It’s Not Your Mother’s Milk! A Guide to Today’s Animal- and Plant-based Milks

These days, the dairy aisle at the grocery store can feel a little overwhelming. The number of milk options is mind-boggling. Alternative milks (e.g., soy, almond, coconut, oat, goat, sheep, buffalo…to name a few) and their byproducts (i.e., cheeses, yogurts, non-dairy ice cream) are becoming more mainstream and are often perceived as healthier.1 Allergies, lactose intolerance, calorie concern, and the growing popularity of plant-based diets have helped sustain the plant-based milk trend among many people, while others may simply prefer the taste, texture, and/or additional nutrients some alternative plant- or animal-based milks offer. One thing is for certain: traditional cow’s milk is no longer the only milk choice available. But that’s where some of the tough questions come into play: Is one milk healithier than another? What options are more cost-effective or less harmful to the environment? What’s the difference between all of these dairy alternatives? Can nondairy options measure up to traditional cow’s milk? Should one give up dairy altogether? What about alternative animal-based milks?

Here’s what you need to know about the most popular milks on the market. All milks discussed in this article are the unsweetened, unflavored varieties, and many of them contain thickeners for texture and consistency.


Cow’s milk (bovine) is one of the most popular milks, whether plant- or animal- based, and is widely available.

Options: Whole, 2% fat, 1% fat, skim, lactose free

Pros: Bovine milk is high in protein and calcium. It is also high in vitamin B12, which can only be found naturally in animal products.2 In the United States, cow’s milk is typically fortified with vitamins A and D.3,7

Cons: Whole cow’s milk is high in calories and fats and can interfere with the absorption of key minerals, such as iron and copper, when consumed in the same meal.3 There are also ethical and environmental concerns about modern dairy farming, such as treatment of animals, high levels of greenhouse emissions, degradation of local water supplies, and unsustainability of the land required for feed production.8


Goat’s milk has a smooth texture and a mild, sweet taste. While it might seem like a specialty item in the United States, more than 65 percent of the world’s population drinks goat’s milk.4

Options: Whole and low fat

Pros: Goat’s milk contains less lactose and is more nutritionally dense than cow’s milk. It has the highest protein and calcium content compared to other animal- or plant-based milks.3

Cons: Goat’s milk is high in calories, carbohydrates and fat.5 Like cow’s milk, there are concerns about the ethical treatment of animals.3


This type of milk is created by soaking and grinding almonds in water, creating a pulp from which the milky liquid is extracted. Almond milk has a creamy texture and a nutty taste.

Options: Sweetened, unsweetened

Pros: Almond milk is rich in magnesium, selenium, calcium, and vitamin A, which can improve the health of your bones. It provides antioxidants to boost your immune system and metabolism.2 Almond milk has the least calories relative to most animal- and plant-based milks.
Plus, because it is plant-based, it does not contain any cholesterol.

Cons: When compared to bovine milk, almond milk has significantly less protein.5 Almonds are also a water-intensive crop, which can take a toll on the environment.


This nut-based beverage is produced similarly to other nut milks. It involves soaking and crushing cashews in water and extracting the milky liquid from the pulp. It has a smooth texture and a taste similar to almond milk, but with a saltier, nuttier flavor.

Options: Sweetened, unsweetened

Pros: Cashew milk has less calories and fats than other milks, and is high in calcium and vitamin D. It contains unsaturated fats, potassium, and magnesium — all of which have been shown to help prevent heart disease.6,7 Cashew milk also contains antioxidants and zinc, which fight inflammation and boost immunity.

Cons: This milk has the lowest protein content of all animal- and plant-based milks.9 Sweetened varieties can also be high in sugar.


This cereal-based drink comes from soaking and pulverizing oats then draining the excess liquid. Oat milk’s consistency is creamy but varies depending on the amount of water used.

Options: Flavored varieties, unsweetened

Pros: Oat milk is high in soluble fiber and contains beta-glucans, which can help strengthen your immune system.2 It is high in protein compared to other plant-based milks.1 It is a good option for people with soy or nut allergies who are looking for a plant-based milk alternative to cow’s milk.

Cons: Compared to common milk alternatives, oat milk is not nutritionally dense and is high in fat and carbohydrates.11


This seed-based milk is made from hemp seeds that are soaked and ground in water. It has a nutty, beany taste and it has a richer taste than other milks.

Options: Non-GMO, sweetened, unsweetened, flavored varieties

Pros: Hemp seeds are packed with omega-3 fatty acids that can help regulate cholesterol levels and keep blood pressure in check.2 It is low in carbohydrates.

Cons: This milk is not nutritionally dense.11


This cereal-based milk is made from boiled rice, brown rice syrup, and brown rice starch.2 It is the most hypoallergenic and sweetest of mainstream milk alternatives.

Options: Sweetened, unsweetened

Pros: Rice milk is naturally sweet without the use of additional sugars. It has the least amount of fat compared to most mainstream milk alternatives and is high in antioxidants. This milk has naturally occurring B vitamins, which are essential to regulating metabolism, circulation, and nerve function. It is the only mainstream milk alterative to contain measurable amounts of vitamin C.11

Cons: Since rice is a starch, rice milk is very high in carbohydrates, which can cause your blood sugar to spike. For this reason, rice milk is not the best option for people with diabetes.15


This legume-based milk is made from soybeans and water.9 The original varieties were created about 2,000 years ago and it was the first plant-based milk to specifically provide nutrients to populations where bovine milk supply was inadequate.11 It has a creamy, mild taste.

Options: Flavored varieties, unsweetened

Pros: Nutritionally, soymilk is the most similar to low-fat bovine milk. It is widely available and can be fortified with vitamins A, B-12, and D.3 It is naturally free of cholesterol and low in saturated fats. It has high levels of iron, which prevents anemia, boosts hemoglobin production, and improves concentration.15

Cons: Like almonds, soybeans are a


This is a plant-based milk made by shredding the meat of an opened coconut, simmering it in water, and extracting the milky liquid from the pulp. to be confused with coconut water, which is the liquid found in the hollow center of the coconut. The bottled coconut milk that we drink, more accurately called a “coconut milk beverage,” is diluted, while its more pure, condensed form is canned and used in cooking.3

Options: Sweetened, unsweetened

Pros: Although the United States Food and Drug Administration classifies coconuts as tree nuts, they are technically fruits, making its milk a safe alternative for most people with nut allergies.16 It is low in calories and can be fortified with calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin D.3 Coconuts also contain a lipid called lauric acid that
many researchers believe can support the immune system.16

Cons: Coconut milk is not a good source of protein and is high in calories and fats.3 It also contains fermentable carbohydrates, which can cause digestive issues, such as diarrhea or constipation.


This milk comes from ground yellow peas. The floury substance is then processed, and the pea protein is separated from the fiber and starch. The remaining protein is further purified and blended together with water and other ingredients, including sunflower oil and sea salt, as well as vitamins like B12.17 It has a creamy, rich texture with an earthy flavor.

Options: Sweetened, unsweetened

Pros: Compared to mainstream milk alternatives, pea milk has some of the highest protein and calcium content. It is vegan, nut free, soy free, and lactose- and gluten-free. It has a significantly lower carbon footprint than raising cows or growing almonds. Peas contain almost no fat.

Cons: While sweetened versions of pea milk contain less sugar than bovine milk, it does contain added cane sugar, as opposed to the naturally occurring sugar in cow’s milk. It also contains sunflower oil, which gives pea milk its creamy texture.10


There is not enough evidence to indisputably conclude that plant-based milks are healthier for you than traditional cow’s milk or goat’s milk.10 There are factors you should consider when choosing the best milk for you. For those with dairy allergies, lactose intolerance, or high cholesterol, plant-based milks might be the healthier choice. Which plant-based milk is best? It all comes down to individual health needs and preferences: Consider the taste, consistency, and, most importantly, nutritional offerings of each plant-based milk and pick the one best suited to your needs and tastes. For those who want to increase their protein, calcium, or potassium intake, skim or low fat cow’s or goat’s milk might be the best choices. Choose whole cow’s or goat’s milk if you need to gain weight. As always, consult with your doctor or a qualified nutritionist if you have special needs or questions.


  1. Singhal S, Baker RD, Susan S. A comparison of the nutritional value of cow’s milk and nondairy beverages. J Pediat Gastroent Nutr. 2017;64(5):
  2. Hochwald L. The Differences Between 8 Kinds of Milk. Treehugger website. Updated October 1, 2019. Accessed July 23, 2020.
  3. Kubala J. Comparing Milks: Almond, Dairy, Soy, Rice, and Coconut. Healthline website. Updated March 5, 2020. Accessed July 23, 2020.
  4. Dagna A, Mebrat A, Wubie A, et al. Review on goat milk composition and its nutritive value. J Nutr Health. 2016;3(4):1–8.
  5. Butler N. Goat’s Milk: Is This the Right Milk for You? Healthline website. Updated March 7, 2019. Accessed July 23, 2020.
  6. Striet L. 10 Nutrition and Health Benefits of Cashew Milk. Healthline website. Updated February 1, 2019. Accessed July 23, 2020.
  7. McClements DJ, Newman E, McClements IF. Plant-based milks: a review of the science underpinning their design, fabrication, and performance. Compr Rev Food Sci Food Safe. 2019;18:2047–2067.
  8. World Wildlife Foundation site. Sustainable agriculture. Dairy.,prairies%2C%20wetlands%2C%20and%20forests. Accessed Aug 11, 2020.
  9. Castaneda R. Which Type of Milk Is Healthiest? US News website. Updated July 25, 2019. Accessed July 23, 2020.
  10. Thorning TK, Raben A, Tholstrup T, et al. Milk and dairy products: good or bad for human health? An assessment of the totality of scientific evidence. Food Nutr Res. 2016;60:32527.
  11. Vanga SK, Raghavan V. How well do plant based alternatives fare nutritionally compared to cow’s milk? J Food Sci Technol. 2018;55(1):10–20.
  12. Sethi S, Tyagi SK, Anurag RK. Plant-based milk alternatives an emerging segment of functional beverages: a review. J Food Sci Technol. 2016;53(9):3408–3423.
  13. Raman R. Oat Milk: Nutrition, Benefits, and How to Make It. Healthline website. Updated January 24, 2019. Accessed July 23, 2020.
  14. The pros and cons of root vegetables. Harvard Health Publishing website. Updated August 2018. Accessed July 27, 2020.
  15. Barhum H. The Health Benefits of Iron. VeryWellHealth website. Updated May 4, 2019. Accessed July 27, 2020.
  16. Butler N. Health benefits of coconut milk. Medical News Today website. Updated November 20, 2018. Accessed July 28, 2020.
  17. Judkis M. Get ready for pea milk. It doesn’t taste like peas and it’s not even green. The Washington Post website. Updated September 21, 2017. Accessed July 28, 2020.  

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