Comparing Milk & Milk Alternatives

Cow’s Milk:

Dairy packs the most protein at 8 grams per cup. It also gets 30% of your daily calcium needs. Choose one with fat  such as 1 or 2% over skim to get more fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and E.

Lactose-free milk:

People who are lactose-intolerant do not have enough of the lactase enzyme and have trouble digesting lactose (milk sugar). This can cause gas, bloating, diarrhea and nausea. Lactose-free milk is nutritionally the same as regular milk. The only difference is that the lactase enzyme is added to the milk. This enzyme breaks down the lactose so that people who are lactose-intolerant can drink the milk without adverse effects.

Soy milk:

Soy milk is made from soybeans that are ground up and soaked. The liquid that is then strained off is the soy milk. Compared to other milk alternatives, soy milk is the most similar to milk in terms of nutrient content. It is usually fortified with calcium and vitamin D and is a good source of plant-based protein with 7 grams per cup. Some products are fortified with other nutrients like vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids. Soy milk naturally contains isoflavones.

Almond milk:

Almond milk is made from ground almonds. While almonds themselves are high in protein in fiber, most of those nutrients are lost when the liquid is strained from the pulp to make the milk. It is, however, high in vitamin E. It only contains 35 calories per cup if you choose the unsweetened variety. Not all brands and varieties are fortified, so it may have more or less calcium and vitamin D compared to dairy and soy milk.

Coconut milk:

Coconut milk is made from soaking grated coconut meat. It is a very popular ingredient in Southeast Asian cuisine. In the United States, coconut milk is typically sold in cans. Thickening agents and emulsifiers are usually added so that the milk does not separate. This is a natural process but is often mistaken for spoilage.

Coconut is one of the only plant sources of saturated fats (normally found in animal foods like meat and dairy). Coconut milk is high in saturated fat, and too much saturated fat can lead to cardiovascular issues. Some people question whether the saturated fat found in coconut products is as bad as we think. This is a hot topic of research, but at this point, many health organizations (FDA, World Health Organization, American Heart Association, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, etc.) recommend only consuming small amounts until we know more. It contains no protein.

Rice milk:

Rice milk is made mostly from brown rice and generally tastes sweeter than cow’s milk. It’s a great choice for those with dairy, soy, and nut allergies. Compared to other milks, it is higher in carbohydrate & calories while being low in protein so figure that into your daily nutritional stats. Not all brands are fortified with nutrients, so be sure to read the Nutrition Facts label.

Hemp milk:

The milk may have a slight fishy taste so it’s usually better as a mix-in rather than a stand alone beverage. It contains heart- and brain-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

Cashew milk:

One cup has half of your daily vitamin E. Tends to be creamier than other nut milks.

In Summary:

Soy, almond, rice, cashew, hemp, and coconut milk are all lactose- and dairy-free and can be enjoyed by people who are lactose-intolerant. Since they are plant-based, they are also good options for vegans and vegetarians. Soy, almond, cashew, hemp, and rice milk do not have significant saturated fat or cholesterol, making them heart-healthy choices. Soy, cashew, hemp, and almond milk are also good choices for people with diabetes, as they tend to be lower in carbohydrates.

Milk alternatives come in a variety of flavors as well as light and regular versions. Fat, sugar and calorie content differ depending on flavor, brand and whether it is light or regular.

Consider rotating the type of milk you use to get a variety of nutrients if you aren’t choosing dairy.


  • Kedem, L. (2014, June 3). “To Your Health: Store Shelves Loaded with Milk Alternatives.” Retrieved from
  • Demelo, Juno. “The Milky Way.” Better Homes & Gardens. June 2016. 150.

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