Exploring the Milky Way: Cow’s Milk Alternatives

Browsing the milk aisle used to be a brainless chore, but now with all the different flavors and varieties of milk, it is easy to get lost among the brightly colored cartons.  With so many milk variations, how do you know which one is your best choice?  Use the guide below to gain insight on the flavor, nutritional profiles, and health benefits of five common milk alternatives.

Soy Milk

Made by soaking dry soybeans and grinding them with water.

Flavor: Faintly sweet with a creamy consistency. Sold in unsweetened, original, light, vanilla, and chocolate.

Nutrition Profile: Soymilk is often fortified with vitamins and minerals. It’s naturally lactose-free, which makes it a great alternative for those with lactose intolerance.  It is heart-healthy, as well. Some brands are fortified with calcium (shake the carton well because added calcium tends to settle at the bottom). Soymilk is the only milk substitute with significant protein.

1 cup, original: 90 calories, 3.5 g fat (0.5 g sat fat), 8 g carb, 6 g protein

Almond Milk

Made from ground almonds and water.

Flavor: Creamy and slightly nutty with a hint of sweetness. Sold in original, unsweetened, vanilla, and chocolate.

Nutrition Profile: Almond milk tends to be a lower calorie milk with less fat than cow’s milk and soymilk. Some brands are fortified with vitamins and minerals. Almond milk is not a significant source of protein, though it is a great choice for those who are lactose intolerant or are experiencing intestinal upset from soy.

1 cup, original: 60 calories, 2.5 g fat (0 g sat fat), 8 g carb, 1 g protein

Rice Milk

A grain-based milk processed from rice (mostly brown rice).

Flavor: Light, watery, and sweet. Most varieties do not require added sweetener.

Nutrition Profile: Rice milk has the highest calorie content of all the milk alternatives.  Due to its high carbohydrate content, this milk should be consumed cautiously by people with diabetes.  Rice milk has the least amount of fat compared to the alternative milks.

1 cup, original: 120 calories, 2 g fat (0 g sat fat), 25 g carb, 1 g protein

Coconut Milk

Liquid that comes from the grated meat of a coconut. A coconut milk beverage is a mixture of thick coconut milk (which is 20-22% fat), thin coconut milk (which is 5-7% fat) and water.

Flavor: Has a rich, thick, creamy coconut-y flavor.

Nutrition Profile:  Coconut milk is a lower calorie milk and most brands are fortified with vitamin B12 (important for a healthy brain). The majority of fat is saturated fat (which raises LDL or “bad” cholesterol). 1 cup will consume 25% of a healthy individual’s daily allotment of saturated fat.

1 cup, original: 80 calories, 5 g fat (5 g sat fat), 7 g carb, 1 g protein

Hemp Milk

Made from hemp seeds that are soaked, ground, and mixed with water.

Flavor: Creamy, nutty and “earthy.”  Sold in original, vanilla, and chocolate.

Nutrition Profile:  Hemp milk is naturally rich in omega-3 fatty acids (good for your heart, brain and mood).  It is not a good source of calcium (only supplies 2% of the daily value) and has a higher fat content than many other alternatives.  Hemp is also known to be eco-friendly, as it involves no pesticides and requires little water to grow.

1 cup, original: 100 calories, 6 g fat (0.5 g sat fat), 9 g carb, 2 g protein

Allie Fickett is a dietetic Intern at Massachusetts General Hospital. She is originally from California and has a bachelor’s degree from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with a major in nutritional sciences. She is a California girl at heart and enjoys running, sunshine and being outdoors!

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Our Be Fit Nutritionists are comprised of dietetic interns studying at Massachusetts General Hospital. During their internship, they receive training on acute care nutrition, ambulatory and community nutrition, food service systems management, and research. Their comprehensive work is done in collaboration with registered dietitians.

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