Milk and milk alternatives
Not too long ago, the only thing you could expect to drown your cereal in was whole cow’s milk. Now, cow’s milk comes in all sorts of varieties: whole milk, 2 percent, 1 percent, fat-free, and even lactose-free milk.
For people with dietary or allergy concerns, there are also alternatives to cow’s milk. Almond, soy, rice, and coconut “milk” are popular plant-based milk alternatives. They’re becoming even more available in stores across the United States.
There are other cow’s milk alternatives like goat milk or oat milk that may be another good choice for some people.
Each type of milk has its advantages and disadvantages, depending on a person’s diet, health, nutritional needs, or personal taste preferences.
For example, some people may be intolerant to dairy milk and may need to choose a plant-based alternative.
Alternatively, those who may need to boost their calorie and nutrient intake may opt for whole milk, which is a concentrated source of protein, fat, and calories.
However, milk such as whole dairy milk and full-fat coconut milk is rich in fat and calories, which should be taken into account if you’re looking for a lower-calorie beverage. Whole cow’s milk contains more calories and saturated fat than any other milk, aside from goat’s milk.
Look at the differences in these popular types of milk to determine which best suits your needs. With all varieties, choose the unsweetened versions. Milk and milk alternatives can double their amount of sugar if they’re sweetened with added sugars.
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Whole milk has the highest fat content of all types of milk. One cup contains about:
- 150 calories
- 12 grams of carbohydrates in the form of lactose (milk sugar)
- 8 grams of fat
- 8 grams of protein
None of the milk’s natural components are removed. As you can see, whole milk is high in natural proteins, fat, and calcium. Milk sold in the United States is usually fortified with vitamin A and vitamin D, as well.
Other cow’s milk has the same amount of carbohydrates and protein, with some or all of the fat removed. While whole milk has 150 calories in one cup, 1 percent milk has 110 calories, and skim milk has just 80 calories.
Fat-free milk is significantly lower in calories than whole milk. However, the removal of fat decreases the amount of certain nutrients in the milk, including vitamins E and K.
Lactose-free milk is processed to break down lactose, a natural sugar found in milk products.
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Lactose-free milk is also a good source of protein, calcium, vitamins, and minerals. The total and saturated fat contents of lactose-free milk vary, as it comes in 2 percent, 1 percent, and fat-free varieties.
Almond milk is made from ground almonds and filtered water. It may also contain starches and thickeners to improve its consistency and shelf life.
People who are allergic to almonds or nuts should avoid almond milk.
Almond milk is typically lower in calories than other milk, as long as it’s unsweetened. It’s also free of saturated fat and is naturally lactose-free.
Per cup, unsweetened almond milk has:
- about 30 to 60 calories
- 1 gram of carbohydrates (sweetened varieties have more)
- 3 grams of fat
- 1 gram of protein
Even though almonds are a good source of protein, almond milk is not. Almond milk is also not a good source of calcium. However, many brands of almond milk are supplemented with calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin D.
Soy milk is made from soybeans and filtered water. Like other plant-based milk alternatives, it may contain thickeners to improve consistency and shelf life.
One cup of unsweetened soy milk has:
- about 80 to 100 calories
- 4 grams of carbohydrates (sweetened varieties have more)
- 4 grams of fat
- 7 grams of protein
Because it comes from plants, soy milk is naturally free of cholesterol and low in saturated fat. It also contains no lactose.
Soybeans and soy milk are good sources of protein, calcium (when fortified), and potassium.
Rice milk is made from milled rice and water. As with other alternative milk, it frequently contains additives to improve consistency and shelf stability.
It’s the least likely of all milk products to cause allergies. That makes it a good choice for people with lactose intolerance or allergies to milk, soy, or nuts.
Rice milk contains the most carbohydrates per cup, providing about:
- 120 calories
- 22 grams of carbohydrates
- 2 grams of fat
- little protein (less than 1 gram)
While rice milk can be fortified with calcium and vitamin D, it’s not a natural source of either, just like soy and almond milk. Rice has also been shown to have higher levels of inorganic arsenic.
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The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends not relying solely on rice and rice products, especially for infants, children, and pregnant women.
The American Academy of Pediatrics takes a similar stance, suggesting focusing on a variety of foods and avoiding depending on just rice or rice products.
Coconut milk is made from filtered water and coconut cream, which is made from grated mature coconut flesh. Despite its name, coconut isn’t a nut, so people with nut allergies should be able to have it safely.
Coconut milk is more accurately referred to as “coconut milk beverage” because it’s a more diluted product than the type of coconut milk used in cooking, which usually is sold in cans.
As with other plant-based milk alternatives, coconut milk often contains added thickeners and other ingredients.
Coconut milk contains more fat than the other milk alternatives. Each cup of unsweetened coconut milk beverage contains:
- about 50 calories
- 2 grams of carbohydrates
- 5 grams of fat
- 0 grams of protein
Coconut milk beverage doesn’t naturally contain calcium, vitamin A, or vitamin D. However, it can be fortified with these nutrients.
Suggested read: Good carbs, bad carbs — How to make the right choicesLast updated on February 15, 2022, and last reviewed by an expert on November 9, 2021.