Milk Comparison: 4 Plant-based milks compared to dairy

cashew milk surrounded by cashew nuts
October 2, 2017
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.

The array of alternatives to dairy milk isn’t just the result of consumer demand from people with lactose intolerance. People like dairy-free milks for their differences in taste and nutritional content. While the variety is a good thing, it can also overwhelm consumers who know little about this growing list of plant-based milk. I’m here to break down the pros and cons of popular varieties of milk—almond, coconut, soy, rice, and cow—to help you decide which milk is best for you.

Almond Milk

What it is: Almond milk isn’t “milk” by traditional definition but it’s called milk because of its texture, color, and taste. In its truest form, almond milk is made from almonds and water. As a result, it has a very distinct nutty flavor and all the natural nutritional benefits of almonds—calcium, potassium, protein, and fiber.

Pros & Cons: Compared to cow milk, almond milk is usually lower in calories and has more vitamin E and calcium. However, its protein content is lower than most other types of milk.

Things to Watch Out For: Like the rest of the milks on this list, look out for added sweeteners, preservatives, and artificial ingredients. Those significantly bump up the carb and calorie content to the point where the milk may have more sugars and carbs than dairy milk.

Thankfully, it’s easy to avoid these additives when you make your own almond milk, which is also easy. Adding natural extracts or unsweetened cocoa powder can give it a little more flavor, but I think the natural nuttiness is great in and of itself.

Coconut Milk

What it is: Coconut meat is dense, creamy, and fatty. Pure, undiluted coconut milk is what you get when you squeeze coconut meat. And it packs a caloric wallop! One cup of undiluted coconut milk contains about 450 calories and 48 grams of fat. What you see in grocery stores is a diluted version of coconut milk with water added. Though diluted, it’s still typically higher in fat and calories compared to other dairy milk alternatives.

Pros & Cons: Coconut milk lacks the nutritional content of other milks while containing a higher amount of calories and fat. It’s best when used in soups and curries because it’s a meatless, dairy-free, and gluten-free way to add a lot of flavor and natural thickness.

Things to Watch Out For: Coconuts are naturally sweet, so why sweeteners are added to coconut milk is beyond me. Also look out for other added additives such as carrageenan, a thickening agent that has been linked to inflammation, cancer, and diabetes. As an aside, carrageenan used to be considered an organic food until the USDA removed that distinction in November 2016. That just goes to show you that while going organic is healthy, there is still a lot to learn about what is organic and healthy organic.

Rice Milk

What it is: In its purest form, rice milk is made from boiling rice and adding brown rice syrup and brown rice starch. Of course, manufacturers add sweeteners, flavors, and thickening agents to give it a wider commercial appeal. It’s often a staple of vegetarian and vegan diets because it contains no animal products or by-products.

Pros & Cons: Rice milk has a lot of nutrients and vitamins not found in dairy milk—niacin, vitamin B-6, iron, copper, and magnesium. On the other hand, it is nearly devoid of calcium (unless added) and protein. And since it’s made from a grain, it’s high in carbs (i.e. sugar). An 8-ounce serving has about 110 calories and 22 grams of carbohydrates.

Things to Watch Out For: A typical health food store should stock a fortified rice milk that does not have a lot of additives. But the same can’t be said for a common grocery store, where shelf space is a premium. There, it may be difficult to find rice milk in its purest form so you’ll have to watch out for added flavors, especially artificial ones. By itself, rice milk is a high-sugar beverage, and added flavors and sweeteners just add more sugars and carbs.

Soy Milk

What it is: Soy milk is made by grinding soaked soybeans in water. It is the most popular non-dairy milk alternative. Soybeans are not very nutrient rich, so as a result most soy milks are fortified with calcium and other essential vitamins and minerals.

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Pros & Cons: Soy is naturally cholesterol free, low in fat, and high in protein. When fortified, it’s the closest nutritional match to dairy milk. It also has a long shelf life, so if you’ve bought a carton and haven’t opened it before a vacation it will still be good when you get back—even if it’s 6 weeks later! But because soy is widely farmed, most cartons of soy milk contain GMOs.

Things to Watch Out For: Because soy is the most popular dairy-free milk, there is usually a variety of soy milks to choose from—sweetened, unsweetened, flavored, organic, etc. Sweetened and flavored soy milk will have more carbs and calories than unsweetened. Look for unsweetened, organic, non-GMO soy milk.

Cow Milk

What it is: I would hope that you know what cow milk is!

Pros & Cons: Cow milk sets the bar—taste, texture, and nutrition—that all dairy-free alternatives attempt to clear. And much of that nutrition comes naturally. The same can be said for the sugar and carbs, which makes milk a high-calorie drink. For the most part, those calories are not nutrient-dense. I just don’t recommend drinking milk with every meal because that will add another 300 to 500 calories a day depending on the type of milk. Most of the cow milk on the grocery shelf comes from cows injected with hormones. Just as likely, these cows graze on GMO grains that have been treated with pesticides. As a result, those hormones, pesticides, and other synthetic chemical compounds trickle-down and the milk the cow produces could have traces of them.

Things to Watch Out For: Avoid skim and GMO milk. It’s best to drink organic, full-fat milk for a couple reasons. First, organic milk comes from “organic” cows, meaning the cows have never been given growth hormones. And these organic cows live on organic farms—no pesticides in the grass that cows are grazing on. Second, the more fat that is present in your milk, the better buffer you have against its sugar and carb content. Also, the fat allows the body to absorb key nutrients—vitamin D and calcium—better than with skim milk.

 

Key Points to Remember

A recent study found that 7% of American adults actually think that chocolate comes from brown cows. That’s more than 14 million people! This study points to a bigger concern to that study that relates to many things I’ve already mentioned in this article and previous articles. I think society is becoming ignorant of its food supply—where it comes from, how it’s made, how it’s processed, how it’s shipped and stored, nutritional content, etc.

This isn’t just about supporting local, organic farmers. It’s about knowing what is in our food before that food goes into our bodies. As the saying goes, we are what we eat. I don’t want to be stuffed to the gills with artificial chemicals and additives.

As far as milk and milk alternatives go, your focus should be on overall nutritional benefits. Those benefits vary between the types of milk listed above, and also the brands of milk. For example, one almond milk will have more or less nutritional benefits than the other. As a general rule, avoid added sugars and flavors and choose organic, non-GMO milks.

And of course, you don’t have to drink just one milk. For example, I normally drink almond milk but put real cream in my coffee.

Bottom line: All varieties of milk have valuable nutritional benefits and I encourage you to be a milk drinker. But just as importantly, I want you to be a label reader.

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