Nutrition Articles

Non-Dairy Alternatives to Cow's Milk

How Do They Compare Nutritionally?

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In recent years, many supermarkets have responded to customer demands and now offer a variety of milk options. Whether you are allergic to cow’s milk or simply wish to forgo dairy for other reasons, you can easily find many delicious milk alternatives these days. However, you may find yourself puzzled as you stare at the large selection of non-dairy milk at the store. If you have been wondering which type of milk you should choose based on your dietary and nutritional needs, this chart will help you get in, get out and get on with your busy life.

As you reference the chart, note that the sugars (lactose) found in cow’s milk occur naturally while many dairy-free milk alternatives contain added sugars unless labeled as "unsweetened." To get the most out of cow’s milk alternatives, always be sure to check labels and try to opt for fortified, nutrient-rich varieties that are as nutritionally similar to cow's milk as possible. Translation: Look for higher levels of protein, low (or no) added sugars, and added (fortified) vitamins and minerals that you find in cow's milk (30% DV calcium and about 25% DV vitamin D). Note that not all dairy alternatives are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, and the amount of these added nutrients varies from brand to brand. This means that  not every brand of soy milk, for example, would be a nutritionally adequate alternative to cow's milk. Be sure to read labels to find the nutrition profile that fits your needs.

Soy Milk
Soy milk is made from filtered water and whole soybeans. This milk is the most popular dairy alternative and has the closest nutritional profile to cow’s milk. While most brands of soy milk contain the same amount of protein, vitamin D and calcium as cow’s milk, other brands of soy milk do not contain any added vitamins or other nutrients. So, always keep your eye on ingredients lists and nutritional information before you make your purchase.

Almond Milk
Almond milk is a great alternative to cow’s milk when you are looking to cut calories. This nut milk is made from almond base containing filtered water and ground almonds. The bad news about almond milk is that it contains very little protein—just 1 gram per cup. Though most varieties of almond milk are fortified with vitamins and other nutrients, there are others that don’t contain vitamin D or calcium.

Hemp Milk
Hemp milk is made from hemp nut base (filtered water and shelled hemp seed) and contains a slew of healthy nutrients including calcium, vitamin D and a moderate amount of protein.

Rice Milk
Rice milk is a nice option when you want something with a neutral flavor. Though some feel that rice milk is not as creamy as other non-dairy milk alternatives, when fortified, it usually does contain the same amount of calcium and vitamin D as cow’s milk. But if you’re looking for protein, this probably isn’t the milk for you.

Oat Milk
Oat milk is made from oat groats, filtered water, and other grains and beans. If you have a soy allergy, make sure to read the label before buying oat milk as some varieties contain soybeans. Oat milk is mild, with a hint of sweetness and packs a punch when it comes to calcium and vitamin D (again, only if fortified with these nutrients). This powerful grain-based milk also contains 4 grams of protein per cup.

Hazelnut Milk
Hazelnut milk has a smooth, creamy texture and is made from hazelnut base (roasted hazelnuts and filtered water). Like almond milk, hazelnut milk contains far less protein than cow’s milk. However, this dairy alternative can contain up to 30% DV of calcium and 25% DV of vitamin D per cup if it is fortified.

Coconut Milk
The new cartons of coconut milk popping up in the dairy section are not the same as the canned coconut milk you purchase to make your favorite Thai dish. The ingredients found in refrigerated and shelf-stable coconut milk cartons include coconut cream (water, coconut, guar gum), cane sugar and added nutrients. Canned coconut milk simply contains coconut water (juice). Coconut milk is a good alternative when you want something creamy and sweet. Though this milk offers 30% DV of vitamin D and 50% DV of vitamin B12, it contains little added calcium and just 1 gram of protein per cup. If you’re looking to reduce you saturated fat intake, keep in mind that coconut milk is the only non-dairy milk we've seen that contains as much saturated fat as whole cow’s milk.

Type of Milk (1 cup) Calories Fat Sat. Fat Chol. Protein Carbs Sugars
Whole cow's milk  150  8 g  5 g  35 mg  8 g  12 g  12 g
2% cow's milk  130  5 g  3 g  20 mg  8 g  13 g  12 g
1% cow's milk  110  2.5 g  1.5 g  15 mg  8 g  13 g  12 g
Skim cow's milk  90  0 g  0 g  <5 mg  8g  13 g  12 g
Soy, unsweetened  80-90  4-4.5 g  0.5 g  0 mg  7-9 g  4-5 g  1-2 g
Soy, plain/original  70-130  2-4 g  0-0.5 g  0 mg  5-8 g  8-16 g  6-9 g
Almond, unsweetened  30-50  2.5 g  0 g  0 mg  1 g  1-5 g  0-1 g
Almond, original  50-60  2.5 g  0 g  0 mg  1 g  6-8 g  5-6 g
Hemp, unsweetened  70  6 g  0.5 g  0 mg  2 g  1 g  0 g
Hemp, original  100-140  5-6 g  0.5 g  0 mg  2-4 g  8-20 g  6-14 g
Rice, plain  80-130  2-2.5 g  0 g  0 mg  1 g  16-27 g  8-14 g
Oat, original  110-130  1.5-2.5 g  0 g  0 mg  4 g  24 g  19 g
Hazelnut, original  110  3.5 g  0 g  0 mg  2 g  18 g  14 g
Coconut, unsweetened  50  5 g  5 g  0 mg  1 g  1 g  0 g
Coconut, original  80  5 g  5 g  0 mg  1 g  7 g  6 g

Look for higher levels of protein, low (or no) added sugars, and added (fortified) vitamins and minerals that you find in cow's milk (30% DV calcium and about 25% DV vitamin D). Note that not all dairy alternatives are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, and the amount of these added nutrients varies from brand to brand, which is why these nutrients were omitted from this chart. This means that  not every brand of soy milk, for example, would be a nutritionally similar alternative to cow's milk. Be sure to read labels to find the nutrition profile that fits your needs, especially if calcium and vitamin D are important considerations for your diet.

This article has been reviewed and approved by Becky Hand, Licensed and Registered Dietitian, and Tanya Jolliffe, Healthy Eating Expert.

Source List:
http://www.goodkarmafoods.com
http://www.livingharvest.com
http://www.organicvalley.com
http://www.pacificfoods.com
http://www.purelydecadent.com
http://www.silksoymilk.com
http://www.tastethedream.com
http://www.westsoy.biz

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Member Comments

  • As a drinkable-use for cereal type of milk replacement, I find the Unsweetened Vanilla Hemp milk is both tasty, readibly available locally without having to purchase it somewhere special, and without additives which I avoid due to allergies.
  • I've found 2% milk, organic, works for me...more satisfying than skim and the fat helps curb my appetite. Usually I drink it after a workout.
  • I'm deathly allergic to dairy. Years and years ago I used to use MochaMix as an alternative although they are not truly non-dairy anymore because they are made in a place that still does dairy. I generally do Almond milk but it's gotten so hard to find locally so I end up with coconut milk from a company based out of Oregon (that also does a 100% non-dairy ice cream made from coconut milk too!).
  • Soy is my preferred alternative to cow's milk but soy does bad things to me if I eat too much. I need the protein though. I have never seen oat milk, I will have to look for it next time I am at Whole Foods or Trader Joe's.
  • I always buy unsweetened plain soy milk (Trader Joe's and Whole Foods have great, super cheap store brands) because I like the protein punch soy gives vs. the others. I sometimes worry about getting too much processed soy in my diet between this and tofu, though, so I try not to have soy every day.
  • PEACECHICKEN
    Good comparison, I can see how the choices would be daunting at first. I'm vegan and avoid milk mostly for ethical reasons (in addition to it being absolutely disgusting and full of chemicals, hormones, blood, pus, etc.) Vanilla unsweetened almond milk is my favorite, just as easy to find as soy milk, and often times cheaper than cow's milk.

    I do want to add one thing: vegans need to be careful with D-fortification because most products use D3, which is derived from animal skin. D2 is the plant-sourced version. D2 supplements are very cheap and alleviate the need to rely on fortified foods that probably use D3.

    We can thank the Big Ag dairy lobbyists for making people think cow's milk is a healthy and necessary staple in our diets. Once you research how unhealthy milk really is (HUGE contributor to cancer), you'll see cow's milk is NOT a high-standard food we should strive to duplicate. Thank goodness there are so many other truly healthy products we can consume instead.