Dairy Milk vs. Milk Alternatives: What’s your Moo-ve?

The following blog is written by Purdue University Dietetic Intern, Abby Rogers.

Whether you choose your milk for taste, price, convenience, or nutritional needs, it is important to know where your milk stacks up. The “udder” truth is that not all milks are created equal. Milk comes in many varieties such as: whole, reduced-fat (2%), low-fat (1%), nonfat (skim), and lactose-free milk. Also becoming increasingly popular are dairy-free alternatives such as soy, almond, coconut, and rice drinks to name a few. Use the chart to consider the facts below and challenge yourself to Rethink Your Drink!


Fat-Free Milk: A standard 8 ounce serving of milk provides good to excellent sources of thirteen essential nutrients, providing a high level of essential nutrients compared to its calories and price. Fat-free milk provides 90 calories per 1 cup. Fat-free milk supplies 9 grams (16% Daily Value*) of high-quality protein that helps build and repair muscle tissue and helps you feel full longer. Fat-free milk also contains 0 grams of fat. One 8 ounce serving of milk naturally provides 30% of the Daily Value of calcium, which helps build and maintain strong bones and teeth. Calcium that is naturally present in milk is nutritionally advantageous. This calcium has greater bioavailability, meaning that it is more easily absorbed. About 30-35% of calcium from milk is absorbed by the body.  This mineral plays an important role in nerve function, muscle contraction, and blood clotting. Fat-free milk is a minimally processed and wholesome dairy choice.

Lactose-Free (Fat-Free Milk): Lactose-Free milk is commonly enjoyed by individuals suffering from lactose intolerance. Lactose intolerant individuals lack the enzyme to fully digest lactose, a natural sugar present in milk. Lactose-Free milk contains the same amount of nutrients in traditional dairy foods, the only difference being that lactose is already broken down for you. Similar to normal fat-free milk, lactose-free milk naturally contains 30% of the Daily Value of Calcium, which is more easily absorbed in your body. Lactose-Free milk contains just 90 calories per cup and no added sugars. If you think you may be lactose intolerant, consider discussing your symptoms with your doctor to make sure that your symptoms are caused by lactose intolerance, and not another problem.

Soy Drink: According to the MyPlate Guidelines, calcium-fortified soy beverages are considered to be a part of the Dairy Group, and can be included as a one of the three recommended servings of dairy each day. One 8 ounce serving of soy beverages contain 110 calories and 4.5 grams of fat, a slight increase in calories and fat when compared to Fat-Free and Lactose-Free Fat Free milk. Soy drinks are equal, gram for gram, when it comes to protein, at 8 grams per 8 ounce serving. As opposed to calcium found naturally in fat-free and lactose-free fat free milk, it is important to note that soy beverages must be fortified with calcium. Because of this, soy beverages contain about 45% of the Daily Value of calcium, 15% higher than the Daily Value of the prior two milks discussed. Interestingly enough, alternative beverage companies (such as soy, almond, coconut or rice drink companies) may use different methods to fortify their products, which in turn affects the absorption of calcium in the body compared to calcium that is naturally present. Additionally, there is currently no federal standard of the nutrient profile of the product. Some beverages can be up to 25% less well-absorbed than cow’s milk calcium. These manufacturers are not required to disclose which fortificant is used in their product, making it difficult for consumers to make informed decisions about what goes into their bodies. Only about 24% of fortified calcium is absorbed in the body from soy drink. When choosing a soy drink, it is also important to keep in mind that many soy drinks may have added sugars. You can find more information about what’s in your product by reviewing ingredients listed on the Nutrition Facts Label.

Almond Drink: Almond drinks are low in fat and contain the least amount of calories compared to other dairy free alternatives. Unfortunately for almond drinks, dairy milk contains 8-9 times the amount of protein per serving compared to the tiny 1 gram present in almond drink. In addition, protein derived from plant-based products contains incomplete proteins, so you may be missing out on important building blocks and essential nutrients that your body needs by choosing this beverage. Almond drink must be fortified with calcium (45% Daily Value), similar to the amount found in soy drink. Almond drink is sweeter than other alternatives so watch out for added sugars! Preservatives and thickeners may also be added to the almond drink to make it a more appealing and shelf-stable product. Lastly, if you have nut allergies, beware! Almond drink is not safe for anyone who falls under this category.

Coconut Drink: Coconut drinks contain about the same amount of fat as soy beverages, 4.25 grams per 8 ounce serving. Unfortunately, coconut drinks contain 0 grams of protein, so if you’re looking to build and repair your muscle tissue, think again. Coconut drink is a fortified beverage, containing 10% of the Daily Value for Calcium. It is interesting to note the ingredients when it comes to coconut drinks, observing that the Nutrition Facts Label contains a much longer list of ingredients, usually full of added sugars, stabilizers, and preservatives. Coconut drinks are one of the most expensive milk alternatives, so carefully consider if the lesser amount of nutrients per serving are worth not getting the most bang for your buck.

Rice Drink: Rice drinks are the most calorically dense milk alternatives featured in the graphic. Similar to almond and coconut drinks, rice drinks are low in protein. Since rice drinks are low in protein, it is important to consume a diet rich in protein from other sources. Rice drinks are fortified to 30% Daily Value of calcium. While both rice drink and dairy milk contain the same Daily Value of calcium, it is important to remember that calcium in dairy milk is naturally present. Since rice drink is fortified with calcium, it may not be as well absorbed in the body. Many rice drinks also contain thickeners and oils for taste.

Each type of beverage contains its own advantages and disadvantages, and should be chosen based on facts suited for your unique and individual needs.

As for myself, a current Dietetic Intern at the American Dairy Association Indiana, I’m going to continue drinking my fat-free dairy milk, because every time I choose dairy milk, I know exactly what’s in my glass. Moo-ve on over dairy-free alternatives, I’m not trading in my white milk mustache just yet!

What’s in your 8 ounce glass of milk?

For more information on milk vs. milk alternatives, visit this great, interactive site from our friends at Milk PEP.



* Percent Daily Value (DV) is listed on the Nutrition Facts Label. It is used as a guide to the nutrients in one serving of food. For example, if a label says “30% DV Calcium”, the product contributes to 30% of the recommended amount of calcium you need each day.