breaking it down: milk alternatives

milk cream coffee pour barista

Hello, friends! Today we’re back to discuss another staple in most kitchens — milk! But we’re going to focus on the non-dairy options / alternatives that have been flying off the shelves lately.

Let’s start with the original: straight up cow’s milk. Most of us associate milk with calcium and vitamin D which are both essential for bone health. Calcium from dairy products are more efficiently absorbed than from plant sources such as spinach, beans, broccoli, etc. You would have to eat a whole lot of kale to compete with the calcium from a glass of milk. Also, all milk is fortified with vitamin D, not just whole milk which is often also referred to as “Vitamin D Milk.” It’s confusing, I know.

Cow’s milk also provides about 8 grams of protein per cup, regardless of the milk fat percentage. Speaking of which, milk is not simply “watered down” to create skim or 1% varieties — even if you think that’s what it tastes like! 😉

Instead, they skim the fat, or cream portion, out of the milk to add back in the appropriate quantity for the percentage they are producing (e.g. 1%, 2%). Then they move on to the homogenization (thoroughly mixing so it doesn’t separate) and pasteurization (kills harmful bacteria via heat) processes.

dairy cow pasture grass

Alright, so I gave you a bit of a background on cow’s milk, now let’s get to a quick comparison of the alternative, non-dairy milks on the market. For most of these alternative milks, the name pretty much says exactly what it is. They are almost all made via processes such as soaking / boiling / extracting the fluid from the original product.

Another thing to note is that all of these milk alternatives are also fortified with vitamin D and calcium (among other nutrients). So, in that regard, they are still covering those two aspects of bone health similar to cow’s milk. The calcium added to the beverages may be less bioavailable than the naturally occurring calcium in cow’s milk. However, many products claim to have “ ‘x’ times more calcium than cow’s milk” on their packages which may help close the gap in bioavailability differences.

Many milk alternatives boast being “cholesterol-free,” I talk a bit about why we don’t need to worry so much about dietary cholesterol as we used to think in this post.

Soy Milk

For starters, the estrogen in soy products will not alter male bodies to look more feminine nor will it cause breast cancer in women. Moving on. 😉 Soy milk is the only milk alternative that even comes close to matching cow’s milk in the protein department as it also has 8 grams per cup.

soy milk soybeans glass

Almond / Cashew / Nut Milks

Compared to both soy and cow’s milk, these nut milks have significantly less protein, coming in at about 2 grams per cup. They are also very low in fat, actually also low in carbohydrates as well. The nut milks are typically marketed as a low-calorie beverage, however, we know that “low calorie” does not equal “better” or “healthier.” In this case, as a fellow RD once said, they are basically fortified water. There’s not too much energy in there to keep us full or satisfied for long periods of time. Doesn’t mean there’s not room for it in our cereal or coffee, etc., but you want to keep in mind that you may need to add something else to your meal/snack to make up for the missing protein/fat in the beverage.

Also worth noting, there are recipes out there to make your own nut milk at home which looks really fun, but keep in mind that the homemade varieties are not 100% equivalent to store-bought as you will be lacking the fortification we discussed above. You just won’t be able to rely on homemade nut milks for calcium or vitamin D.

Coconut Milk

As with nut milks, coconut is very low on the protein front, as well as the carbohydrates. However, it is primarily fat which may help keeps us satiated for a bit longer than some nut milks. A majority of this fat is saturated, which you can brush up on here. In short, there’s room for some saturated fat in our diet, but not as our primary source of fats overall. Coconut milk is also the most strongly flavored, so whatever you add it to will likely taste somewhat tropical!

milk soy almond homemade jar

Rice / Oat Milk

Right off the bat, this milk is different from other because they are derived from grains rather than nuts or seeds. With that comes a much lower fat + protein content, actually usually <1 gram of protein per cup. These grain milks are primarily carbohydrates, and even the unsweetened varieties tend to taste on the sweeter side so keep that in mind if you are planning to use them in savory dishes.

Drinking a glass of rice or oat milk by itself may provide some quick energy, but won’t necessarily keep us satiated for long periods of time. This option is usually best suited for those with multiple allergies preventing them from consuming another variety of milk.

Lactose-Free Milk

Nutritionally speaking, lactose-free milks are the same as cow’s milk because it is cow’s milk, making this option a little different than the non-dairy alternatives listed above. Someone with lactose-intolerance may not produce enough lactase enzymes to break down lactose.

However, lactose-free milk has the enzyme added beforehand so the lactose has already been broken down before we even take a sip. Lactose is broken into its smaller components, galactose and glucose, as would normally happen in our body with sufficient lactase activity. This helps those struggling to digest lactose to have fewer, if any, symptoms after consumption.

cereal bowl oat cheerios milk

Which should we pick?

That’s going to be pretty individual to your taste buds, budget, medical conditions, and dietary needs. All milk alternatives tend to be pretty pricey in comparison to cow’s milk so that’s something to take note of since as know these fancier milks are not a requirement for good health.

If you’re a vegetarian looking for additional sources of protein, opting for soy milk or cow’s milk might be your best bet. Or if you just love the taste and consistency of almond milk, cashew milk, or whatever other nut milk they’re coming up with these days, go for it!

I grew up really disliking the taste of cow’s milk so I typically go for soy or nut milk depending on my mood + whichever is on sale! But you do what’s right for you and your cereal. 🙂


Let’s chat.

Trivia question: Why are most milk cartons opaque instead of clear?

You may also like


        1. I wish I had a prize to give ya! 😉
          It’s riboflavin (Vitamin B2) as well as some Vitamin A & C that can be degraded in the light. 🙂

    1. Thank you! Great guess!
      It’s riboflavin (Vitamin B2) as well as some Vitamin A & C that can be degraded in the light. 🙂

Leave a Reply