bottles of milk alternatives laid out on a table.

What is the best milk to drink?

Cow’s milk has been a classic part of a balanced diet for centuries. But now, the milk aisle at the grocery store has more milk options than ever before.

With all of the milk alternatives available, you may wonder what the best milk to drink is.

Noelle Park, a clinical dietitian at OSF HealthCare, explained what the healthiest milk to drink is and what the best milk alternatives are for people who may not be able to consume dairy products.

Reasons to avoid dairy

Some people avoid cow’s milk and cow’s milk products for a variety of reasons.

Dairy allergy

For those with an allergy, they may break out in a rash or eczema after drinking milk.

Lactose intolerance

Lactose intolerance is an inability to fully digest sugar in dairy products. For people who are mildly lactose intolerant, they may experience bloating, cramping, diarrhea or gas after consuming dairy products.

For people who are lactose intolerant, there are some solutions that make having dairy possible.

“We have lactase pills that help in providing the enzyme to digest the lactose,” Park said.

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Celiac disease or irritable bowel syndrome

People with celiac disease or irritable bowel syndrome must watch what foods and drinks they consume. They need to take extra care in their diet and avoid certain things to manage their conditions.

Chronic kidney disease

People with chronic kidney disease should watch how much cow’s milk they drink due to high levels of phosphorus and protein.

Milk options

Plant and nut milks are available as a non-dairy alternative for cow’s milk. The nutritional value of dairy-free and vegan milk options varies based on type.

Cow’s milk or dairy milk are high in calcium, potassium, phosphorus and protein.

Fat free of skim milk (calcium fortified)

One cup of fat free or skim milk contains:

  • 86 calories
  • 8.4 grams of protein
  • 504 mg of calcium
  • 250 mg of phosphorus
  • 410 mg of potassium
  • 12 g of sugar
  • 0.44 g of total fat

 2% milk

  • 122 calories
  • 8 g of protein
  • 285 mg of calcium
  • 229 mg of phosphorus
  • 366 mg of potassium
  • 461 IU of vitamin A
  • 12 g of sugar
  • 4.8 g total fat

 Whole milk

  • 146 calories
  • 7.86 g of protein
  • 276 mg of calcium
  • 222 mg of phosphorus
  • 349 mg of potassium
  • 249 IU of vitamin A
  • 12.83 g of sugar
  • 7.93 g total fat

All of these are essential nutrients to your diet. So, dairy milk is a good way to get all the nutritional value you can from milk. Dairy milk is usually higher in calories and sugar.

Getting good nutritional value from milk substitutes for cow’s milk can be a tradeoff.

Soy milk

Pros: High in protein and vitamin A

Cons: Not a significant source of calcium

  • 127 calories
  • 10.9 g protein
  • 1.23 g sugar
  • 93 mg calcium
  • 135 mg phosphorus
  • 304 mg potassium
  • 1499 IU of vitamin A
  • 4.7 g total fat

Almond milk (unsweetened and calcium fortified)

Pros: Low in calories, high in calcium

Cons: Not a significant source of protein

  • 39 calories
  • 1 g protein
  • 2 g sugar
  • 482 mg calcium
  • 6 mg vitamin E
  • 2.5 g total fat

Rice and oat milk

Pros: Low in fat and calories

Cons: Low in protein and nutrients

  • 115 calories
  • 7 g protein
  • 288 mg calcium
  • 9 g sugar
  • 2.4 g total fat

Coconut milk

Pros: High in phosphorus and potassium

Cons: Not a significant source of calcium or protein, high in fat

  • 445 calories
  • 4.5 g protein
  • 40 mg calcium
  • 216 mg of phosphorus
  • 497 mg of potassium
  • 0 IU of vitamin A
  • 48 g of total fat

Other nut milk

Cashew, walnut, hazelnut and macadamia milk are less common nut and plant-based milk alternatives.

Typically nut milks are high in fat and calories, but they’re also high in essential nutrients, like iron and vitamins E and D (if they’ve been fortified).

These milk options aren’t right for everyone.

“Those lactose-free milks were really created for people who cannot tolerate cow’s milk due to allergies or for being lactose intolerant, and other reasons,” Park said.

Healthiest milk to drink

Ultimately, cow’s milk is the healthiest to drink if you can tolerate it. It has the most nutritional value.

Cow’s milk has many health benefits, such as helping to improve muscle mass and bone health. For regular milk drinkers, three cups per day is the standard. You can also get that equivalent in other dairy products, like cheese and yogurt.

Low-fat, skim or 1% cow’s milk are healthier options compared to 2% or whole milk. They contain less fat.

“If you can’t have cow’s milk, soy milk and rice milk are often the healthiest milk for gut health – especially for people with celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that can cause inflammation,” Park said.

Last Updated: April 25, 2024

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About Author: Katie Faley

Katie Faley is a Writing Coordinator for OSF HealthCare. She graduated from Illinois State University with a degree in English Studies. Before joining OSF HealthCare in 2021, she worked in magazine editing, digital marketing and freelance writing.
Katie is often found listening to ‘60s folk music, deciding on a new skill to learn, losing track of time in a library or spending time with her family and friends.

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Categories: Diet & Exercise