Which Milk is the Healthiest for You?

Which Type of Milk Is the Healthiest

Milk – It’s been a staple for humans since 10,000 BCE when nomadic herders decided to stop roaming and settle down. No doubt you grew up with it on your table. But have you noticed the new players in the milk game? The dairy case used to contain cow’s milk exclusively, but now you see an enormous variety of milk made from nuts, seeds, and grains. So, we thought you might be wondering which milk is the healthiest.

Simply put, the healthiest milk for your body depends on your taste preferences, unique goals, and nutrition requirements. So, whether you’re trying to eat more plant-based foods or need more protein, keep that in mind when you shop for the healthiest milk. But, let’s discuss the different kinds of milk and why you may want to drink them. 

Cow’s Milk

The pairing of milk with cereal has caused cow’s milk to be a breakfast staple for generations. You may remember back in the 1980s, the public campaign to drink more milk because it “did a body good.” The high protein, vitamin, and mineral content may indeed be beneficial to helping you build stronger bones and muscles, but cow’s milk may not be the right milk for everyone.

Pros

Cow’s milk contains 8 grams of protein per serving and is a source of potassium and calcium. Most cow’s milk is fortified with vitamins A and D to keep your bones healthy and support optimal growth. 

Are you concerned about the saturated fat in milk and wondering if it might increase your risk of heart disease? The latest research on the subject shows that fat in cow’s milk isn’t associated with heart disease development. Other dietary factors such as how much sugar, trans fat, and processed foods you eat are more indicative of heart disease risk. 

Cons

Cow's milk contains 80-150 calories per serving

If you are trying to lose weight, cow’s milk may not be your best option. It’s higher in calories and sugar than most unsweetened plant-based milk. It contains 80-150 calories per serving, depending on the fat content you choose, 12 grams of carbohydrate, and 5 grams of sugar per serving. 

You might have difficulty digesting one of the sugars found in cow’s milk, known as lactose. When you are young, your body produces an enzyme called lactase to help you digest lactose. As you age, oftentimes, your body makes less of the enzyme, and you can develop lactose intolerance. If you suffer from bloating, gas, or stomach cramps after drinking cow’s milk, you might have an intolerance. You’ll need to choose “lactose-free” milk with added lactase enzyme or try plant-based milk instead.  

You may have heard about the growth hormones, like rbST, given to cows to increase milk production. The FDA has stated there’s “no significant difference between milk from rbST-treated and non-rbST-treated cows,”  but if you’re concerned, you may want to consider organic milk that has been raised without the use of growth hormones. 

Plant-Based Milk

Plant varieties of milk have recently become more popular as they provide different tastes and nutrients than regular cow’s milk. In the last few years, milk alternatives have exploded on the market, giving you many more options to choose from.

You can find many varieties of plant-based milk, including almond, soy, or oat milk. Plant-based milk has different health benefits depending on the ingredients. These options are great if you are vegan, lactose-intolerant, or if you prefer the taste of alternative milk options. 

Nut Milk

Almonds, cashews, and macadamia nuts are commonly used to make milk. You can make nut milk at home by blending nuts with water then straining away the solids to create a creamy, flavorful liquid that’s similar to cow’s milk in appearance and texture. 

Commercial versions might contain extra ingredients such as vitamin D and calcium for fortification, or food additives like guar gum or carrageenan for improved texture or taste.

Nut milk is vegan and lactose-free but may not be suitable for you if you have nut allergies. 

Pros

Nut milk is much lower in carbohydrates and sugar than cow’s milk. Unsweetened varieties usually contain less than one gram of carbohydrate per serving and are free of sugar. You also save calories when swapping cow’s milk for nut milk. Unsweetened nut milk contains between 30-45 calories per serving. 

Almond milk provides extra fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin E, and store-bought nut milk is usually fortified with vitamins and minerals to help you reach your daily nutrient requirements. 

Cons

Nut milk is usually much lower in protein, containing around one gram of protein or less per serving. However, recently, new varieties on the market have added plant-protein from peas to help you get more protein from your plant-based milk.

Unsweetened nut milk contains 30-45 calories per serving

You must check the label when you purchase nut milk. Look for added sugars or other additives you may want to avoid. A glance at the ingredient list can help you avoid unwanted ingredients and make the best brand selection.

Soy Milk

Soy milk is one of the most popular milk alternatives because of its naturally sweet flavor and higher protein content. It’s made by combining soybean flour and water, so it’s not suitable for you to have a soy allergy. 

Pros

Soy milk contains nearly as much protein per serving as cow’s milk and has the highest protein content of all plant-based milk. Soy protein is a “complete protein,” meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids. If you are vegan, you may want to consider soy milk as a way to help you get more protein in your meals. 

Unsweetened soy milk is lower in carbohydrates than cow’s milk and contains healthy unsaturated fats and isoflavones that may benefit your heart. Soy milk is a natural source of vitamin A, potassium, and calcium. Fortified soy milk will provide additional calcium and vitamin D. 

Cons

Most of the soy in the U.S. is grown from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Although more research needs to be done on the long-term effects of GMO soy, you may want to stick to drinking organic varieties if you’re concerned. 

Like nut milk, many soy milk varieties contain sugar, emulsifiers, gums, or other additives to improve taste and texture. Read labels to help you make an informed purchase.

Hemp Milk

You can make hemp milk by blending hemp seeds with water. Don’t worry; hemp seeds don’t contain THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. You won’t get “high” or fail a drug test if you drink hemp milk. 

Pros 

Hemp seeds create milk rich in omega-3 fats, iron, vitamin E, and other beneficial nutrients. Hemp milk contains some protein (about 2-5 grams per serving, depending on the milk brand) and doesn’t contain any carbohydrates. The combination of healthy fats and protein can make hemp milk a filling beverage, a great option if you are trying to lose weight or eat fewer carbohydrates.

Cons

Hemp milk has a stronger flavor which you may not enjoy. If you don’t like the taste of hemp seeds, this milk may not be the best fit for you. 

Many varieties are sweetened with added sugars and other ingredients to mask the flavor. You might have a hard time finding an unsweetened variety of hemp milk without needing to make a special order at your store. 

Oat Milk

This recent addition to the milk market is a blend of oats and water, strained to create a smooth liquid. The oats can be raw or toasted before blending to give the milk a different flavor. 

Pros

Oat milk, like rice milk and other grain-based milk options, is terrific if you suffer from common allergies like nuts or soy. Oat milk has a fantastic, mild flavor making it a delicious addition to beverages and recipes. 

Cons

Oat milk is high in carbohydrates and low in protein, making it more caloric and less filling than many other milk options. It may not be a great choice if you are trying to lower your carbohydrate intake or who has blood sugar issues. 

Nearly all store-bought versions of oat milk contain added oil and sugar to improve taste and texture. It can be hard to find a brand that doesn’t contain additives. If you love the taste, you may want to consider making your own oat milk at home.  

Which Milk is for You?

If you’re still debating which milk you should try, consider this side-by-side comparison of fortified, unsweetened milk that you can find at the grocery store. 

Type*CaloriesCarbohydrateFatProteinVitamin DCalcium
Cow’s Milk90-150**12g0-5g8g25%20%
Almond Milk301g2.5g1g25%45%
Cashew Milk251g2g<1g25%45%
Soy Milk803g4g7g15%20%
Hemp Milk600g4.5g3g40%20%
Oat Milk607g3g1g15%35%
Rice Milk7011g2.5g0g25%25%

*These values will differ according to different brands and are averages of common, fortified, and unsweetened products found in the US. 

**Depending on fat content (skim, 1%, 2%, or whole milk) 

Which Milk is Most Beneficial?

The milk you choose should help you avoid allergies and intolerances, contain the balance of nutrients you need to support your goals, and of course, taste good. You may need to try a few different types or brands before you find your favorite, but with so many options on the market, you’re bound to find a milk that meets all your needs. 

Author's bio

Hayley Harris, RD

Hayley Harris, RD

Hayley is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, recipe developer, and nutrition coach. She writes killer nutrition content for websites including Recover Zone and KetoVale, and Whole Foods, Catalina Crunch, and Colours of Nature have featured her recipes. During her studies for a Bachelor of ...