Medically Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on December 02, 2022
Cow’s Milk: Skim
Grocery stores have more milk options than ever, including plant, nut, and seed versions you may not have heard of. Classic cow’s milk is a good source of three nutrients most Americans don’t get enough of: calcium, vitamin D, and potassium. Nonfat, or skim, is made by skimming the cream from whole milk. At about 86 calories and zero fat per cup, it’s a good option for milk drinkers trying to lose weight.
Cow’s Milk: 1% and 2%
All four types of cow’s milk (skim, 1%, 2%, and whole) have the same amount of protein, calcium, and vitamins. The difference is in calories and fat. A cup of 1% lowfat milk has 102 calories and 1.5 grams of saturated fat. A cup of 2% reduced fat milk has 3.1 grams of saturated fat. Both have some of the creaminess that skim milk lacks. If you’re trying to switch to non-fat milk, you might start with these to adjust to the taste difference. They can also be good options for kids who need to drink less juice or soda.
Cow’s Milk: Whole
Whole milk, which is 3.5% milk fat, is closest to the liquid that comes out of the cow before processing. Who should drink it: Babies between 1 and 2 years old, whose growing brains need a higher-fat diet, and adults who could use more calories. If you just love the taste of whole milk, it’s OK to indulge. Pair it with a high-fiber cereal and then watch your saturated fats for the rest of the day.
Besides being a kids’ favorite, chocolate milk may be a good post-workout recovery drink. There’s nothing special about the chocolate, though; flavored milks (strawberry and vanilla, too) have the ideal 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein the body needs for muscle recovery and rebuilding after exercise. These drinks have the same nutrients as regular milk, but they have added sugar.
Some people have trouble digesting lactose, the natural sugar in dairy foods. The problem, known as lactose intolerance, can cause bloating, gas, and diarrhea. But lactose-free milk has been treated, so it doesn’t cause those problems. It has the same nutrition as cow’s milk. But it tastes slightly sweeter because the lactose has been broken down into simple sugars.
In the plus column, a cup of this drink has tons of protein -- 9 grams per cup, the most of any milk. It’s also richer in calcium than skim, with 33% of what you need each day. The cons: It has 168 calories and 6.5 grams of saturated fat per cup, far more than whole cow’s milk. One study found that it had no clear nutritional advantage over cow’s milk, and if you’re allergic to cow’s milk, you’ll probably be allergic to this as well.
Made from ground soybeans soaked in water, it’s a nutrition powerhouse: All the benefits of cow’s milk from a nonanimal source. A cup of calcium-fortified nonsweetened soy milk has about 7 grams of protein, 4 grams of carbohydrates, and 300 milligrams of calcium. (Flavored versions can be high in added sugars.) It’s a good option for vegans, people who are lactose intolerant, or those with a dairy allergy. But if you go for a milk substitute, make sure your choice is fortified with calcium and vitamin D.
Made from ground almonds and filtered water, one cup of almond milk can have fewer than 30 calories while packing 450 milligrams of calcium. That’s more than most cheese, yogurt, and soy milk. Keep in mind that the benefits don’t come close to what you get from an ounce of raw almonds, which have far more protein, fiber, and healthy fats. But it can be a good choice for people on a low-sugar diet, those with a dairy or soy allergy, and vegans who don’t like soy milk.
Rice milk has earned its place on the shelf as an easy-to-digest soy alternative that’s also nut- and gluten-free. It's made from ground brown rice and water, and nutritionists recommend it for people with multiple food allergies. On the downside, a cup of unsweetened rice milk has just 1 gram of protein, and because it’s made from rice, it’s naturally high in carbohydrates.
With a sweet and creamy flavor, cashew milk is a popular option for nondairy cream soups, dressings, and sauces. Close in texture to whole milk, it has fewer calories than skim. One cup of fortified unsweetened cashew milk has 25 calories per serving, zero sugar, and also has 32% more calcium than dairy milk.
Milk made from macadamia nuts is one more option for people on a plant-based diet. Like almond milk, a cup of it gives you 45% of your recommended daily calcium, but with about as much fat as 2% cow’s milk (5 grams per cup). Who should try it: Milk drinkers looking to avoid dairy, soy, and gluten.
It’s not just for pina coladas and curries -- coconut milk is everywhere these days. But know the differences: Canned coconut milk is the liquid expressed from coconut meat. With 36 grams of fat per cup, it's the nondairy equal of heavy cream. It’s a great substitute in soups, puddings, and vegan ice cream. “Coconut milk beverage,” found in the refrigerated section, is unsweetened and watered down to lower the calories and fat. One cup has 45 calories and 3.5 grams of saturated fat.
One cup of sweetened coconut milk has 74.4 calories and 5 grams of saturated fat.
Hemp Seed Milk
Lovers of this drink say it’s thicker and creamier than soy milk, and not as grainy. Made from hemp seeds, a cup of unsweetened hemp milk is rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fats, and other nutrients. On the other hand, it has 60 calories per cup, which is higher than rice and almond milks. Another option for people who have multiple food allergies.
Flax Seed Milk
It’s one of the newer milk substitutes to hit the shelves. It’s simply cold-pressed flax oil mixed with filtered water. Even though it has 70 calories per cup, it boasts 1,200 milligrams of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Who should try it: Those looking for a dairy-free milk without the taste of soy or nuts.
Buy or Make Your Own?
Basic nut and seed milks are fairly easy to make: Simply soak, blend, and drain. Commercially manufactured nut milks are typically fortified with vitamin D, calcium, and other nutrients to put them on par with dairy milk. On the other hand, manufacturers also add sweeteners, preservatives, and stabilizers you may not want.
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Dairy Council of California: “Nutrients in Milk.”
Joan Salge Blake, dietitian, LDN, clinical associate professor of nutrition, Boston University.
American Diabetes Association: “Dairy.”
Kathryn Hillstrom, EdD, RDN, associate nutrition professor, California State University, Los Angeles.
Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy: What Is Lactose-Free Milk?
World Review of Nutrition and Dietetics: “Cow’s milk and goat’s milk.”
Nutrition Research: “Soy milk and Dairy Consumption are independently associated with ultrasound attenuation of the heel bone amoung postmenopausal women: The Adventist Health Study-2 (AHS-2).”
USDA: Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020, Appendix 11: Food Sources of Calcium.