While cow’s milk has been a controversial staple in our diet for generations, it didn’t have any serious competition until the past decade, which has seen a remarkable rise in the number of plant-based alternatives.
This increase in nondairy “milks” makes sense for many reasons: 65 percent of the adult population has difficulty digesting lactose, the sugar in cow’s milk; our diet has become more varied in general; more consumers are vegan; and people worldwide are more aware of the environmental toll the dairy industry is taking on the planet.
But even those who welcome more choice when it comes to milk — for years, soy milk was the main alternative — might find the options out there (pea milk, hemp milk, coconut milk) daunting. How to decide?
“Think about your big-picture needs versus what’s trendy,” says Jessica Cording, a dietitian and integrative health coach. Consider your nutritional needs, how you plan to use the milk and whether it’s a taste you enjoy.
And keep in mind that cow’s milk alternatives have drawbacks of their own. “Many of these milks, like oat, rice, and almond milk, require things to be added to make them smoother, emulsified, so they’re more even [in consistency] and more like the milks you’re used to,” says Ilene Fennoy, a pediatric endocrinologist and specialist in nutrition.
To approach the nutritional punch of cow’s milk, they also need to be fortified with calcium, vitamins and minerals, as commercial versions are. But beware: “While fortified with calcium, this calcium may not be as well-absorbed by the body,” says Natalie Allen, a registered dietitian and clinical instructor of biomedical sciences for Missouri State University. “The calcium can also settle in the container; thus, consumers are not getting as many bone-building nutrients as they think.”
Allen suggests you consider a milk’s protein content (better if high), sugar level (better if low) and fortification (it should have it). “Consider any additives in the ingredient list, too,” she says, including emulsifiers and stabilizers such as xanthum gum, carrageenan or sunflower lecithin. Some of these may irritate the gut or cause inflammation.
And remember that plant milks need these additives because they tend to separate, so make sure to shake them well before serving. “Some of the vitamins and minerals may settle to the bottom,” says Allen.
With the above advice in mind, let’s look at the specifics of cow’s milk and some of its easily obtainable alternatives (calorie, protein, fat and sugar content differ by brand and type of milk; these are general figures).
Cow’s milk: high in calcium, protein and fat
Creamy, cool cow’s milk, with about 8 grams of protein per serving, is often considered the “gold standard” of milks in terms of taste and nutrients. “Dairy milk is best for bone health,” says Allen. “The calcium in all cow’s milk is well-absorbed, and dietitians recommend three or four servings a day, particularly for children and pregnant women. From ages 1 to 2, we recommend whole milk.”
One cup of whole milk has 150 calories, with 4.5 grams of saturated fat and 12 grams of sugar (lactose). In the United States, most dairy milks are fortified with extra vitamins and minerals, and are notably good sources of phosphorus, potassium, and vitamins A and D, says Allen.
While not ideal for adults, the dairy fat is necessary for infants. “Fat is important for brain development,” Fennoy says. Experts commonly recommend switching to skim, 1 percent or 2 percent after age 2. “The fats in cow’s milk are saturated fats, which are not the best for cholesterol or triglyceride levels,” she explains. “We encourage a switch to lower fat as individuals get older.”
If you prefer milk from animal sources because of their protein but have a lactose sensitivity, you may want to try lower-lactose goat’s or sheep’s milk. “The flavor is different, more tangy and gamy, but not a big change in calories or fat grams,” Cording says. Sheep’s and goat’s milk also provide calcium.
Legume-based milk: packed with protein
Soy milk has been on the grid for a long time. It’s on the creamier side among dairy alternatives (although some find it “chalky”), and dietitians typically laud the milk for its protein, when most milk alternatives do not compare to dairy, says Cording. (It clocks in at about seven to 12 grams per cup.) “For a long time, most of the nondairy milks were very low protein, which set soy milk apart in another category.”