Which “Milk” Is Right for Me?

Besides skim or nonfat, low-fat or 2 percent, whole and lactose-free cow’s milk, there is a growing list of plant-based beverages: soy, almond, coconut, rice, and hemp milks.
Which “Milk” Is Right for Me? - Articles

Updated: October 20, 2017

Which “Milk” Is Right for Me?

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, 3 servings of milk are recommended for people ages 9 to adult. One serving equals 1 cup of milk or yogurt, or 1.5 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. The following table is based on the comparison of 1 cup (8 ounces). Hemp milk nutrition analysis was not available.

In this comparison, you can see that 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, sugar, salt, calcium, and vitamins added to try to compete with milk.

A brand new plant milk to be introduced to the market is made from yellow peas. Manufacturers state that they have developed a new process that strips out unwanted flavors so they can increase the amount of protein. This 8-ounce product will contain 8 grams of protein, and have 20 percent fewer calories, one-sixth the fat, and half the sugar of 2 percent cow's milk, as well as 45 percent Daily Value of calcium, 30 percent of vitamin D, 10 percent of vitamin A, and 13 percent iron. Costs are expected to run 25 to 30 cents above other dairy alternative milks.

In terms of the difference among nonfat or skim, 1 percent, 2 percent, 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 1 percent milk fat, so for 1 cup it contains 105 calories and 2.3 grams fat. Two percent has 137 calories and 4.8 grams of fat. Whole milk (3.25 percent milk fat) has 150 calories and 8 grams of fat. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines continues to recommend that our diets have no greater than 10 percent from saturated fats. Since milk and milk products are high in saturated fats, choosing lower-fat options more often will help you meet this goal.

Type of MilkFat-free Milk and Lactose-free Milk*Soy Milk BeverageAlmond Milk BeverageCoconut Milk BeverageRice Milk Beverage
Calories901106070120
Total Fat (grams)04.52.54.52.5
Carbohydrates (grams)1398823
Protein (grams)98101
Calcium (percent)3045451030
IngredientsFat-free milk, vitamins A and DWater, soybeans, sugar, salt, carrageenan, natural flavor, calcium, vitamins A, D, riboflavin, B12Water, almonds, sugar, calcium, salt, potassium citrate, carrageenan, sunflower lecithin, vitamins A, D, EWater, organic coconut cream, sugar, calcium magnesium, carrageenan, guar gum, vitamins A, D, selenium, zinc oxide, folic acid, B12Water, brown rice, safflower, canola, or sunflower oil, calcium, salt, vitamins A, D, B12

*Lactose-free milk is cow's milk with the lactase enzyme added so those with lactose intolerance are able to drink and digest it.

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 milk 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--don't just assume they are really good milk substitutes.

Sources

"Milk vs. Milk Substitutes," Washington State Dairy Council, 2013.

USDA Agricultural Research Service, "USDA Food Composition Databases," National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Release 28.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 8th ed., December 2015.

Watson, Elaine, "Game-changing plant-based 'milk' Ripple to roll out at Whole Foods, Target stores nationwide," April 18, 2016.

Prepared by Lynn James, senior extension educator.

Instructors

Nutrition research and education Diabetes education Child overweight prevention Food Safety education Food Preservation

More by Lynn James, M.S., R.D., L.D.N.