If you are looking to avoid dairy, both oat milk and almond milk can be healthy alternatives—so which should you choose?
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Traditionally in the U.S., "milk" has referred to the jug of dairy milk in the refrigerator section of the grocery store. But over the last decade, the way we define milk has changed, and plant-based milks have grown exponentially in both popularity and in quantity over the last few years.

There are countless choices, including soy, almond, coconut, oat, rice, hemp, pistachio and cashew, just to name a few. These plant-based milk alternatives are also utilized to create a variety of different creamers—unflavored, flavored, unsweetened, sweetened and fortified with a variety of vitamins, minerals and nutrients.

The type of plant used as the base to create each milk, as well as any other added ingredients, can greatly impact the nutrition of these products. Not all milks are the same, and even the same kinds of milk can vary from brand to brand. Here we consult with registered dietitians, Shayna Komar, RD, and Carolyn Williams, Ph.D., RD, and compare two popular types of plant milk: oat milk and almond milk.

Homemade Almond Milk

Oat Milk and Almond Milk vs. Dairy Milk

Both oats and almonds have been a part of the human diet for centuries. They are dairy-free and suitable for individuals who are lactose-intolerant, have dairy allergies or simply want to cut back on the amount of animal products they consume. Further, plant-based milks, including oat milk and almond milk, have been associated with a positive impact on cardiovascular health in some research.  

In the simplest terms, plant-based milks like oat milk and almond milk are made when the plant is soaked in water, ground fine and strained to create a liquid that retains the flavor and some of the nutritional attributes of the original plant. To improve stability, consistency and taste, any number of oils, thickeners, stabilizers or sugars may be added to the finished product as well.

Neither oat milk nor almond milk naturally provides the amount of calcium and protein that's found in dairy milk. However, both plant-based milk options have no saturated fat, compared to whole dairy milk which has about 4 grams in 1 cup. Additionally, many varieties of plant-based milks are fortified with calcium, vitamin D, plant-based protein and other vitamins and minerals.

While there are many similarities between oat milk and almond milk, the nutritional profile of each is quite different. Oat milk is made from oats, a whole grain; and almond milk is made from almonds, a tree nut. For individuals with tree-nut allergies or gluten sensitivities, this will play a big role in determining the best option.

Ingredients to Watch Out For

When purchasing any food or beverage item, it's important to read the ingredient label. For both oat milk and almond milk, keep an eye out for these two ingredients: carrageenan and added sugar.

Carrageenan

Carrageenan is a plant-based alternative to gelatin that is used in a number of food and beverage products to improve stability, consistency and texture. While it is recognized as safe for consumption by the Food and Drug Administration, some studies suggest that it may cause inflammation and potentially negatively impact the gastrointestinal system, especially for people with inflammatory bowel diseases.

For these reasons, many manufacturers have removed carrageenan from their products. Others have not. Check the ingredients to know whether the product you buy contains carrageenan.

Added Sugar

Most Americans consume high amounts of added sugar in their typical day, with the No. 1 source being sugar-sweetened beverages. But overconsuming added sugar can lead to negative health effects like increased chronic disease risk. For this reason, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Heart Association and World Health Organization all recommend reducing added sugar intake to no more than 10% of your total calories consumed each day. 

In a 2,000-calorie diet, that would equal less than 200 calories, or about 13 teaspoons, of added sugar each day. The average American currently consumes more than that, with adults averaging about 17 teaspoons or 270 calories of added sugar daily.

Just like with carrageenan, the nutrition label is a great place to look to see how much (if any) added sugar is in the brand you choose. Choosing a beverage that's unsweetened also helps avoid added sugars. And be sure to read the ingredient list to be on the lookout for sneaky names for sugar, since there are more than 60 different ways sugar can be listed.

The Health Benefits of Oat Milk

Oat milk is an excellent dairy-free milk option for people who have tree-nut allergies. While oats are technically gluten-free, those with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity will want to be selective when choosing a brand, as cross-contamination with foods containing gluten can occur in processing. Be sure to look for a brand that is certified gluten-free to avoid any issues.

One cup of oat milk contains 80 calories, 2.5 grams protein, 4 grams fat (all of which are unsaturated), 16 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 15% Daily Value calcium and 10% DV vitamin A. It is fortified with vitamin D as well as potassium, riboflavin, phosphorus and B12.

Carolyn Williams, Ph.D., RD, author of Meals that Heal and One-Pot Meals That Heal, explains, "Both oat milk and almond milk are great options for people who can't do dairy. Oat milk has the added benefit of being both nut-free and dairy-free, which is a plus for those who may have nut allergies. And oat milk has a higher fat and protein content than almond milk, which helps with satiety."

Shayna Komar, RD, agrees and notes that oat milk offers a creamy taste and consistency, along with higher protein and fiber. However, she also points out, "Oat milk does have a higher calorie content than some of the other plant-based milk alternatives, which may be something to consider for those looking to reduce caloric intake or lose weight."

The Health Benefits of Almond Milk

Almond milk has the highest sales of any plant-based milk in the U.S. It is both dairy-free and gluten-free, but those with a tree-nut allergy should not consume almond milk.

One cup of unsweetened plain almond milk contains 30 calories, 1 gram protein, 3 grams fat, 1 gram carbohydrates, 0 grams fiber, 30% DV calcium, 2% DV iron and 15% DV vitamin A. Almond milk is also fortified with vitamin D and is a source of potassium, vitamin E and magnesium.

"Almond milk is lactose-free, a good source of vitamin E, has a nutty flavor and is low-calorie and low-carb. Its only drawback is that it is also usually low in protein, so it is not the best option for those looking to get extra protein in their diet," says Komar. She recommends almond milk as a low-fat, low-calorie option for those who are vegetarian or vegan, or simply looking to consume a more plant-based diet.

Oat Milk or Almond Milk: Which Is Healthier?

When making a choice between any two products, the best rule of thumb is to choose the one that makes the most sense for your lifestyle, preferences and nutritional goals.

So in this case, the answer is "it depends." If you have a nut allergy, oat milk is the better choice. If you are looking for a lower-carb option, almond milk may be a better option.

Both Williams and Komar agree that when comparing oat milk and almond milk, it really comes down to taste preference and specific dietary needs. They recommend trying a few to see which one you like the best!

The Bottom Line

As Komar says, "No one milk fits all." Barring any allergies or gluten sensitivities, both oat milk and almond milk can be included as a healthy part of a balanced diet. Just don't forget to read labels to check for ingredients like carrageenan and added sugar.

Pair either of these plant-based milks with healthy meals and you can't go wrong.