Health Tips > Nutrition Bites > Milk and Dairy Alternatives: Which Option is Best for You?

Milk and Dairy Alternatives: Which Option is Best for You?

View All Section Pages

Different milk options in glass containers

When it comes to dairy and dairy alternatives there are many options to choose from. From nutritional differences to taste and consistency, determining which one is best for you can be confusing. Let’s explore the variety of choices to see which dairy or non-dairy milk could fit best into your healthy eating plan.

Dairy milk
Cow’s milk is a nutrient-rich food that has been considered the gold standard for decades. In fact, milk contains all three energy producing macro-nutrients: protein, carbohydrates and fat. It is rich in protein (8 grams per cup) and provides all nine essential amino acids. Cow’s milk is also an excellent source of calcium and vitamin D. Some brands of dairy milk have been ultra-filtered which result in more protein and fewer carbohydrates. Milk is a natural product, typically containing just three ingredients—milk, vitamin A and vitamin D. It doesn’t contain stabilizers or flavorings found in some non-dairy alternatives. 
 
Cow’s milk and other reduced-fat dairy products are recommended in healthy eating patterns including the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan and eating guidelines recommended by both the American Heart Association (AHA) and the National Osteoporosis Foundation. Research has shown dairy may be related to reducing the risk of diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Studies have also linked eating dairy to improved bone health, especially in children and teenagers.

Dairy alternatives
Today’s milk aisle contains numerous dairy alternatives derived from plant-based sources including soybeans, almonds, peas, oats and others. These milk alternatives are made by processing nuts, grains, legumes or seeds with water and then straining out any solids. Additional ingredients are typically added such as protein, fat, preservatives, flavorings, thickeners and/or emulsifiers to create a palatable taste and texture. The resulting milks vary widely in taste, thickness, texture and nutrition. Plant-based milks may be helpful for those with a milk allergy or lactose intolerance because they do not contain lactose or casein. Plant-based milks can also be an option for those following a vegan diet. Some plant-based milks have been fortified with vitamins and minerals, but the amounts vary by brand. Let’s take a closer look at a few of these alternatives.

Almond milk
One of the most popular non-dairy alternatives, almond milk, is rich in vitamin E, an excellent source of calcium and lower in calories than cow’s milk. It provides minimal protein and fiber, so if you’re drinking almond milk ensure you are replacing those nutrients with other foods or beverages. Drinking unsweetened versions will reduce added sugar. Almond milk is also popular for cooking purposes and can be a great addition to your morning coffee. Those with a nut allergy should steer clear of this dairy alternative. 

Coconut milk 
Coconut products are growing in popularity with products such as condensed coconut milk, water and whipping cream. Coconut milk is a lower calorie option but it is also low in protein, containing 1 gram or less per cup. Its fat content is much higher than other plant-based options and the fat it contains is saturated fat—something to limit for heart health. Many coconut milk options on the market have been diluted to offer less fat and calories. Coconut milk has a thick and creamy texture and can be a suitable alternative for those who have soy or dairy allergies.  

Soy milk
Soy milk is another popular non-dairy option. Soy milk’s nutrient profile closely resembles that of cow’s milk. It contains the highest protein of all the dairy milk alternatives with 7 grams per cup. Soy milk is cholesterol-free, low in saturated fat and high in protein making it an ideal option for cooking. Soy milk can be higher in calories, especially if sweetened, so look for unsweetened options. 

Oat milk
A more recent trendy addition to the many non-dairy milk options is oat milk. Appropriate for those with dietary restrictions or food sensitivities, oat milk is naturally free of dairy, lactose, soy and nuts. Like other non-dairy options, oat milk generally comes with added calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A and riboflavin. It also offers slightly more fiber than some of the other plant-based options. One downside is oat milk usually has more carbohydrates and calories than other plant-based options so, look for the unsweetened variety.

Pea milk
Pea milk is a newer milk alternative that contains high-quality protein and is an excellent source of calcium. It’s also free of nuts and soy. Pea milk has a similar taste and texture profile as cow’s milk.  

Reading the nutrition label and ingredients list is the most important thing when choosing which milk product best meets your specific nutrition needs. Good food fuels good health and dairy and non-dairy alternatives are just one part of that. Make sure you also balance your diet with fruits, veggies, whole grains, healthy fats and lean proteins every day.

Below are some of the many options of dairy and dairy alternative milks with their nutrient analysis.

 

Type

One Cup Serving

Calories

Total Fat (g)

Saturated Fat (g)

Protein

(g)

Carbs

(g)

Calcium (mg)

Vitamin D

(mcg)

Dairy

Whole Milk

150

8

5

8

12

300

2.5

2% Milk

120

5

3

8

12

300

2.5

Fat-free Milk

80

0

0

8

12

300

2.5

Fairlife® Fat-free Milk

80

0

0

13

6

380

2.5

 

Fairlife® 2% Milk

120

4.5

3

13

6

380

2.5

Almond

 

Orgain® Organic Protein™ Almond Milk, Unsweetened Vanilla

80

3.5

0

10

4

250

3

Blue Diamond® Almond Breeze® Almondmilk, Original

60

2.5

0

1

8*

450

5

Blue Diamond® Almond Breeze® Almondmilk, Unsweet

30

2.5

0

1

1

450

5

Soy

Silk® Soy Milk, Original

110

4.5

0.5

8

9*

450

3

Coconut

So Delicious® Coconutmilk, Original

70

4.5

4

0

9*

130

2.5

Oat

Oatly! Oatmilk, Sweetened

120

5

0.5

3

16*

350

3.6

Pea

Ripple®, Original

100

5

0.5

8

6*

450

3.1


*Denotes milks containing added sugars (not naturally occurring)

Article provided by Mary Montgomery, MS, RDN, LD, and Cooper Clinic Nutrition.