The Good Guide to Milk: Cow, Soy, Nuts & More


If you’ve considered ditching dairy, the good news is, you aren’t short on options. Take a trip down the “milk” aisle at your grocery store, and you’ll see products made from nuts, seeds, beans, and grains. Whether you’re dealing with allergies or intolerances, or exploring a plant-based diet, you’ve actually got plenty to choose from. The not-so-good news? Not all of them offer the same level of nutrition.

Non-dairy milks are generally made by soaking the nut, seed, bean, or grain in water, then pulverizing it, mixing in lots of water, and adding sugar and a touch of salt. Manufacturers also typically add vitamins, minerals, and sometimes plant protein to boost the nutritional benefits. Thickeners, emulsifiers, and flavors are also added to create a consistently creamy beverage.

To help you make the best choice for your fridge and your family, here’s the lowdown on the myriad of milks out there.

Cow’s Milk

Classic cow’s milk still delivers the most nutritional punch. It provides 8 grams of protein per cup, and high-quality vitamins and minerals, especially calcium, with zero added sugar. Most of the confusion is around which level of fat to choose. It depends how much you’re drinking. Whole milk is higher in calories and saturated fat compared to skim or 1 percent milk, which matters. If you’re only adding a dash to your morning coffee, full fat won’t kill you. But if you’re having more than that, low- or nonfat are the way to go. Skim milk isn’t highly processed, (the fat is simply spun off in a separator), and it’s more than just “sugar water” (remember that protein?).

If you’ve been avoiding cow’s milk because of intolerance issues, you could give A2 milk a try. It has a slightly different type of protein, which some people, who believe they have lactose intolerance, can tolerate better.

Soy Milk

Soy is second best: Of all the alternatives, fortified, unsweetened soy milk comes the closest nutritionally to cow’s milk. It’s high in protein (6 grams per cup), with all the same vitamins and minerals added in, except without the saturated fat or lactose. Soy also naturally contains antioxidants with anti-inflammatory properties, which may help protect you against heart disease and cancer.

Some highly-publicized research on rats has linked soy to infertility and hormone-related cancers. But we now know, those effects aren’t seen in humans, and strong evidence suggests soy is safe as part of a healthy diet.

Almond Milk

Almond milk is more popular than soy milk these days, showing up in coffee shops around the globe. It’s a good source of vitamin E, but besides that, this nutty “milk” isn’t as healthy as you might think. During processing, most of the pulp is removed, leaving mainly water and a bit of sugar behind. It’s lower in calories than cow’s milk, but it’s lacking in protein—so it won’t fill you up for long. It also takes a lot of water to produce an almond—1 gallon per nut. Cow’s milk doesn’t fare much better, but when you consider what you get nutritionally, say grams of protein, for that water cost—23 gallons per gram for almond milk versus less than 4 gallons per gram for cow’s milk—it becomes clear, you’re paying a lot for sugar water.

Cashew Milk

A relatively new addition to the nut milk family, cashew milk is similar to almond milk in terms of nutrition, with just slightly more sugar. So if you’re looking to mix up your flavors, give cashew milk a swirl in your smoothie. It’s also easy to make cashew milk at home, as all you need is a blender, and you don’t have to strain it (like almond milk). Take note: Your homemade version will provide more protein, fiber, and some minerals (though not calcium and potassium), than the store-bought variety, but also more calories and fat.

Coconut Milk

Everything coconut is trending these days, with new products popping up all the time. An interesting new addition is drinkable coconut milk. Before, if a recipe called for coconut milk, you’d need to reach for a can, which is loaded with calories and almost eight times more saturated fat per cup than whole milk. Now, there are also cartons in the dairy case, which can be poured and sipped like any other milk. Glass for glass, it delivers the same amount of saturated fat as whole milk, and half the calories. Should you be adding it to your morning smoothie, or requesting it at your local coffee spot? Maybe not. If you’re vegan, your diet is very likely low in saturated fat, so a bit of coconut milk probably won’t send your cholesterol skyrocketing, but it won’t do you an favors when it comes to protein. On the other hand, if you’re a meat eater, chances are you would do well to avoid the extra 5 grams of saturated fat per cup, so stick to skim in your latte, and save this one for the occasional curry.

Hemp Milk

You may not be familiar with hemp milk, but it’s a welcome new option. Made from hulled hemp seeds, it contains more protein than nut milks, though not by much—2 grams per cup. What’s interesting, however, is that it does offer some omega-3s. It’s also very easy to make at home, and is a tasty new way to get good fats and plant protein into your diet.

No matter which type of milk you grab in the dairy aisle, go for original or unsweetened. Flavored varieties are super tasty, but also loaded with extra sugar. Making your own non-dairy milk at home is a great way to avoid the additives that manufacturers throw in, but you’ll also be missing out on the vitamins and minerals they add in. So if you’re skipping cow’s milk, make sure you’re getting that good stuff, particularly calcium, from other sources.

76 Comments   Join the Conversation

76 CommentsLeave a comment

    • Agreed! I’m not even sure why dairy is number 1 here. Protein isn’t EVERYTHING and if soy hasn’t got the saturated fat or the lactose then why isn’t that number 1?

      Can you shed some light Tracy?

    • Cow’s milk is a product that is high in nutrition and has multiple forms (cheese, yogurt, butter, ice cream), and a large number of uses. Impoverished cultures make use of every food source, and drop the distasteful ones as they get wealthier. Milk’s myriad uses made it too valuable to drop.

      • Cow’s milk is laced with natural hormones (59 to be exact) that are designed for baby cows, NOT humans.

        The article ignores the hormones, pus and glue, which IS the protein in bovine milk – precisely what you want to avoid.

  • Tracy, don’t forget pea milk! I’m not affiliated with Ripple Foods but their milk is nutritious AND delicious. It tastes creamy, not watery like almond milk can. It also has waaay more protein. I could on, but their website does a nice job. Check it out. In my area (Naperville, IL) Ripple is available at Whole Foods, Target, and just rolling out to Meijers. Enjoy!

  • I drink soy when I was growing up I got dermatitis they say it was from the sap of the grass,so I changed to soy and went off wheat products now I am dermatitis free. When I eat wheat or drink normal milk I break out in it again,so I have to be careful

  • Consumption of dairy products has been linked to higher risk for various cancers, especially to cancers of the reproductive system. Most significantly, dairy product consumption has been linked to increased risk for prostate and breast cancers.

    The danger of dairy product consumption as it relates to prostate and breast cancers is most likely related to increases in insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), which is found in cow’s milk. Consumption of milk and dairy products on a regular basis has been shown to increase circulating levels of IGF-1 Perhaps the most convincing association between IGF-1 levels and cancer risk is seen in studies of prostate cancer. Case-control studies in diverse populations have shown a strong and consistent association between serum IGF-1 concentrations and prostate cancer risk. One study showed that men with the highest levels of IGF-1 had more than four times the risk of prostate cancer, compared with those who had the lowest levels.26 In the Physicians Health Study, tracking 21,660 participants for 28 years, researchers found an increased risk of prostate cancer for those who consumed ≥2.5 servings of dairy products per day as compared with those who consumed ≤0.5 servings a day.19 This study, which is supported by other findings, also shows that prostate cancer risk was elevated with increased consumption of low-fat milk, suggesting that too much dairy calcium, and not just the fat associated with dairy products, could be a potential threat to prostate health.

    • Hi Michael, your comment sounds very authoritative, but if you are going to post anything other than your opinion, please cite your sources. Providing this information without giving the rest of us the info we need to track down the studies and make up our own minds is a disservice.

      • Lin, if you need sources for any facts on bovine milk, just go to There you will find all kinds of sources for all the stuff Michael and others here are talking about, which, by the way, is NOT opinion, but FACT., besides providing all kinds of science-based facts and sources, also provides links to pro-dairy sites. Now there, you can find some opinions, (along with some junk science)!

    • Michael, thank you- yours was the best answer I was looking for so far.. I’m searching for a safe solution as I’m a high risk for Breast cancer (but brca mutation negative). I also have a nut allergy. Coconut hasn’t proven to be an option yet as we’re still trying to figure out if my body identifies it as a nut.
      Any suggestions for an alternate? Goat milk? Rice milk?

  • Australian research shows that those who drink whole milk live longer than those who drink low fat milk. I guess you don’t have any comparative data for the trendy milks. And, for those who think milk is only for calves I and my ancestors lived and worked alongside cattle for centuries drinking the milk and eating the meat. Other cultures adopted different patterns according to the food chain. That we are still alive and well as a gene pool is encouraging.

    • Look at the china study, you will find that you are not as healthy as you could be. I bet you have family members who have died of cancer, I too have cancer in my family and they all drink dairy and eat red meats.

  • I’ve recently changed to Almond Milk. In honesty, (for me) nothing tastes as good as good old cow’s milk, but the sugar benefits are in favour of Almond. What I would say is that you absolutely have to read the label as there is massive variance in sugar content. I’ve seen as low as 0.6g of sugar per 250ml all the way up to 14g per 250ml! This is especially important if your primary goal is to lower sugar and carb intake.

  • If you’re going to be addressing the use of water when it comes to making milk – and having it appear as if almond milk uses more water to produce than cow’s milk, you’re doing everyone a disservice. If mentioning water consumption to make a gallon/litre of a product, you should be taking into consideration the water consumption from the beginning of the journey.

    i.e. the amount of water used to produce a gallon of cows milk should be taken into consideration – the water consumed watering crops to feed the cows, water the cow drinks per day (which is around 30-50 gallons PER DAY), water used to maintain the land the cows are on, all the water used to impregnate the cow, rear the calf and take it away so she can produce milk for humans, plus the water used in processing the milk!

      • Guess I should have said if I can buy it on the shelf next to cow milk bottles
        what are the health benefits if any; have tried buffalo yogurt as well its more expensive, it doesn’t mention lactose on the packaging ! thanks Penny

  • A good method of making much more nutritious almond milk than the commercially bought one is to make it yourself! It’s really easy. Nut milk bags are easy to buy, especially online, and do a great job. You can control how much almond is in each batch you make and you can squeeze the bag for added almond in the milk. You will need an efficient high speed blender. Here’s a YouTube video that shows how easy it is to make

  • Casein is a concern because this protein causes inflammation in humans and should be avoided. This is good for baby cows not for humans. Inflammation is not good. So many comprehensive studies about this you can reference.

  • Soy milk is awful for you. It is all GMO and highly processed.
    If you cant drink milk, Coconut and then Almond are the alternatives.
    Neither one will raise your cholesterol. Maybe some research on what really raises cholesterol would be a good idea.

  • Hi All,
    I’ve invested in a VitaMix, its a very highpowered blender. I do not strain out any pulp. I like the creaminess that it provides.
    I enjoy the Almond Milk I make because I use only natural sweeteners (dates) Coconut and unprocessed almonds. I don’t know the calorie count but it’s pretty low.
    Normal (not really natural, unless Raw) has been boiled / pasteurized milk while safe has to add back artificial vitamins and minerals to bring it up to good standards. Sorry didn’t mean to go off on tangent.
    But I try to eat mostly natural and low to no processing to the foods I eat and drink.
    just my 2 cents.

  • This article is terrible and not factually sound. It assumes that Cow’s milk is the best out of all of the milk options which is just plain wrong. Also, there have been numerous articles linking soy to cancer…not just that, but soy has toxins in it that aren’t good for the body due to the fact that almost 95% of the soy crops in the US are GMO…
    A health conscious consumer definitely should check other sources before listening to this article.

  • It would be interesting to throw goat’s milk into the comparitive which is consumed by many cultures around the world instead of cow’s milk.

    It is higher in protein and fat, lower in lactose and doesn’t contain the protein casein (the primary component of Elmer’s Glue). It also is more digestible than cow’s milk. Other nutritional components are comparable to cow’s milk.

  • I come from a long line of farmers, so I appreciate the power of cow’s milk. It IS your refrigerator’s secret weapon for satisfying all your daily nutritional requirements, curbing your hunger and is the most natural of all the products. In my book, it destroys other drink competitors!

  • Farm raised cows are completely different compared to the industrial livestock production most of us buy from. So do your research! Read labels.

  • Well thank you! I was feeling guilty for loving cow’s milk so much that I’ve been trying to give it up in favor of an almond/coconut mix. So I buy it and there it sits! It’s ok in my smoothies, but can’t really drink it alone. This article makes me feel so much better in that I don’t need to give up my cow’s milk. My dr. also told me if that’s what I prefer, then go ahead and use it. It’s not like I drink it everyday. And nice to know how it compares with the other type of products.

  • I wish more producers were aware that soy is off limits for some of us who have had certain type of breast cancer. Soy is in everything these days as a filler and there is a need to read labels diligently–and often found in tiny print.

  • I love that you deduced your information from real scientific evidence, and included links to the science. Awesome article.

  • A good read. Thanks for all the good information. I am a cow drinker, just to let the other people know.

  • I avoid cow’s milk at all cost, I just don’t like what is done to the animals let alone what’s in it…ie puss, hormones, and antibiotics. I absolutely love some of the comments on here regarding water usage, protein, and cancer causing agents! Bravo people:) It’s not always about protein or sugars for all of us, for me it’s about our future and I feel that what is happening around the beef industry and in agriculture needs to change. I choose to make my own nut milks at times and purchase a variety of organic nut milks from the grocer. It’s a personal choice but I feel good about it and lets face it, is there anything tastier than chocolate almond milk??!!

  • Tracy – thank you for the wonderful information. I LOVE cows milk and have been confused with all the other substitutes. Thank goodness the product I enjoy is best for me and my body!

  • Some time ago, Dr. Oz recommended taking coconut oil as a fighter against alzheimer disease. After reading the article on
    the different milks, I now question this, especially seeing how much aaturated fats are in coconit oil.

  • Wow! I’m an alternative milk drinker but kids drink cow’s milk (can’t convert them and looks like that’s ok) and this article was super helpful and informative. It motivates me to make more of an effort to make my milks at home from seeds and nuts. Got the special milk bag and everything.

  • I appreciate all these comments and will keep following. There are so many products out there. This conversation is greatly informative.

  • Casein, which is the primary protein in cow’s milk, has been proven to promote the proliferation of prostate cancer cells.

    Any article written today about milk should make people aware of the growing body of research and evidence that is showing a direct link between milk (and other dairy products) and the promotion of diseases like prostate cancer.

    Background reading for those interested:

    For all of our health.

  • If cow’s milk has no added sugar, why do the labels say “12 g sugar (Promised Land milk) or “20 g sugar” for some other brands?

  • I have been using ‘soy’ milk for several years. I have a slight intolerance to dairy. I prefer to drink 8th Continent, Light Vanilla, However it is very difficult to find. So I drink the Silk light soy.
    Also, I was happy to find that Silk makes a coffee creamer, both flavored and original. This product’s nutrition: 1T = 1 WW pt., 1T = 30 calories, 3 sugar g’s, 0.5 Sat Fat g’s.

  • I have been a student of “health” of many years. Cows milk is very different than a human mother’s milk in that there is less protein (we grow slower). A calf is born at about 80 labs and in a year can weigh in at 200 + lbs.
    Since we grow slowly we need less protein and not from flesh foods. Horses, deer, elephants an many more have enormous strength and muscles while on a plant based diet. Our body needs 4 or 5 basic amino acids to create the many different forms of protein needed. The veggies, fruits and nuts provide the amino acids in abundance. As an adult, we are not growing and need just a tiny bit to do maintenance and repair. No one has ever died from having too little protein inter diet – however, too few calories – yes!
    We are pretty much held hostage to a money based health system an dour heritage will drive our lifestyle. Time to rethink that . . .

  • So instead of taking about which milk is better – find an alternative source – calcium is easily obtained from all veggies and is more easily absorbed.
    Only one animal drinks milk after it is weaned from it’s mother – take a guess!

    Elephants, horses, and cows to name a few have large strong bones and where is the calcium in their food supply? Plants process the calcium a bit and then we can absorb it easily. But business practice dictate what we should do – right? I was raised on a dairy farm and had loads of cavities. Since going vegetarian my dental bills have dropped to the yearly cleaning.

  • My comment will be “moderated” before it sees the light of day?! I see that on my latest comment – so incase it doesn’t agree with the dietician it gets “moderated” – sweet!

  • To me it is really sad though that goats milk is not mentioned as an alternative. Lactose intolerant people can drink goats milk without the issues cow’s milk causes.

  • A very fair and balanced review of milk options. Agree that goat milk would have been a good addition, but sadly it is harder to find than most on the list. I was surprised by the naysayers, but as usual for the nutrition advice from Fitbit, spot on.

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