Which “Milk” is Right for Me?

Posted: April 19, 2016

With the growing number of "milks" on the market, it can be confusing when deciding which to select. How do you know which is best for you nutritionally as well as taste and cost? Find out how they compare.

Have you noticed the great variety of “milk” in the dairy section of the grocery store recently? Besides skim or non-fat, low-fat or 2%, whole and lactose-free cow’s milk, there is a growing list of plant based beverages: soy, almond, coconut, rice, cashew and hemp “milks.” So how do these non-dairy milks stand up to the real thing and are they a good substitute nutritionally?

One good source of information comes from the 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines. In order to obtain the necessary calcium, potassium, Vitamins A, D, B12, riboflavin and niacin, as well as protein, three servings of milk are recommended for people ages nine-adult. One serving equals one cup of milk or yogurt, or one and ½ ounces of hard cheese. Soy milk is considered a nutritionally acceptable substitute for cow’s milk.

Another good approach is to compare the product ingredient and Nutrition Facts labels. Below is a table based on 1 cup= 8 oz. comparison. Hemp milk nutrition analysis was not available.

Fat-Free Milk and Lactose Free Milk* Soy Milk beverage Almond Milk beverage Coconut Milk beverage Rice Milk beverage
90 calories 110 calories 60 calories 70 calories 120 calories
Total fat 0 Total fat 4.5 g Total fat 2.5g Total fat 4.5g Total fat 2.5g
Carbs** 13g Carbs 9g Carbs 8g Carbs 8g Carbs 23g
Protein 9g Protein 8g Protein 1g Protein 0 Protein 1g
Calcium 30% Calcium 45% Calcium 45% Calcium 10% Calcium 30%
Ingredients: fat-free milk, vitamins A & D Ingredients: water, soybeans, sugar, salt, carrageenan, natural flavor, calcium, vitamins A,D, riboflavin, B12. Ingredients: water almonds, sugar, calcium, salt, potassium citrate,carrageenan, sunflower lecithin, vitamins A,D, E. Ingredients: water, organic coconut cream, sugar, calcium magnesium, carrageenan,guar gum, vitamins A, D, selenium, zinc oxide, folic acid, B12. Ingredients: water, brown rice, safflower, canola or sunflower oil, calcium, salt, Vitamin A, D, B12.

*Lactose-free is cow’s milk with lactase enzyme added so those with lactose intolerance are able to drink and digest the treated milk. Lactase enzyme breaks down the lactose to other sugars.
** Carbohydrates

In this comparison, you can see the calories vary substantially. Rice beverage has nearly double the carbohydrates of cow’s milk, which is significant if you have diabetes. One of the biggest differences, however, is the protein content. Milk and soy milk are a good source of protein, while the others have none or almost none. The coconut beverage is very low in calcium as well. All the substitutes include thickeners, added sugar, salt, calcium, and vitamins added to improve the nutrient profile for more favorable comparisons with cow's milk.

A brand new plant “milk” to be introduced to the market this June is made from yellow peas. Manufacturers state they have developed a new process that strips out unwanted flavors so they can increase the amount of protein. This eight ounce product will contain 8g protein, and will have 20% less calories, one-sixth the fat and half the sugar of 2% cow’s milk, as well as 45% daily value of calcium, 30% Vitamin D, 10% Vitamin A, and 13% iron. Costs expect to run 25-30 cents above other dairy alternative “milks.”

In terms of the difference of non-fat or skim, 1%, 2%, and whole milk, the only nutrient variance is in the amount of fat, and therefore calories. The amount of protein, calcium, and other nutrients is the same. One percent milk has one percent milk fat, so for one cup it contains 105 calories and 2.3g fat; 2% has 137 calories and 4.8g fat; whole milk (3.25% milk fat) has 150 calories and 8g fat. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines continues to recommend our diets have 30% of calories from fat, and 10% from saturated fat. Since milk and milk products are high in saturated fats, choosing lower fat options more often will help meet this goal.

So which milk is best for you? Consider taste and price, as well as nutrition. To get the best nutrition for your money, milk (or lactose free if you are lactose intolerant), or soy milk are clearly the winners. The jury is out on the new pea-based “milk” beverage until it hits the market. If you want to try the others, now you know the nutrition facts. Just don’t think they are really good milk substitutes.


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Which “Milk” is Right for Me?

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Contact Information

Lynn James, M.S., R.D., L.D.N.
  • Nutrition, Food Safety & Health Senior Educator
Phone: 570-556-4744