What You Need to Know When Choosing Milk and Milk Alternatives

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For the last several years, non-dairy milk options have skyrocketed in popularity, directly challenging cow milk for grocery aisle dominance. From lactose tolerance issues to diets to going vegan or dairy-free, there are a number of reasons these alternatives are rising in prominence among shoppers.

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But how do these alternatives stack up to the long-time staple of cow’s milk? Most alternatives are fortified with added calcium and vitamin D that’s naturally occurring in dairy, but what about other nutritional items like calories and protein?

We took a look at eight varieties of milk and spoke with registered dietician Julia Zumpano, RD, LD, about the differences between all of them and what tips you should keep in mind when choosing one. 

Cow’s milk

The traditional choice of milk, dairy milk, remains the most popular option, especially for children. Cow’s milk offers a good balance of naturally occurring calories from fat, protein and essential vitamins and minerals, like vitamin D and calcium, providing key nutrients kids need for growth and development.

But Zumpano points out, “Adults can benefit from cow’s milk too; as you age, you lose bone density and need sufficient dietary calcium to support healthy bones. And milk is a great source for that calcium.” 

But even within just the dairy milk category, there are still choices to make with regards to 

Which fat-percentage is the best?

According to Zumpano, “It really depends. For children under 2, it’s best to give them whole milk. After that, it’s based on the individual needs and taste preferences of the child.”

For adults, she says it’s also variable but points out, “If you have high cholesterol or you’re trying to reduce calories for weight loss, stick to 2% or less. But for weight gain or if you have difficulty gaining weight, go with whole milk.”

Almond milk

One of the more popular non-dairy alternatives, almond milk is rich in Vitamin E while being lower in calories than cow’s milk. It’s also popular for cooking purposes, like with oatmeal, and as an addition to your morning coffee. 

That said, if you have a nut allergy, you’ll obviously want to steer clear of almond milk. It also does not provide either protein or fiber, so if you’re drinking almond milk, make sure to make up for those nutrients elsewhere. Zumpano recommends avoiding sweetened versions with their sugar additives and opting for unsweetened varieties instead. 

Cashew milk

If your vegan or lactose-intolerant, cashew milk is yet another nut-based alternative that has a rich, creamy taste. Cashew milk is loaded up with vitamin E, like almond milk, and low on calories, cholesterol and sugar. 

While store-bought cashew milk is, like other options, usually fortified with vitamin D and calcium, it lacks fiber and protein. And, finally, like almond milk, cashew milk is a no-go for anyone with nut allergies. 

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Soy milk

A very popular non-dairy option, the plant-based milk alternative is cholesterol-free, low in saturated fats and high in protein. Oh, and it’s another great lactose-free option and is great for cooking needs, too. 

Soy milk, especially if sweetened, can be high in calories and if you have a soy allergen, you’ll want to avoid this option. 

Rice milk

Besides being a milk alternative for consumers with allergies (nut, soy or lactose), it has a sweeter taste which usually means less sugar additives. And, like other alternatives, it’s well fortified for other nutrients.

The big downside is that rice milk can be high in carbohydrates and calories while having very little protein and fiber.

Coconut milk beverage

Yes, coconut milk beverage because simply “coconut milk” usually refers to the fat- and calorie-laden version found on your grocery shelf that is traditionally used for baking needs.

Like other options, though, coconut milk has zero protein and while it’s low in calories, it’s also high in fat. And though there are many coconut milk options that have been diluted to offer less fat and calories, Zumpano advises, “Keep in mind the fat found in coconut milk is saturated fat, which we want to keep at a minimum if heart health is a concern.”

The upside, she says, is that coconut milk, if unsweetened, contains no carbs in an 8-ounce serving and can offer a thick and creamy plant-based alternative suitable to dairy and nut allergies. 

Hemp milk

Hemp milk comes with heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and fewer calories than whole milk but, as Zumpano notes, it’s not as readily available at major grocery stores.

Oat milk

A more recent, trendy addition to non-dairy milk options, oat milk is made from, well, oats, water and additional ingredients like added oil, gums or thickeners. One big advantage of oat milk for those with dietary restrictions or food sensitivities is that it’s naturally free of dairy, lactose, soy and nuts. 

Like a lot of other non-dairy options, oat milk generally comes with added calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A and riboflavin. It also typically has a bit more protein and fiber than other alternatives. 

The downside? Oat milk usually has more carbs and calories than other plant-based options, with a serving from most brands adding up to around 100 calories or greater

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What else to keep in mind

One big thing to keep in mind, says Zumpano, is that all of these non-dairy options have a wide range in terms of supplements. Says Zumpano, “Vitamin and mineral supplementation is variable amongst brands even with the same product, like unsweetened almond milk.”

“If you’re looking to maximize certain vitamins or nutrients, such as calcium, vitamin D, vitamin E or riboflavin,” she says, “check specific brands so you can compare and find the highest value of what you’re hoping to achieve.” 

Besides all these pros and cons of each option, there are a few other things to keep in mind when choosing which milk works best for you. 

Flavored milk

Chances are that if you’re an adult, you’re not drinking much chocolate milk (we’re not judging if you do, though), but your kids might be. And many non-dairy milk options come in flavored varieties (typically vanilla) to help make them a bit more palpable. 

There’s nothing wrong with these flavored milks, of course, but it’s all about moderation. These options typically come with added sugars and that brings more calories which offset some of the healthier reasons you’re drinking milk in the first place.

Instead, Zumpano suggests choosing the unsweetened flavored options or add flavor to the plain, unsweetened versions, like vanilla or cocoa powder.

Say no to “raw milk”

Raw milk is another way of saying “unpasteurized milk. And while some people believe raw milk has more nutrients, promotes better health and might be okay for those with lactose intolerance, it’s actually not advisable to drink it. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, unpasteurized milk is 150 times more likely to cause foodborne illness than pasteurized milk — and 13 times more likely to lead to hospitalization. 

Pasteurized milk has the same nutrients as unpasteurized and either option will still trigger an allergic reaction for lactose-intolerant drinkers.

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