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Decoding Six Milks and Milk Alternatives

Watch out cow’s milk. You’ve got some stiff competition in the dairy aisle at grocery stores.

In the last couple of decades, you may have noticed the dairy aisle has changed quite a bit. Cow’s milk still may dominate the shelves, but now there are more options than ever before, from plant-based like coconut milk, hemp and unsweetened almond milk to other milk alternatives.

If you don’t suffer from allergies or sensitivities to dairy, nuts or soy, the selections can honestly be a little overwhelming.

“The good news is that you can consume pretty much any of these milk and milk alternatives in moderation, but you may notice some differences in taste, flavor, texture and nutrition,” said Julie Simpson, a Banner Health registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator.

All milks will have differences in calories, fat, protein, added sugars and certain vitamins and minerals,” Simpson said. “Just make sure you focus on vitamin D and calcium and watch out for added sugars and saturated fats. The best way to avoid added sugars is to look for the words ‘unsweetened’ on the milk alternatives.”

Whether you like plain dairy milk or prefer non-dairy (but are unsure where to start), we break down six milks and milk alternatives for you to consider the next time you head down the dairy aisle.

1. Cow’s Milk

From whole to skim and everything in between, cow’s milk carries a concentrated punch of protein and calcium: 8 grams and almost 30 percent of your daily needs per cup, respectively.

Whole milk is recommended for most toddlers, ages 1 to 2 years old, as they need the extra fat for brain development and growth. “However, it should be limited to around 16 to 24 ounces per day as too much can lead to iron deficiency and anemia,” Simpson said.

The American Heart Association recommends most kids and adults should consume lower fat milks like 1% or skim milk as 2% and whole milk are higher in fat, saturated fat and calories.

And, if you have issues processing lactose (a sugar found in milk that gives lots of people tummy troubles like gas, constipation and diarrhea), lactose-free milk offers all the good stuff that’s found in regular milk but without the stomach pain.

Types*  Whole 2% Skim Lactose Free 1%



 122  90  110


 8g  5g  0g  2.5g
 Saturated Fat  4.5g  3g  0g  1.5g
 Protein  8g  8g  8g  8g
 Carbohydrates  12g  13g  13g  13g
 Calcium  25-30%  25-30%  25-30%  25-30%
 Vitamin D  25%  25%  25%  15-25%

*stats can vary per brand name

2. Nut Milks

Nut milks are a dairy substitute that can be made from different types of nuts, such as cashews, almonds and coconuts. Whether you are lactose intolerant, have a dairy allergy, vegan or simply don’t like the taste of cow’s milk, nut milks are worth a try.

Tip: When it comes to picking which type of nut milk to get, however, it may come down to your preference of taste, texture, flavor and even brand. Each brand will have its own distinct taste, which can make a difference to some people.

“One major thing to consider when picking a nut milk is making sure the milk is fortified with vitamin D and calcium,” Simpson said. “It is not necessary to choose the one with the highest amount but stay away from the ones that aren't fortified at all or have very minimal amounts."

Types* Cashew  Almond Coconut
 Calories  25-130  30  45
 Fat  2-10g  3g  4.5g
 Saturated Fat  0-1.5g  0g  3-4g
 Protein  0-4g  1-2g  0g
 Carbohydrates  1-7g  1-2g  1g
 Calcium  1-45%  30-45%  10-40%
 Vitamin D  0-25%  0-25%  0-10%

3. Soy Milk

Because it comes from the soybean plant, soymilk is naturally free of cholesterol and low in saturated fat. And bonus: It’s also dairy-free.

Tip: When it comes to picking a soy milk, make sure you look for one that is fortified with calcium and vitamin D.

Per cup: 80 calories, 4 grams fat, 0.5 grams saturated fat, 7 grams protein, 3 grams carbohydrates, 20% calcium and 15% vitamin D

Taste Test: Creamy

4. Oat Milk

Rich in flavor and creaminess, oak milk is growing in popularity. Even some coffee shops have added it as a dairy-free alternative. As long as you choose an unsweetened kind, the calorie and carbohydrate content aren’t high compared to other milks.

Helpful Tip: The next time you order a latte, ask if the barista will use steamed oat milk. It steams and froths really well compared to other alternative milks

Per cup: 60-90 calories, 2-3 grams fat, 0 grams saturated fat, 1-2 grams protein, 7-12 grams carbohydrates, 30% calcium and 15-20% vitamin D

5. Rice Milk

Though naturally sweet, rice milk doesn’t quite taste like cow’s milk or other plant-based alternatives. However, it does resemble some of the nut milks and oat milk as it’s also low in calories, with no saturated fats.

Tip: Rice milk is a good option for kids and adults who have multiple food allergies or for someone who is vegan or vegetarian.

Per cup: 60-90 calories, 2-3 grams fat, 0 grams saturated fat, 1-2 grams protein, 7-12 grams carbohydrates, 30% calcium and 15-20% vitamin D

6. Pea Milk

The name alone may bring about a giggle and a grimace (especially if you aren’t a pea fan), but pea milk is another plant-based milk growing in popularity. Thankfully for non-pea fans, it tastes nothing like peas.

Made from yellow peas, pea milk is dairy-, soy-, nut- and gluten-free. It is also a great source of calcium and protein. Just remember to opt for unsweetened so you can limit your overall added sugar intake.

Tip: Try it in savory soups as a replacement for cream to reduce saturated fat.

Per cup: 80 calories, 4.5 grams fat, 0 grams saturated fat, 8 grams protein, 1 gram carbohydrate, 35% calcium and 30% vitamin D

Bonus! Other Animal Milks

While cow’s milk still tops the leaderboard—making up a whopping 85% of the world’s milk supply—we couldn’t end this article without at least mentioning a few non-bovine species milks that are growing in popularity.

Although you might not encounter them at your local grocer, or even consider looking for them, milk from camels, goats, yaks and sheep are a very real thing in certain parts of the world. But one of the most mainstream alternatives to cow’s milk in the U.S. and probably the easiest to find at your local health food market is goat’s milk.

Goat’s Milk

Goat’s milk is popular because it resembles the flavor of cow’s milk, and some people find it easier to digest as well. While many dairy-free alternatives like almond milk lack in protein, goats’ milk is packed with 8 grams per cup.

Tip: If you decide to give goat’s milk a whirl, just make sure it is commercially prepared and fortified with vitamin D and calcium.

Per cup: 140 calories, 7 grams fat, 4 grams saturated fat, 8 grams protein, 11 grams carbohydrates, 25% calcium and 15% vitamin D


Next time you are in the dairy aisle, take a gander at some of the interesting milks that are available. While not all milks might suit you—taste or diet-wise—it never can hurt to try new things in moderation.

Contact your health care provider or nutritionist to figure out which type of milk is ideal for your health and lifestyle. To find a Banner Health specialist near you, visit bannerhealth.com.


*The calcium and vitamin D stats are based off a % daily value of a 2,000-calorie diet. The milks chosen were based on unsweetened milks. Remember to check the label, as some ingredients can vary by brand.