like jeans—the quality, cost, and details can vary considerably, so you have to do some shopping to find the right one for you. My best advice is to look for brands with simple, recognizable ingredients, including liquid- and water-free versions. Whether a serving of almond milk equates to an actual serving of almonds depends on the product. But even less-concentrated options can provide some benefits, such as helping you cut back on animal-based foods.

How to use almond milk

You can incorporate your almond milk of choice into nearly anything. Add it to coffee, smoothies, oatmeal, and overnight oats, and use it to make chia pudding and plant-based ice cream. Unsweetened almond milk can also be used in savory dishes like creamy soups, sauces, mashed cauliflower or potatoes, and casseroles. You can even drink it solo, warmed or chilled, or as the base for golden turmeric milk or hot cocoa. Bottoms up!

Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.

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