Milk It For All Its Worth: A Comparison of Milk and Milk Alternatives

When you think of milk, you probably visualize cow’s milk, but with so many milk alternatives available these days you may wonder how they compare nutritionally. While other “milks” may not be as naturally high in calcium as cow’s milk is (containing 300 mg per one-cup serving; or about 30 percent of your Daily Value), manufacturers usually add calcium (and sometimes vitamin D) to make their products similar to cow’s milk. Vitamin D is important because it helps you absorb calcium in the milk and has recently been shown to help prevent a number of chronic diseases. Here’s the rundown on a few of the most popular milk alternatives:

Lactose-free milk. This is actually regular cow’s milk with a twist—the lactose has already been digested so it won’t create stomach problems if you’re sensitive. This beverage contains the same number of calories and calcium as regular milk.

Soy milk. If you can’t tolerate cow’s milk or prefer a vegan option, soy milk is a great choice. Made from pressed soybeans, a one-cup serving contains about 100 to 140 calories. Soy milk is naturally lower in protein and calcium than cow’s milk; most makers add calcium. Though higher in fat than skim milk, it also contains omega-3 fats, which are good for heart health.

Almond milk. Produced from finely ground almonds and water, this thin milk has no saturated fat, but little protein—about a gram per one-cup serving. Manufacturers typically add calcium and vitamin D, but check the label to be sure what you’re getting.

Rice milk. This milk made from rice and water is low in protein. Makers add calcium and vitamin D. It contains no saturated fat.

Coconut milk. Derived from the flesh of the coconut, coconut milk is typically high in calories and saturated fat, but its fat contains a type of MCFas, or medium-chain fatty acids, that may offer health benefits. Look for “light” coconut milk drinks with fewer calories and less fat.

For more information on milk alternatives (including Hemp milk and Cashew milk), check out my interview in SELF magazine: The Pros and Cons of 6 Dairy Free Milk Alternatives.