A while back, milk used to just mean… milk. Nowadays, you can find numerous options at the grocery store. From cow's milk to vegan non-dairy milks, it seems like there are new products popping up every day. Some people may need to avoid certain milks due to allergies or intolerances, which is a positive of having so many options. However, for others, making a choice can feel a little overwhelming. Is one better than the other? Here we break down the nutrition of seven different kinds of popular milk, so you can see which best meets your goals.
1. Cow's Milk
Cow's milk is the original milk, if you will. Easily the most popular, cow's milk boasts nutrition that's tough to beat. Here is the nutrition for 1 cup of 2% cow's milk:
0g added sugar
309mg calcium (31% RDA)
1.3mcg vitamin B12 (54% RDA)
390mg potassium (9% RDA)
Cow's milk has a lot going for it from a nutrition perspective. It's packed with 8 grams of protein, or about 1/3 of your daily protein needs, and has ample carbs and fat, making it a well-rounded way to fuel your day or refuel after a workout. Plus, it's a great source of healthy nutrients like calcium, which helps keep your bones strong, and vitamin B12, which benefits your brain and helps keep your metabolism working at its best. It's also a good source of potassium, which keeps your blood pressure in check and your heart healthy.
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Most commercially-sold milk is fortified with vitamin D, which not only helps with calcium absorption, but also makes it possible for us to meet the recommended daily amount for vitamin D. Vitamin D is hard to come by, as it's only naturally present in eggs and fatty fish like salmon, so fortified foods like milk, other diary products and orange juice help us meet the mark.
While the sugar content might seem high, all of the sugar in milk is from naturally-occurring lactose and there are no added sugars in unflavored milk. It's also one of the most affordable milks in the store, especially if you choose conventional instead of organic milk. Not to mention, milk is the base of some of EatingWell's other favorite products like cheese and yogurt, which have impressive nutrition benefits of their own.
2. Soy Milk
If you're looking to go plant-based, soy milk is a popular milk alternative. Here is the nutrition for 1 cup of plain unsweetened soy milk:
0g added sugar
246mg calcium (25% RDA)
386mg potassium (9% RDA)
1mcg vitamin B12 (43% RDA)
Soy milk has a similar nutrition profile to cow's milk. It's high in protein and nutrients like calcium, vitamin B12 and potassium. Plain soy milk is lower in carbs than cow's milk, but flavored and sweetened versions are higher in carbs and contain added sugar for flavor. As a bonus, soy has been shown to help boost heart and brain health. While it might be a controversial topic when it comes to cancer, more research concludes that if you don't have estrogen-receptive cancer, which is primarily related to breast cancer in post-menopausal women, soy consumption poses very little risk and can even be helpful against certain types of cancer.
3. Almond Milk
While you may enjoy almonds as a crunchy snack, they can also be processed into a nutty milk beverage. Here is the nutrition for 1 cup of unsweetened almond milk:
0g added sugar
482mg calcium (48% RDA)
2.6mcg vitamin D (17% RDA)
Almond milk is typically fortified with nutrients like calcium and vitamin D to increase the nutritional value. Plus, these are nutrients that people following a vegetarian or vegan diet may have a hard time getting enough of. Otherwise, almond milk is low in calories, protein, carbs and fat. While it's not as filling or nutritious as cow's milk or soy milk, it's a lighter option for a milk alternative.
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4. Coconut Milk
While often used in cooking, you can find coconut milk beverages for drinking too. Here is the nutrition for 1 cup of coconut milk beverage:
2 grams sat fat
0g added sugar
1.5mcg vitamin B12 (62% RDA)
2.4mcg vitamin D (15% RDA)
Similar to almond milk, several coconut milk beverages are fortified with vitamin B12 and vitamin D to boost their nutrition. Coconut milk is slightly lower in calories than other milk alternatives, and also doesn't contain protein. It does however high slightly more fat than cow's milk and more saturated fat than other plant-based milk alternatives, due to the high fat content of coconuts. For this reason, coconut milk should be enjoyed as more of a flavor additive or in special circumstances rather than a primary milk choice. Coconut milk does have a desirable flavor that some prefer and is especially delicious in our Coconut-Blueberry Green Smoothie. Plus, it's nut-free and dairy-free.
5. Oat Milk
One of the newer products on the block, oat milk is taking on popularity quickly. Here is the nutrition for 1 cup of oat milk:
0g added sugar
350mg calcium (35% RDA)
400mg potassium (9% RDA)
0.2mcg vitamin B12 (10% RDA)
Many brands of oat milk are fortified with nutrients, similar to other milk alternatives. Oat milk is comparable in calories, fat and carbs to cow's milk and soy milk. It's slightly lower in protein, at 2 grams per cup, but higher than other milk alternative options. One notable thing about oat milk is that it contains 2 grams of fiber per cup, which can be helpful for someone trying to boost their intake. As a bonus, you can easily make your own oat milk from scratch (just note that it won't be fortified with the same nutrients as store-bought oat milk).
6. Hemp Milk
While hemp milk might not be as popular as some others, it is another milk alternative that is making its way into the spotlight. Here is the nutrition for 1 cup of hemp milk:
2g added sugar
1mg iron (7% RDA)
Unlike other non-dairy milk alternatives, hemp milk is not typically fortified with additional nutrients. For this reason, it has little to no calcium, potassium, vitamin B12 or vitamin D. It's a good source of iron, which can help with energy, and contains some fiber which can help with digestion. Hemp milk typically has a higher price point than cow's milk or other more popular milk alternatives, but it could be a good option for someone looking for something free of nuts or dairy.
7. Rice Milk
Rice milk is a grain-based beverage blended and strained to serve a similar purpose to milk. Here is the nutrition for 1 cup of unsweetened rice milk:
0g added sugar
20mg calcium (2% RDA)
0.4mg iron (2% RDA)
Rice milk is oftentimes fortified with nutrients to mimic the nutrition of cow's milk and include nutrients that are tougher to find in plant-based foods, like calcium and iron. While it's lower in protein than cow's milk or other milk alternatives, it's higher in carbs which can help give you an energy boost before activity. Also, it's naturally dairy-free and nut-free.
There are several options for milk and milk-alternatives out there, and the choice you make should reflect your own dietary preferences and any restrictions you may have. From a nutrition perspective, cow's milk is naturally high in protein and nutrients that support healthy bones and a healthy body. Soy milk is comparable to cow's milk in protein and nutrition. Other milk alternatives tend to be lower in calories and protein, but are often fortified by producers to boost their nutrition. For more, check out this buyer's guide to non-dairy milks.