What is the Best Milk Alternative?

Alternative milks seem to be wildly popular these days. First soymilk then almond milk swept the nation. Now hemp and coconut milks are demanding their place in the sun. But are they all created equal? Which kind is best?

It really depends on what you're looking for in a milk or alternative milk (I'll lay out the nutritional highlights of cow's milk below so you know what to look for when evaluating milk alternatives). Note that there can be a lot of variation between brands, even for the same “type” of milk. Most kinds of milk also come sweetened or unsweetened. For this comparison, I looked at unsweetened versions of the different milks. Make sure to read the labels carefully.

(All information per 1 cup)

Low-fat (1%) cow’s milk: Calories: 102; Fat: 2 g; Saturated Fat: 1.5 g; Sodium: 107 mg; Fiber: 0 g; Sugar: 13 g; Protein: 8 g; Calcium: 30% Daily Value (DV)

Cow’s milk delivers plenty of protein for not that many calories (in the low-fat and fat-free versions). One cup gives you 1/3 of the calcium you need each day. It also has lactose — a natural sugar found in milk that gets converted easily into energy in your body. That’s also the sugar that lactose-intolerant people can’t digest, so if you have trouble digesting cow’s milk and are looking for another alternative, read on.

Almond milk: Calories: 35; Fat: 2.5 g; Saturated Fat: 0 g; Sodium: 190 mg; Fiber: 0 g; Sugar: 0 g; Protein: 1 g; Calcium: 2% DV

Almond milk’s super-low calorie count explains its widespread popularity. Although it has a little bit of fat, it doesn’t have much protein and some brands (such as this one I looked at) aren’t fortified with calcium, so it’s not a direct replacement for cow’s milk nutritionwise. But if you’re just looking for a low-cal cereal topper, then almond milk could be a good choice.

Soymilk (fortified): Calories: 80; Fat: 4 g; Saturated Fat: 0.5 g; Sodium: 90 mg; Fiber: 1 g; Sugar: 1 g; Protein: 7 g; Calcium: 30% DV

Nutrient for nutrient, soymilk is most similar to cow’s milk. It’s low in calories and higher in protein than any other alternative milk I looked at.

Coconut milk: Calories: 45; Fat: 4.5 g; Saturated Fat: 4 g; Sodium: 15 mg; Fiber: 1 g; Sugar: 1 g; Protein: 0 g; Calcium: 10% DV

Like almond milk, coconut milk is low in calories, as well as protein and — in this case — calcium. It’s pretty high in saturated fat, which makes it creamier than some of the other alternative milks.

Hemp milk: Calories: 80; Fat: 8 g; Saturated Fat: 0.5 g; Sodium: 125 mg; Fiber: 0 g; Sugar: 0 g; Protein: 2 g; Calcium: 30% DV

Hemp milk has a strong flavor that might take some getting used to. It has the same number of calories as a cup of skim milk and is low in saturated fat.

Oat milk: Calories: 130; Fat: 2.5 g; Saturated Fat: 0 g; Sodium: 115 mg; Fiber: 2 g; Sugar: 19 g; Protein: 4 g; Calcium: 35% DV

Oat milk is higher in protein than many other alternative milks and also has a bit of soluble fiber — the kind that’s linked to heart health.

Kerri-Ann is a registered dietitian and nutrition coach who writes on food and health trends. Find more of her work at kerriannjennings.com or follow her on Twitter @kerriannrd or Facebook.

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