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

For people with dietary or allergy concerns, there are also alternatives to cow’s milk. Almond, soy, rice, and coconut “milk” are popular plant-based milk alternatives. They’re becoming even more available in stores across the United States.

There are other cow’s milk alternatives like goat milk or oat milk that may be another good choice for some people.

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

For example, some people may be intolerant to dairy milk and may need to choose a plant-based alternative.

Alternatively, those who may need to boost their calorie and nutrient intake may opt for whole milk, which is a concentrated source of protein, fat, and calories.

However, milks such as whole dairy milk and full fat coconut milk are rich in fat and calories, which should be taken into account if you’re looking for a lower calorie beverage. Whole cow’s milk contains more calories and saturated fat than any other milk, aside from goat’s milk.

Look at the differences in these popular types of milks to determine which best suits your needs. With all varieties, choose the unsweetened versions. Milk and milk alternatives can double their amount of sugar if they’re sweetened with added sugars.

Milk and milk alternatives: Nutrition comparison per 8 fluid ounces

CaloriesCarbohydrates (total)SugarsFat (total)Protein
Cow’s milk (whole)15012 g12 g8 g8 g
Cow’s milk (1%)11012 g12 g2 g8 g
Cow’s milk (skim)8012 g12 g0 g8 g
Almond milk (unsweetened)401 g0 g3 g2 g
Soy milk (unsweetened)804 g1 g4 g7 g
Rice milk (unsweetened)12022 g10 g2 g0 g
Coconut milk beverage (unsweetened)502 g0 g5 g0 g

Whole milk has the highest fat content of all types of milk. One cup contains about:

  • 150 calories
  • 12 grams of carbohydrates in the form of lactose (milk sugar)
  • 8 grams of fat
  • 8 grams of protein

None of the milk’s natural components are removed. As you can see, whole milk is high in natural proteins, fat, and calcium. Milk sold in the United States is usually fortified with vitamin A and vitamin D, as well.

Shop for whole cow’s milk here.

Other cow’s milk has the same amount of carbohydrates and protein, with 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 is significantly lower in calories than whole milk. However, the removal of fat decreases the amount of certain nutrients in the milk, including vitamins E and K.

Lactose-free milk is processed to break down lactose, a natural sugar found in milk products.

Lactose-free milk is also a good source of protein, calcium, vitamins, and minerals. The total and saturated fat contents of lactose-free milk vary, as it comes in 2 percent, 1 percent, and fat-free varieties.

Shop for lactose-free milk here.

Pros of cow’s milk

  • Whole milk can provide essential proteins, extra calories from fats, as well as vitamins and minerals.
  • Lactose-free versions are available for people who have a lactose intolerance.
  • Cow’s milk, including grass-fed and low heat pasteurized options, is widely available in grocery stores and convenience stores.

Cons of cow’s milk

  • Whole milk is high in calories and fat.
  • Many people are intolerant to lactose, a sugar found in milk.
  • Some people have ethical concerns about modern dairy farming practices.
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Almond milk is made from ground almonds and filtered water. It may also contain starches and thickeners to improve its consistency and shelf life.

People who are allergic to almonds or nuts should avoid almond milk.

Almond milk is typically lower in calories than other milks, as long as it’s unsweetened. It’s also free of saturated fat and is naturally lactose-free.

Per cup, unsweetened almond milk has:

  • about 30 to 60 calories
  • 1 gram of carbohydrates (sweetened varieties have more)
  • 3 grams of fat
  • 1 gram of protein

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 brands of almond milk are supplemented with calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin D.

Shop for almond milk here.

Pros of almond milk

  • It’s low in calories.
  • It’s typically fortified to be a good source of calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin D.
  • It’s vegan and naturally lactose-free.

Cons of almond milk

  • It’s not a good source of protein.
  • It may contain carrageenan, which may cause digestive issues in some people.
  • There are some environmental concerns about the amount of water used to cultivate almonds.
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Soy milk is made from soybeans and filtered water. Like other plant-based milk alternatives, it may contain thickeners to improve consistency and shelf life.

One cup of unsweetened soy milk has:

  • about 80 to 100 calories
  • 4 grams of carbohydrates (sweetened varieties have more)
  • 4 grams of fat
  • 7 grams of protein

Because it comes from plants, soy milk is naturally free of cholesterol and low in saturated fat. It also contains no lactose.

Soybeans and soy milk are a good source of protein, calcium (when fortified), and potassium.

Here’s a selection of soy milk to try.

Pros of soy milk

  • It’s a good source of potassium and can be fortified with vitamins A, B-12, and D, as well as calcium.
  • It contains as much protein as cow’s milk, yet is lower in calories than whole milk and about equal to the calories in 1 percent or 2 percent milk.
  • It contains very little saturated fat.

Cons of soy milk

  • Soy is a common allergen for both adults and children.
  • Most of the soy produced in the United States comes from genetically modified plants, which is a concern to some.
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Rice milk is made from milled rice and water. As with other alternative milks, it frequently contains additives to improve consistency and shelf stability.

It’s the least likely of all milk products to cause allergies. That makes it a good choice for people with lactose intolerance or allergies to milk, soy, or nuts.

Rice milk contains the most carbohydrates per cup, providing about:

  • 120 calories
  • 22 grams of carbohydrates
  • 2 grams of fat
  • little protein (less than 1 gram)

While rice milk can be fortified with calcium and vitamin D, it’s not a natural source of either, just like soy and almond milk. Rice has also been shown to have higher levels of inorganic arsenic.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends not relying solely on rice and rice products, especially for infants, children, and pregnant women.

The American Academy of Pediatrics takes a similar stance, suggesting to focus on a variety of foods and to avoid depending on just rice or rice products.

Purchase rice milk online.

Pros of rice milk

  • It’s the least allergenic of milk alternatives.
  • It can be fortified to be a good source of calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin D.
  • Rice milk is naturally sweeter than other milk alternatives.

Cons of rice milk

  • It’s high in carbohydrates, so it’s the least desirable choice for people with diabetes.
  • It’s not a good source of protein.
  • Eating too much of a rice product may pose a health risk for infants and children due to inorganic arsenic levels.
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Coconut milk is made from filtered water and coconut cream, which is made from grated mature coconut flesh. In spite of its name, coconut isn’t actually a nut, so people with nut allergies should be able to have it safely.

Coconut milk is more accurately referred to as “coconut milk beverage” because it’s a more diluted product than the type of coconut milk used in cooking, which usually is sold in cans.

As with other plant-based milk alternatives, coconut milk often contains added thickeners and other ingredients.

Coconut milk contains more fat than the other milk alternatives. Each cup of unsweetened coconut milk beverage contains:

  • about 50 calories
  • 2 grams of carbohydrates
  • 5 grams of fat
  • 0 grams of protein

Coconut milk beverage doesn’t naturally contain calcium, vitamin A, or vitamin D. However, it can be fortified with these nutrients.

Shop for coconut milk here.

Pros of coconut milk

  • Coconut milk is safe for most people with nut allergies.
  • It can be fortified to be a good source of calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin D.

Cons of coconut milk

  • It’s not a good source of protein.
  • It may contain carrageenan, which may cause digestive issues in some people.
Healthline