Not too long ago, when being a milkman was a career option, the only thing you could expect to drown your cereal in was whole cow’s milk. Now, dairy milk comes in all sorts of varieties: whole milk, 2 percent, 1 percent, skim (fat-free), and even lactose-free milk.

What's your favorite kind of milk? »

For those with dietary or allergy concerns, there are also alternatives to cow's milk. Almond, soy, and rice milk are popular alternatives to dairy, and they’re becoming even more available in stores across the U.S.

Each type of milk has its advantages and disadvantages, depending on a person’s diet, health, nutritional needs, or personal taste preferences.

For example, people in key development years — children over two, teens, and pregnant women — need proteins, vitamin D, and calcium. These are abundant in dairy milk. On the other hand, people who need to watch their calories or cholesterol — for weight reasons or heart health problems — should look to other options. Whole dairy milk contains more calories and cholesterol than any other milk.

In looking at the differences in these popular types of milks, you can determine which best suits your needs.

Dairy Milk

Dairy Milk

Whole milk is cow's milk with none of the fat removed. It contains 8 grams of fat per cup, 8.5 percent nonfat milk solids, and 88 percent water. As none of the milk’s natural components are removed, it is high in natural proteins, fat, calcium, and vitamin D.

Other dairy milk has some or all of the fat removed. While whole milk has 150 calories in one cup, 1 percent milk has 110 calories, and skim milk has just 80 calories. Fat-free milk has all of the nutritional benefits of whole milk — a good source of protein, calcium, vitamins, and minerals — without the saturated fat and calories. Dietitians often recommend skim milk for the majority of their clients.

Lactose-free milk is processed to break down lactose, a natural sugar found in milk products. As with other milks, lactose-free milk is a good source of protein, calcium, vitamins, and minerals. The fat and cholesterol content of lactose-free milk varies, as it comes in 2 percent, 1 percent, and fat-free varieties.

The 3 Best Things About Dairy Milk

  1. Whole milk can provide essential proteins and extra calories from fats, as well as vitamins and minerals for infants and the elderly.
  2. Lactose-free versions are available for people who are lactose intolerance.
  3. Widely available in grocery stores and convenience stores.

Con: Those that are not fat-free are high in saturated fat and calories, which is bad news for people with heart problems, high cholesterol, or those who are trying to lose weight.

Almond Milk

Almond Milk

Almond milk is made from ground almonds and is lower in calories than other milks as long as it is unsweetened. It’s also free of cholesterol, saturated fat, and is naturally lactose free. Even though almonds are a good source of protein, almond milk is not. Almond milk is also not a good source of calcium. However, many of the brands available in the market are supplemented with calcium as well as vitamin D.

The 3 Best Things About Almond Milk

  1. It’s low in calories and contains no saturated fat or cholesterol.
  2. It’s good source of vitamins A and D.
  3. It’s naturally lactose free.

Con: It’s not a good source of protein and, unless it is fortified, it contains no calcium, which is important for people with conditions like osteoporosis. (People who are allergic to almonds or nuts should avoid almond milk.)

Soy Milk

soy milk

Soy milk is made from soybeans. It’s a popular milk alternative for vegans and people who are lactose intolerant. Since it comes from plants, it is naturally free of cholesterol, low in saturated fat, and contains absolutely no lactose. Soybeans and soy milk are a good source of protein, calcium (when fortified), and potassium.

The 3 Best Things About Soy Milk

  1. It’s a good source of protein, vitamin A, B12, vitamin D, and potassium.
  2. Soy milk contains almost as much protein as cow's milk, yet is lower in calories than whole milk and comparable to skim milk.
  3. It contains no cholesterol, which is important for those with heart conditions.

Con: Too much soy may be a problem for those with thyroid disease or other conditions. A 2008 Harvard study showed that higher intakes of soy-based foods caused fertility problems and lower sperm counts.

Rice Milk

Rice Milk

Rice milk is made from milled rice and water.  It is the least allergenic of all of these products, which makes it a good choice for people with lactose or nut allergies. While rice milk can be fortified with calcium and vitamin D, it is not a natural source of either of these, just like soy and almond.

The 3 Best Things About Rice Milk

  1. It’s the least allergenic of milk alternatives.
  2. It can be fortified to be a good source of calcium.
  3. Rice milk can be used by vegetarians.

Con: Rice milk is very high in carbohydrate and very low in protein, so it’s the least desirable choice for people with diabetes as well as people who want more protein, such as athletes or the elderly.