Nutrition

Which Milk Is Best?

Last updated: Apr 01, 2016

There are several different types of ‘milk’ on the market, but which one is the best? Cow’s milk, the traditional choice, is a good source of protein, calcium, vitamin D and potassium.1 Most other types of milks are fortified to have a similar nutrition profile to cow’s milk, with the exception of protein content.

Cow’s milk is an important source of calcium for strong bones and teeth, and vitamin D is added to milk to help maintain proper calcium levels. Potassium in milk and yogurt is essential for healthy blood pressure. Including milk and yogurt with meals and snacks is associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.1  However, some people dislike the taste of cow’s milk, are unable to drink cow’s milk due to lactose intolerance or milk protein allergy, or prefer alternative sources of milk for other reasons.

What non-dairy types of milk are available?

Soy milk: Often fortified with calcium, vitamins A and D and riboflavin, soy milk contains similar amounts of protein as cow’s milk. There are several types of soy milk, including non-fat, low-fat, plain, unsweetened, and flavored. Soy milk also naturally contains isoflavones, chemicals produced by soybean plants to protect them from disease. Isoflavones may help protect bone density and decrease risk of some types of cancer. Some people are allergic to soy, and should avoid soy milk and other products made from soybeans.2

Almond milk: Almond milk is made from ground almonds, water and often added sweetener. Many varieties of almond milk are also fortified with vitamins and minerals to more closely resemble cow’s milk. Almond milk contains good amounts of vitamin E, providing about 50% of the daily value in one cup.3

Hemp milk:  Made from hulled hemp seeds and water, hemp milk does not contain THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive component of marijuana. Hemp milk contains both omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids in a healthy three-to-one ratio. However, the omega-3 in hemp is alpha-linolenic acid, not the more desirable forms (EPA and DHA) found in fish oil.3

Rice milk: Rice milk is the most hypoallergenic milk substitute, containing no soy, gluten, milk protein or nuts. It is made from boiled rice, brown rice syrup and brown rice starch.3

Coconut milk: Made from coconut meat and water, and not the same product as coconut water, traditional canned coconut milk contains 445 calories and 48 grams of fat (43 grams saturated) per cup. Look for lite, unsweetened coconut milk that has the majority of the fat removed with only 50 calories per cup.3

Things to consider when choosing milk

  • Most types of milk are fortified to resemble the calcium and vitamin D content of cow’s milk. Read the food facts label carefully when choosing milk to understand the ingredients and nutrients.
  • Are you lactose intolerant?  Lactose is the type of carbohydrate present in cow’s milk, and requires the enzyme lactase, produced in our small intestine, for digestion. People who are lactose intolerant experience gas, bloating, and diarrhea when they drink cow’s milk or eat yogurt. If you’re lactose intolerant, choose any of the other types of milk as lactose is only found in milk from animals.4
  • Are you allergic to dairy protein? A milk allergy involves a potentially life-threatening immune system reaction to casein or whey, the types of protein in cow’s milk.5  If you have a milk protein allergy, avoid all types of animal milk and read food labels to identify any added sources of milk protein.
  • Are you looking for a lower calorie alternative? 8 oz of fat-free milk has 86 calories, compared to 35-50 calories in unsweetened almond milk, 50-60 calories in unsweetened coconut milk, and 60-70 calories in plain fat-free soy milk. Some alternate types of milk actually contain more calories than fat-free cow’s milk: hemp milk has 100-110 calories, and unsweetened rice milk contains 120-130 calories. Any type of milk that is sweetened contains even more calories from added sugar.
  • Are you looking for a lower carbohydrate option? Almond and coconut milk contain <5 grams of carbohydrate per cup compared to 12 grams of carbohydrate in cow’s milk. Rice milk contains twice as much carbohydrate as cow’s milk.  Caution:  flavored milks all contain higher amounts of carbohydrate from added sugar.
  • Are you vegan? People who follow a vegan diet do not consume any animal products, including cow’s milk.
  • Are you allergic to nuts? If so, avoid almond milk.
  • Are you allergic to soy? If so, avoid soy milk.
  • Is the milk flavored? Flavored milks contain added sugar. Cow’s milk and unsweetened varieties of other types of milk contain no added sugar.

None of these milks, including cow’s milk, are a substitute for breast milk or infant formula. Be sure to follow your physician’s recommendations for milk products or milk substitutes for infants and children.

Type of milk

calories

protein

carbohydrate

fat/saturated fat

cow’s milk, fat-free

86

8g

12g

0/0g

cow’s milk, 1%

103

8g

12g

2.4/1.5g

cow’s milk, 2%

124

8g

12g

4.9/3.1g

cow’s milk, whole

148

8g

12g

8/4.6g

almond milk, unsweetened

35-50

1g

3g

2.5-3.5/0g

almond milk, vanilla

70-90

1g

9-15g

2.5/0g

coconut milk, unsweetened

50-60

1g

1g

5/5g

hemp milk, unsweetened

100-110

2-5g

6g

6-7/.5-1g

rice milk, unsweetened

120-130

1g

23-25g

2/0g

rice milk, vanilla

130

1g

26g

2/0g

soy milk, non-fat plain

60-70

7-9g

10g

0/0g

soy milk, low-fat plain

60

7-9g

5g

1.5/0g

soy milk, original

100

`7-9g

8g

4/.5g

soy milk, vanilla

100

7-9g

12g

3.5/.5g

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: based on 8 fluid ounces, or one cup, of each product6

References:

  1. Dairy:  Nutrients and Health Benefits. http://www.choosemyplate.gov/dairy-nutrients-health last updated 6-26-15. Accessed 3-20-16.
  2. Soy isoflavones. Iowa State University, Soybean Extension and Research Program. http://extension.agron.iastate.edu/soybean/uses_isoflavones.htm Accessed 3-21-16.
  3. What are the alternatives to drinking dairy milk? Megan Ware, RDN, LD. Medical News Today. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/273982.php last updated 9-24-15, accessed 3-21-16.
  4. Lactose Intolerance. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. http://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-topics/digestive-diseases/lactose-intolerance/Pages/facts.aspx  June 2014. Accessed 3-20-16
  5. Milk Allergy. Food Allergy Research and Education. https://www.foodallergy.org/allergens/milk-allergy  Accessed 3-20-16.
  6. Plant-Based Dairy Alternatives Guide. From The Plant Powered Diet by Sharon Palmer, RD. http://www.todaysdietitian.com/pdf/webinars/PlantBasedDairyAlternativesGuide.pdf 2013. Accessed 3-20-16. 

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