Choosing among skim, low-fat, and whole used to be the only decision in the dairy aisle. Today, however, there’s a lot more to consider with the rising number of plant-based milk options as well as the growing demand for goat’s milk. Each type of milk, or dairy alternative, has its own benefits and drawbacks when you look at the ingredients, nutritional value, and how the product was sourced. It can be confusing and overwhelming to try to select what to pour into your coffee and over cereal.
First of all, if you have any allergies or sensitivities to dairy, nuts, or soy, be sure to avoid those options. Second, you may not like the flavor and consistency of certain milks, so definitely taste-test a few. You may want to try more than one brand or more than one milk type from the same brand because each is slightly different. For example, many nut milks come in unsweetened and unsweetened vanilla flavor, which can be naturally sweeter. Lastly, consider the nutrition facts and ingredients, which often—but not always—include added vitamins and minerals.
To make it easier for you, use the guide below, which shares the pros and cons of each option, as well as things to look out for since there is variation between each brand here too. There is no one best milk; what you ultimately choose is up to you. But this information can help make your decision easier when you hit the grocery store.
Pros: 8 grams of protein, plus contains calcium and is fortified with vitamins A and D
Cons: Not everyone can digest cow’s milk
Watch for: Choose whichever level of fat you prefer; any choice can be healthy and has been shown to help you lose weight, if that is your goal. Organic milk from grass-fed cows is best, as this milk contains fewer chemicals and more nutrition compared to conventional milk. Research has found that grass-fed milk contains more omega-3 fatty acids (good for your heart and brain; fights inflammation) and conjugated linoleic acid (another fatty acid that may have heart benefits).
Pros: ~ 9 grams of protein per cup; great source of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and added vitamin D; many people find goat milk to be easier to digest than cow’s milk
Cons: High in calories (about 170 per cup) and higher in fat
Watch for: Some brands are certified humane, which means goats receive a diet free of antibiotics or hormones, shelter from inclement weather, and other Humane Farm Animal Care standards.
These options aren’t actually milks, but water blended with nuts, legumes, or grains to simulate milk. For all plant-based options, always choose the unsweetened varieties to avoid unnecessary added sugars.
Pros: Low calorie, very low carb, low fat, typically fortified with with calcium and often vitamins A, D, and E
Cons: Low protein
Watch for: You can find some higher-calorie, higher-protein versions made without any stabilizers. However, these also do not add vitamins or minerals, so if you are used to getting calcium, and vitamins A and D from milk, you may need to adjust your diet or consider a supplement.
Pros: The lowest calorie option, low fat, very low carb, typically fortified with calcium and, often, vitamins A and D
Cons: Low protein
Watch for: There are also higher-calorie options that are not fortified. Many folks find cashew milk to be a bit creamer and thicker than almond milk.
Pros: Fortified with calcium and vitamins A and D, as well as B12, a nutrient found almost exclusively in animal products, so vegans may prefer oat milk for this reason
Cons: High in calories (120 per cup) and carbs
Watch for: An increasingly popular option in coffee shops, the main brand of oat milk sold in the U.S. is made from gluten-free oats, so no worries if you cannot tolerate gluten.
Pros: Very low carb, typically fortified with calcium and vitamins A and D, and some brands also add vitamin B12
Cons: Low in protein
Watch for: Although the fat in coconut milk is mostly saturated fat, studies have found that it may help boost “good” HDL cholesterol. Still, coconut products should be consumed in moderation.
Pros: Highest in protein of all options, a compete protein
Cons: Slightly higher in calories
Watch for: Be sure to buy organic soy to avoid GMOs. However, most organic options are not fortified, so be mindful of the rest of your diet if you typically rely on your milk for certain nutrients. If you are allergic or cannot digest soy, of course, choose another milk. Also, avoid soy if you have an estrogen-sensitive cancer. There is some research suggesting that consuming soy may encourage the growth of these cancers.
Pros: Very low carb, a source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, and most are fortified with calcium and vitamin D
Cons: Slightly high in calories and very low in protein
Watch for: Although hemp is a complete protein, because plant-based milks are made with a high ratio of water to the main ingredient, hemp milk is actually low in protein, with 2 or 3 grams per cup. Hemp also has an acquired taste.
Pros: Low fat
Cons: Low in protein and high in calories (120 to 130 per cup) and carbs (this offers the highest carb count of all milk types)
Watch for: Some brands are fortified, but not all.