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 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 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 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 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 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 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.
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.
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.