Cow’s Milk vs. Non-Dairy Beverages: Is there really a best option?

Cow’s Milk vs. Non-Dairy Beverages: Is there really a best option?

Whether cow’s milk is a staple in your fridge, or through preference or necessity you stock up on non-dairy options, there are a number of milks available for every palette and diet. Popular options in the dairy aisle include soy, almond, coconut, and the newest addition, oat milk.

Things to Consider

With so many choices, which one is the best option? Well, it depends on your needs and priorities. Here are some things to consider when choosing cow’s milk or dairy alternatives:

  • How much protein does it contain? Protein is important for growth and development of all ages.
  • Does it contain (or is it fortified with) vitamin D and calcium? These vitamins are important for bone health.
  • What types of fat does it contain? We want to limit saturated fat because it increases the risk of heart disease.
  • Does it contain added sugar? Added sugar is different from naturally occurring sugar. Added sugar can have negative implications on your body, and people with special dietary needs might need to be more conscious of added sugars.

Cow's Milk vs. Non-Dairy Beverages

Now let’s highlight some features of cow’s milk and non-dairy beverages:

Cow's Milk

  • It naturally contains lactose, which some people are lactose-intolerant. While it does contain lactose, there are certain cow’s milk options that are labeled as lactose-free.
  • It is a great source of protein.
  • It is fortified with B vitamins, vitamin A and vitamin D.
  • Whole milk is higher in saturated fat, while low-fat and non-fat milk contain very little saturated fat.

Soy Milk

  • Soy milk is made from soy beans.
  • It’s a great source of protein.
  • It is fortified with B vitamins, vitamin A, vitamin D and calcium.
  • While it contains a small amount of saturated fat, the rest of the fat in soy milk is unsaturated fat.
  • Nutritionally, soy milk is the most similar non-dairy alternative to cow’s milk.
  • Some are sweetened with added sugar. Try to choose unsweetened to avoid any added sugar.

Almond Milk

  • Almond milk is made from almonds.
  • It is very low in protein.
  • It is fortified with B vitamins, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E and calcium.
  • Some are sweetened with added sugar, choose unsweetened to avoid added sugar.
  • Unsweetened almond milk is very low in calories.

Oat Milk

  • Oat milk is made from oats.
  • It is very low in protein.
  • It is fortified with B-vitamins, vitamin A, vitamin D and calcium. Some are sweetened with added sugar, choose unsweetened to avoid added sugar.

Is there really a best choice?

Overall, cow’s milk and soy milk are highest in protein, while almond milk and oat milk are lower. However, if you eat a lot of protein at other meals during the day, you may not need the extra protein from milk.

When choosing your dairy, or non-dairy beverage, remember to check the nutrition label and consider all of your options. Each “milk” provides different benefits and what is right for one person, might not be right for another. All of these can be part of a planned, varied and healthy lifestyle.

Written by: Abigail Johnson, Dietetic Intern at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare, Graduate Student at Florida State University

Precepted by: Afaf Qasem, MS, RDN, LDN- Community Wellness Dietitian at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare

References: American Heart Association


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