What Milk to Choose? Dairy Alternatives Vs Dairy Milk Nutrition

  Sep 26, 2016  |  #Nutrition

This post will compare the different types of milk on the market and how to analyze the nutritional differences between dairy and non-dairy milk options and the benefits of dairy milk nutrition and milk alternatives. 

Today’s post is more of a nutrition one. I’ve been wanting to write this post about dairy vs. plant based milk options for quite some time. I receive so many questions about it in my practice, and I think this is something we should all have some knowledge about.

One day you hear fat-free milk is the way to go, the next you hear you should be drinking full-fat, the next you hear that you shouldn’t be drinking dairy milk at all.

As a non-diet dietitian, I’m not here to sway you towards one milk choice or another. Rather, I want to inform you about the pros/cons of each and empower you to make the best decision to fit your nutritional needs, food preferences and lifestyle. 

Coconut, almond, soy, cashew milk

This post was originally published in September 2016 and updated May 2019 to incorporate newer plant based milk options on the market.  

Ultimately, there’s not a “wrong” choice. Among the plethora of choices you have at the grocery store, a lot will depend on your tolerances or insensitivities, taste preferences, and price.

While I do have my own personal opinion (and unique nutrition needs), I’ve included some objective facts and science in here as well. 

So, let’s talk a little about each.

Dairy Milk Nutrition (Cow’s Milk)

cows milk, comparing milks

Cow’s milk has one ingredient: milk. There are no added sugars. The sugar in milk is a natural form of sugar from the lactose, which is composed of simple sugars, glucose and galactose. Cow’s milk can be frowned upon by some, but dairy milk nutrition is definitely worth talking about. 

Dairy milk is a fantastic source of calcium (30% RDA) and Vitamin D (20% RDA), which are both involved in bone health. We need Vitamin D to absorb calcium. Dairy milk is also naturally high in potassium, phosphorus, Vitamin A and B vitamins (particularly riboflavin).

However, cow’s milk may not be for those who are dairy or lactose intolerant, or following a vegan lifestyle. Calories and fat vary depending on the type of cow’s milk you choose. The amount of protein, carbohydrates and nutrients in all milk will be the same as the rest of dairy milk nutrition doesn’t vary. No matter what type of cow’s milk you are drinking, 1 cup provides 8 grams of protein.

Refrigerator with different milk options

What About Nonfat Milk Nutrition vs. Low Fat Milk Nutrition vs. Whole Milk Nutrition?

The fat content is what varies in the types of milk. The % fat refers to how much fat is in the milk by weight. For a cup of skim or non fat milk, there are 80 calories and virtually no fat (0.3%). For 1% or lowfat milk, there are about 100 calories per cup, while 2% milk (reduced fat) has about 120 calories. Whole milk is about 3.5% fat (8 grams of fat, including 5 grams of saturated fat), and has about 150 calories per cup.

About one third of the fat in milk is monounsaturated, while most is predominantly saturated. However, there are some polyunsaturated and other minor fatty acids present as well.

Whole milk is the closest resemblance to what comes directly from the cow, so it is technically the “least processed.” The lower fat milk options have gone through some processing to obviously remove the fat. Otherwise, the dairy milk nutrition options are pretty similar.

People think the lower fat versions have more added sugar, which is not true. If you compare a whole milk nutrition label to a low fat milk nutrition label, you’ll see that companies normally fortify (add back in) lower fat milks with Vitamin A and Vitamin D, which are lost while skimming the fat out. Both options are nutritionally equivalent otherwise. 

Refrigerator with different milk options

What Does the Research on Dairy Milk Say?

There is a debate over which milk is better for you, and in my professional opinion, you have to take it all in context. If you’re drinking whole milk and trying monitor your cholesterol or triglycerides, then maybe you can decrease to a lower fat content, like 1 % or even 2% without sacrificing taste and satisfaction. Going from whole milk to skim milk is not a recommendation I would typically make because that’s pretty drastic.

On the other hand, if you’re looking to build muscle mass, maintain weight or increase your fat intake, then let’s move your milk fat content up. Each person’s unique situation is different. 

Another thing to consider is how long the milk will keep you satiated and satisfied. Typically, the higher the percentage of fat, the longer the milk will keep you full because fat is an important macronutrient for satiety. Whole milk and full-fat dairy products have been shown in the research to be better for fertility. However, drinking fat-free milk has been associated with a reduced risk of diabetes and a decrease in blood pressure, so each person’s situation may be unique.

However, my motto is that you should enjoy your food without any rules or limitations, so if you really enjoy the milk you’re drinking, maybe we can make changes elsewhere. 

Almond Milk Pros and Cons 

Almond milk offerings in grocery store refrigerator

Almond milk is a great alternative for those who are vegan, or lactose or dairy intolerant. There is no saturated fat in almond milk since it is not an animal product. However, I prefer to stick to the unsweetened versions. Most brands typically have unsweetened vanilla available. Some sweetened versions can have up to 16 grams of (added) sugar per cup. 

Another nutritional con of almond milk is that it is a poor source of protein. It will not keep you full. It also has a longer list of ingredients. Here’s a sample list of ingredients from a store brand almond milk: Almond milk (filtered water, almonds), calcium carbonate, natural vanilla flavor with other natural flavors, sea salt, potassium citrate, sunflower lechithin, gellan gum, vitamin A palmitate, Vitamin D3 and D-Alpha-tocopherol (Natural Vitamin E).

Almond milk does provide 45% of your daily allotment for calcium, 25% of Vitamin D, and 20% of your Vitamin E needs. Remember, to absorb Vitamin D, we need to take it with fat as it is a fat soluble vitamin. Almond milk also provides a fair amount of potassium, but is only half of what cow’s milk offers. 

Note that there may be some variability between brands and even sweetened or unsweetened. Many almond milk brands on the market now have added protein as well. 

Coconut Milk Pros and Cons

Coconut milk is another dairy milk alternative for those who are vegan, lactose or dairy intolerant. Like almond milk, it is a poor source of protein and does have a longer list of ingredients. However, unlike almond milk, it does have saturated fat in it. Just be aware that saturated fat in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing, but take it into consideration with other sources in your diet. The Dietary Guidelines do recommend limiting saturated fats to less than 10% of your daily calories (note: plant foods are free of saturated fats).

Coconut milk does provide 45% of daily calcium needs and 25% of Vitamin D. Coconut milk does not have any potassium. 

Soy Milk Pros and Cons

Soy milk nutrition label

Soy milk is another option for those who are vegan, vegetarian, or dairy or lactose intolerant. Soy milk is comparable to cow’s milk in terms of protein and nutrient profile. One cup provides about 45% calcium and 30% of Vitamin D needs. Since it is a plant protein, there is virtually no saturated fat. It’s very low in sugar (unless you buy a sweetened version) and similar in calorie content to dairy milk. 

Pea Milk

Pea protein milk is a more recent addition to the market of plant-based milks, made from split yellow peas. It can be a great alternative for those allergic to or avoiding dairy, lactose, nut milks, and soy products.

One cup of pea milk has a similar amount of protein as soy and cow’s milk, around 8 grams. It offers the highest amount of potassium among dairy-free options, and even has more than cow’s milk (450 mg in pea’s milk vs. 370 mg in cow’s milk). Similarly, pea milk offers 45% daily value of calcium and 30% of Vitamin D. Pea Milk is also enriched with omega 3-fatty acids, is cholesterol free and low in fat. 

Oat Milk

Oat milk is one of my personal favorites, in addition to cow’s milk. It has a creamy, frothy texture and goes really well in coffee. Oat milk is made by soaking steel cut oats or whole groats in water and straining them. 

Like rice milk, oat milk has a higher carbohydrate content than dairy milk (and all of the other milk alternatives listed here). A cup of oat milk does provide some protein (about 4 grams, so half of what dairy milk, soy milk and pea milk provide).

Oat milk has lower amounts of potassium, though most on the market are also fortified with Vitamin A, B-Vitamins, calcium and Vitamin D. 

Here’s a little chart I made that you can pin or save for later!

Dairy Milk Nutrition vs Plant Based Nutrition Comparison Chart
Dairy Milk Nutrition vs Plant Based Nutrition Comparison Chart

What Else To Know About Dairy and Non Dairy Milks

A product being “dairy-free” doesn’t equate to it being healthy. Plant-based milks have their cons as well but can also be almost equivalent to dairy milk nutrition. Keeping track of added sugars, protein, calcium and Vitamin D is important when choosing your milk. If your drink of choice is low in protein, make sure you are pairing it with other protein sources.

If it’s cereal, add some nuts, seeds or nut butters. Or, have some hard boiled eggs on the side. If it’s oatmeal, add nuts, nut butters, seeds, yogurt, protein powder or egg whites. If it’s a smoothie, you could also add any of the above. Personally, I like the taste of both almond and coconut milk, and sometimes prefer to cook my oatmeal with them. But, I’ll usually add in some greek yogurt, protein powder, or peanut butter to get that protein.

When it comes down to it, they can all be a fine choice depending on your situation. I am a big dairy lover so I do try to get two cups of dairy in a day – usually it’s some cow’s milk and some yogurt. Currently, we have 2% milk in our house, but I normally switch among the different milks every few weeks.

I hope this clears up some of the confusion among the different types of milk. I typically recommend going for the original or unsweetened versions. That is one thing that is consistent across the board!

What milk do you prefer?

Are you loyal to a particular brand?

29 responses to “What Milk to Choose? Dairy Alternatives Vs Dairy Milk Nutrition

  1. This is a terrific post! I really needed it because I have been thoroughly confused lately. I was raised on 1% or 2% milk and that’s what I still get now. My husband has already been warned to watch his cholesterol, so I will continue. I’m all about store-brand with everything, milk is no exception.

  2. This is such an informative post! I don’t really drink milk at all, mostly because its not something I have ever really liked. Sometimes we buy almond milk to use in recipes or smoothies. I don’t have a dairy intolerance but I never feel great if I have too much of it. I do try to eat yogurt once in awhile though.

  3. Thank you for this Sarah. Milks are definitely one of those things where I can find myself standing in the grocery store for minutes, staring confusedly, looking like a fool trying to decide what to buy. I like almond and soy milk for the taste, but I think for nutritional purposes I should be drinking more dairy milk – and I like the notion of drinking only what is 100% natural. My father grew up on a farm and so only drank pure homogozined straight from the cow milk and he is one of the healthiest guys I know. Aha.

    I have some questions for you.
    Is there enough fat in almond milk to even absorb the vitamin D that is present?
    Also – in terms of lattes – do you know if the proteins (and maybe other vitamins like Vitamin D) get denatured when they are a) heated and b) paired with caffeine? I’ve heard caffeine is an inhibitor to certain nutrients, and that heat can kill the proteins. I’d really love it if my frequent latte consumption was also giving me health benefits, but I feel like maybe it isn’t…

    Also, I was wondering if you’d consider doing a post one day about all those crazy ingredients we often see (preservatives and such) – about which ones are fine and which we don’t want to see. I know a lot of them are totally natural, but I can never keep it straight.

    1. These are great questions and I totally should do a post on ingredients. Thank you for the idea! The research I’ve seen is pretty inconclusive. Some studies have shown better absorption with really high fat meals/ingredients (up to 30%). I wouldn’t think of almond milk as a high fat source, so for better absorption, I’d add some actual nuts/nut butters/coconut oil in addition. As far as the latte, Vitamin D isn’t as heat sensitive as the water soluble vitamins, but the high heat may make it more unstable. To answer your questions, I don’t think it negates ALL the health benefits, but it’s important to consume other sources (or a supplement) in your daily diet!

  4. I love this post!! Thanks so much for all this info. While I don’t personally drink milk [ I can’t STAND the taste of it!!] I would never tell someone not to drink it. I do still order lattes with milk, though I go non-fat, so I will consume it if its covered by another flavor. I just won’t drink it alone or in cereal. Bleh!
    I actually don’t consume any kind of “milk” on a daily basis. Even in my smoothies I tend to use water, so it actually takes me a while to get through a carton of almond milk! [I pretty much only use it for recipes or baking]

  5. Congrats on a great 20 miler, that’s awesome and so nice to have someone ride along at least for a bit! It does make you go a little crazy running on your own for a few hours.

    Great post! I’m pretty sensitive to dairy so I tend to stick to unsweetened cashew or coconut milk.

  6. Thank you for sharing all this Sarah; I’m definitely going to come back and read these! We normally buy unsweetened almond, unsweetened soy, and whole milk. πŸ™‚ They seem to work for all of our needs, and I actually didn’t know that some almond milks could have that much sugar! What do you think about cashew milk?

    1. It’s crazy how much sugar some milks can have! I actually haven’t ever drank cashew milk (nut allergy – for some reason, almond milk is okay for me), but I would just stick to the same principles of buying unsweetened. I’ve heard lots of people love it!

  7. I don’t really drink milk ever. sometimes chocolate milk, but really that’s pretty much a melted milkshake. I buy almond milk to use in things like overnight oats and baking, but mostly just due to a slightly longer shelf life. And obvious smell once gone rancid. I am terrible at telling if regular milk is still good, since it all smells awful to me.

    I agree with a commenter above. I would love your RDs take on different additives and the like. I know you’ve done a peek into your grocery cart, which I loved, but I would love a post on “hacks” – like if you want a fancy tasting drink at Starbucks, what do you order for the best nutrition. Seems like those two negate each other, but seems like they shouldn’t have to.

  8. Great post! I dont drink cows milk because it kills my stomach. Of all the nondairy alternatives I think unsweetened almond milk and soy milk are my top choices. I love the amount of protein in soy milk!

  9. This is such a great post! I don’t love the taste of cow’s milk so if I’m ever having cereal or making a smoothie I use almond milk, however, when I’m baking I’ve often use regular milk if I don’t have almond milk open!

  10. I love your post. I’ve had just about every type of milk there is. I really like coconut, almond, and soy. Although I have tried flax seed milk which was very good as well. It was interesting to read all the information on the dairy-free milk options since my boyfriend is lactose-intolerant. :]

    // β–² itsCarmen.com β–²

  11. I love nutrition related posts, and it’s nice to see an RD talking about all the milk options without any type of industry behind it. My biggest issue with cow’s milk is the lobbying happening in the background, Canada’s food guide for example is strongly backed up by the dairy farmer’s and this makes people very distrustful of milk, which should not be the case!
    Thanks for this!

  12. We don’t have all the same kinds of milk over here – no 1 or 2%, no non-fat – so that was new to me. I like that you pointed out the benefits and downsides [if you will] of every kind. Personally, I’d never drink non-fat milk but also generally buy unsweetened non-dairy kinds. Simply because I enjoy the taste of Alpro’s almond and coconut milk.
    I second/third Cora’s quest for a preservatives and the likes. You have a great way of presenting this kind of information.

    1. I think sometimes having so many choices is what clouds the waters even more for consumers! Probably better off with less options. And thank you – that’s nice of you to say. I will work on a post about ingredients and preservatives! πŸ™‚

  13. SO educational, this was excellent and fantastic. I don’t “PIN” so is there a way to get the table e-mailed to me?
    Thanks

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