Buyer’s Guide to Milk Alternatives

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Nine out of 10 glasses of milk consumed in the US come from cows, but increasingly, Americans are “milking” other options. For instance, sales of goat’s milk more than doubled from 2003 to 2007 and the demand for “alterna-milks” (made from soy, rice, almond and even hemp) is at an all-time high.

Plant-based milks don’t contain lactose, the sugar found in milk, and with the exception of almond milk, they naturally contain only negligible amounts of calcium. And, although many alternative milks are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, they may not be as nutritious. “You often don’t absorb as much of the nutrients as you do from cow’s milk,” says Robert Heaney, M.D., professor of medicine at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. He notes that compounds in soy milk called phytates may bind calcium, making it less available to the body.

Still, for people who can’t tolerate or choose not to consume cow’s milk (as well as for those who just want to shake things up), plant-based milks are healthful options that often provide unique benefits of their own. Read more in this milk comparison chart and tasting. The following comparisons are based on a serving size of one cup.*

Cow’s Milk

Nutrition Notes: One cup provides a third of the recommended daily dose for calcium and 16 percent of the daily value for protein. It’s a good source of vitamin D (through fortification) and phosphorus, which build strong bones, as well as the B vitamin riboflavin.

Calories: 80-150 (nonfat to whole)
Fat/Saturated: 0.5-8 g fat/0-5 g saturated
Protein: 8-9 g
Carbohydrate: 12-13 g
Fiber: 0 g
Calcium: 30% DV
Vitamin D: 25% DV

Goat’s Milk

Taste Tips: Goat’s milk has a strong (tangy/sour) flavor. Some of our Test Kitchen staff likened it to “drinking goat cheese.”

Nutrition Notes: Like cow’s milk, goat’s milk contains lactose, just a tad less. Many suggest that people who are allergic to cow’s milk can tolerate goat’s milk but immunologists often advise those who are allergic to cow’s milk to avoid goat’s milk, too, because of cross-reactivity risks.

Calories: 90-150 (nonfat to whole)
Fat/Saturated: 2.5-8 g fat/1.5-5 g saturated
Protein: 7-8 g
Carbohydrate: 9-12 g
Fiber: 0 g
Calcium: 30% DV
Vitamin D: Up to 30% DV

Soy Milk

Taste Tips: If you’re looking for a drink comparable to cow’s milk, EatingWell’s Test Kitchen recommends sweetened soy milk, such as Plain Silk. Varieties labeled “unsweetened” tend to impart a “beany” flavor. (If it’s not labeled “unsweetened,” generally it’s sweetened.)

Nutrition Notes: Studies link soy’s protein and phytoestrogens with a reduced risk of cancer and heart disease. Choose a soy milk fortified with calcium and vitamin D (30 percent and 25 percent of the daily value, respectively)–and shake before you pour, as added nutrients can settle to the bottom of the carton.

Calories: 60-130
Fat/Saturated: 2-6 g fat0-0.5 g saturated
Protein: 4-12 g
Carbohydrate: 5-15 g
Fiber: 0-4 g
Calcium: 4-30% DV
Vitamin D: Up to 30% DV

Rice Milk

Taste Tips: From the standpoint of taste, texture and appearance, rice milk is–hands down–the best substitute for cow’s milk, concurs EatingWell’s Test Kitchen crew. Staff favorite: WestSoy Rice Plain.

Nutrition Notes: Rice milk is lower in protein and higher in carbohydrates than cow’s milk and soy milk. It’s also a poor natural source of calcium so choose one that’s fortified with the mineral.

Calories: 110-120
Fat/Saturated: 2.5 g fat/0 g saturated
Protein: 1 g
Carbohydrate: 20-24 g
Fiber: 0 g
Calcium: 2-25% DV
Vitamin D: Up to 25% DV

Almond Milk

Taste Tips: Almond milk doesn’t taste much like cow’s milk, but if you’re looking for a plant-based drink with “inherently delicious” flavor, says one of our tasters, it’s worth a try. Some brands (e.g., Westsoy Unsweetened Almond, Blue Diamond Almond Breeze) are “nuttier” than others, our Test Kitchen notes.

Nutrition Notes: Almond milk is naturally high in calcium. Buy one that’s fortified with vitamin D, too, for a nutrition profile similar to cow’s milk.

Calories: 60-80
Fat/Saturated: 2.5-4.5 g fat/0-0.5 g saturated
Protein: 2-9 g
Carbohydrate: 5-11 g
Fiber: 0-4 g
Calcium: 20-30% DV
Vitamin D: Up to 25% DV

Hemp Milk

Taste Tips: Our testers’ comments ranged from “grainy and nutty” to “gritty, dirty and unacceptable.” Hemp-based milk is a poor substitute for cow’s milk, says our Test Kitchen.

Nutrition Notes: Hemp milk supplies high-quality protein (i.e., a good mix of amino acids) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acid.

Calories: 110-130
Fat/Saturated: 3-7 g fat/1 g saturated
Protein: 4-5 g
Carbohydrate: 6-20 g
Fiber: 1 g
Calcium: 2-46% DV
Vitamin D: Up to 25% DV

*Data reflects a sample of 20 readily available milks and alternative milks. For plant-based milks, we included only plain varieties–both sweetened and unsweetened, when available.

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

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