A Beginner’s Guide to Non-Dairy Milk

Learn the differences between cow’s milk and plant-based milk alternatives

Three bottles of plant-based milk lay on their sides next to nuts and an open coconut.

Learn the differences between cow’s milk and plant-based milk alternatives

Many of us still enjoy cow’s milk with our morning bowl of cereal or evening dessert. But a growing number of people are turning to non-dairy milk alternatives such as nut milk. 

Whether you’re a vegan, lactose-intolerant or simply watching your waistline, you’ll find there are more milk alternatives on the market than ever before. But with so many to choose from, how do you decide what’s right for you?

Here, we compare traditional dairy milk to some of the most popular plant-based milks.

Dairy milk versus dairy-free milk alternatives

Interested in exploring milk substitutes? Get the facts before you head to the grocery store.

Cow’s milk

This traditional kitchen staple is packed with calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12. Milk from cows is also a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids. However, the majority of adults worldwide have a reduced ability to digest lactose, a naturally occurring milk sugar. 

“It’s important to read food labels,” says Varinthrej Pitis, MD, internal medicine physician at Scripps Clinic Carmel Valley. “Choose unsweetened milks and avoid varieties that are naturally high in sugar.”

Almond milk

Almond milk is low in calories and high in vitamin E, an antioxidant. Almonds are high in monounsaturated fat, which can help lower cholesterol and stave off heart disease. Protein-wise, though, it doesn’t even come close to cow’s milk. Look for unsweetened varieties that have been fortified with calcium and vitamin D. 

“Almond milk can provide almost half the daily requirement of vitamin E, but it is also high in water content and sodium, which should be consumed cautiously by people who are sensitive to fluid status,” says Dr. Pitis.

Soy milk

Soy milk has about the same caloric and protein content as skim milk and also contains all nine essential amino acids. Soy, a phytoestrogen, may also help reduce menopause symptoms. Most soy grown in America has been genetically modified, so look for a GMO-free label if this is a concern. 

“Soy milk is also a great source of vitamin B, folic acid and potassium,” adds Dr. Pitis. “It has the lowest sodium content among the plant-based milks and one of the highest protein contents.”

Oat milk

Oat milk has been gaining popularity and is an ideal milk substitute for people with nut allergies. It has a nutritional profile similar to cow’s milk with a creamy texture, but contains more fiber. Fortified oat milk also has about 20% of the recommended daily vitamins A and D. Like with other plant-based milks, look for an unsweetened version.

Pea milk

Pea milk is a relative newcomer to the plant-based milk realm. It’s free of common allergens found in nuts, gluten and soy. It’s also high in protein (rivaling soy milk), calcium and vitamin B12 — and doesn’t taste like peas. 

Cashew milk

Cashew milk is a good source of lutein, for eye health, and magnesium, a mineral that helps keep your bones strong and your heart healthy. Unsweetened versions are low in calories, but cashew milk is also low in protein when compared to cow’s milk. 

Cover of San Diego Health Magazine

This content appeared in San Diego Health, a publication in partnership between Scripps and San Diego Magazine that celebrates the healthy spirit of San Diego.

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