Are Milk and Milk Substitutes Healthy? A Look at Your Options

The milk aisle is packed with options. Which is best for you? We’ve got the lowdown on 15 varieties of dairy, soy, nut, and seed milks.

milk selection
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Cow’s Milk: Skim

Grocery stores have more milk options than ever, including plant, nut, and seed versions you may not have heard of. Classic cow’s milk is a good source of three nutrients most Americans don’t get enough of: calcium, vitamin D, and potassium. Nonfat, or skim, is made by skimming the cream from whole milk. At about 90 calories and zero fat per cup, it’s a good option for milk drinkers trying to lose weight.

cows
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Cow’s Milk: 1% and 2%

All four types of cow’s milk (skim, 1%, 2%, and whole) have the same amount of protein, calcium, and vitamins. The difference is in calories and fat. A cup of 1% has 102 calories and 1.5 grams of saturated fat. A cup of 2% has 3.1 grams of saturated fat. Both have some of the creaminess that skim milk lacks. If you’re trying to switch to non-fat milk, you might start with these to adjust to the taste difference. They can also be good options for kids who need to drink less juice or soda.

baby holding bottle of milk
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Cow’s Milk: Whole

Whole milk, which is 3.5% milk fat, is closest to the liquid that comes out of the cow before processing. Who should drink it: Babies between 1 and 2 years old, whose growing brains need a higher-fat diet, and adults who could use more calories. If you just love the taste of whole milk, it’s OK to indulge. Pair it with a high-fiber cereal and then watch your saturated fats for the rest of the day.

woman drinking chocolate milk after workout
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Chocolate Milk

Besides being a kids’ favorite, chocolate milk may be a good post-workout recovery drink. There’s nothing special about the chocolate, though; flavored milks (strawberry and vanilla, too) have the ideal 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein the body needs for muscle recovery and rebuilding after exercise. These drinks have the same nutrients as regular milk, but they have added sugar.

lactose free milk and man holding stomach
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Lactose-Free Milk

Some people have trouble digesting lactose, the natural sugar in dairy foods. The problem, known as lactose intolerance, can cause bloating, gas, and diarrhea. But lactose-free milk has been treated, so it doesn’t cause those problems. It has the same nutrition as cow’s milk. But it tastes slightly sweeter because the lactose has been broken down into simple sugars.

goat
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Goat’s Milk

In the plus column, a cup of this drink has tons of protein — 9 grams per cup, the most of any milk. It’s also richer in calcium than skim, with 35% of what you need each day. The cons: It has 170 calories and 7 grams of saturated fat per cup, far more than whole cow’s milk. One study found that it had no clear nutritional advantage over cow’s milk, and if you’re allergic to cow’s milk, you’ll probably be allergic to this as well

soymilk and soy beans
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Soy Milk

Made from ground soybeans soaked in water, it’s a nutrition powerhouse: All the benefits of cow’s milk from a nonanimal source. A cup of calcium-fortified nonsweetened soy milk has about 6 grams of protein, 6 grams of carbohydrates, and 450 milligrams of calcium. (Flavored versions can be high in added sugars.) It’s a good option for vegans, people who are lactose intolerant, or those with a dairy allergy. But if you go for a milk substitute, make sure your choice is fortified with calcium and vitamin D.

almond milk
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Almond Milk

Made from ground almonds and filtered water, one cup of almond milk can have fewer than 30 calories while packing 450 milligrams of calcium. That’s more than most cheese, yogurt, and soy milk. Keep in mind that the benefits don’t come close to what you get from an ounce of raw almonds, which have far more protein, fiber, and healthy fats. But it can be a good choice for people on a low-sugar diet, those with a dairy or soy allergy, and vegans who don’t like soy milk.

brown rice
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Rice Milk

Rice milk has earned its place on the shelf as an easy-to-digest soy alternative that’s also nut- and gluten-free. It’s made from ground brown rice and water, and nutritionists recommend it for people with multiple food allergies. On the downside, a cup of unsweetened rice milk has no protein, and because it’s made from rice, it’s naturally high in carbohydrates.

cashews
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Cashew Milk

With a sweet and creamy flavor, cashew milk is a popular option for nondairy cream soups, dressings, and sauces. Close in texture to whole milk, it has fewer calories than skim. One cup of fortified unsweetened cashew milk has 25 calories per serving, zero sugar, and also has 50% more calcium than dairy milk.

macadamia nuts
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Macadamia Milk

Milk made from macadamia nuts is one more option for people on a plant-based diet. Like almond milk, a cup of it gives you 45% of your recommended daily calcium, but with about as much fat as 2% cow’s milk (5 grams per cup). Who should try it: Milk drinkers looking to avoid dairy, soy, and gluten.

coconut milk
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Coconut Milk

It’s not just for pina coladas and curries — coconut milk is everywhere these days. But know the differences: Canned coconut milk is the liquid expressed from coconut meat. With 12 grams of fat per cup, it’s the nondairy equal of heavy cream. It’s a great substitute in soups, puddings, and vegan ice cream. “Coconut milk beverage,” found in the refrigerated section, is watered down to lower the calories and fat. One cup has 45 calories and 4 grams of saturated fat.

hemp seed milk
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Hemp Seed Milk

Lovers of this drink say it’s thicker and creamier than soy milk, and not as grainy. Made from hemp seeds, a cup of unsweetened hemp milk is rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fats, and other nutrients. On the other hand, it has 80 calories per cup, which is higher than rice and almond milks. Another option for people who have multiple food allergies.

flaxseed milk
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Flax Seed Milk

It’s one of the newer milk substitutes to hit the shelves. It’s simply cold-pressed flax oil mixed with filtered water. At 25 calories per unsweetened cup, it’s much lower in calories than all the other milks on the shelf. Besides that, it boasts 1,200 milligrams of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Who should try it: Those looking for a dairy-free milk without the taste of soy or nuts.

almonds in water
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Buy or Make Your Own?

Basic nut and seed milks are fairly easy to make: Simply soak, blend, and drain. Commercially manufactured nut milks are typically fortified with vitamin D, calcium, and other nutrients to put them on par with dairy milk. On the other hand, manufacturers also add sweeteners, preservatives, and stabilizers you may not want.

Source: Are Milk and Milk Substitutes Healthy? A Look at Your Options

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