11 Healthiest Milks, Ranked by a Dietitian

11 Healthiest Milks, Ranked by a Dietitian

The modern-day milk options go beyond skim, 2%, and whole milk. Lactose-free and plant-based milk beverages like hemp, oat, and almond milk are now available for people with dairy sensitivities and certain dietary preferences.

Demand for plant-based milks only continues to grow. In 2023, Americans spent $2.9 billion dollars on plant-based milks alone.

Many people choose a milk alternative for health reasons. Some milk is higher in protein, heart-healthy fats, or calcium than others. The best milk for you depends on your personal health and dietary needs.

Cow’s milk can be a nutrient-rich milk option for people who tolerate dairy. 

Cow’s milk is high in protein and a great source of calcium. Consuming adequate calcium is essential for supporting bone health and dairy products like milk are one of the richest sources of the mineral.

Most milk sold in the United States is also fortified with vitamin D, a critical nutrient that’s otherwise hard to find in food.

A large research review studying the effect of milk consumption on health outcomes reported that drinking one cup of cow’s milk daily is associated with a reduced risk of leading chronic diseases, including heart disease, high blood pressure, colorectal cancer, and osteoporosis.

However, observational studies like this one only show potential links between dietary habits and health outcomes. More research is needed to confirm the direct effect of cow’s milk on disease prevention.

A standard one-cup serving of 2% cow’s milk provides:

  • Calories: 122
  • Protein: 8.23 grams (g)
  • Total fat: 4.66 g
  • Saturated fat: 2.72 g 
  • Carbohydrates: 12 g
  • Added sugars: 0 g
  • Calcium: 309 milligrams (mg), or 24% of the Daily Value (DV)
  • Vitamin D: 111 international units (IU), or 14% of the DV
  • Iron: 0 mg

Most people’s ability to digest lactose—a carbohydrate naturally found in dairy milk—declines with age. About 30 million Americans have lactose intolerance by the time they’re 20 years old.

People whose bodies cannot break down lactose may experience bloating, gas, belching, abdominal pain or cramping, constipation, or diarrhea after eating dairy products. As a result, some people with lactose intolerance choose to consume lactose-free versions of classic dairy products. (Many people with lactose intolerance can tolerate up to one cup of regular cow’s milk in one sitting.)

Most lactose-free dairy products contain a digestive enzyme called lactase. Lactase enzymes help break down the lactose in dairy so your body doesn’t have to.

If you don’t tolerate cow’s milk but still want to get the protein and calcium that cow’s milk provides, you can try drinking lactose-free milk.

The nutritional value of lactose-free milk is nearly identical to regular cow’s milk. A standard one-cup serving of 2% lactose-free milk provides:

  • Calories: 122 
  • Protein: 8.2 g
  • Total fat: 4.64 g
  • Saturated fat: 2.71 g 
  • Carbohydrates: 12 g
  • Added sugars: 0 g
  • Calcium: 307 mg, or 24% of the DV
  • Vitamin D: 107 IU, or 13% of the DV
  • Iron: 0 mg

One of the main proteins found in cow’s milk is called casein. Two different variants of casein protein found in cow’s milk include A1 and A2 beta-casein.

Emerging research suggests that A1 beta-casein may be responsible for some people’s adverse reactions to cow’s milk. One small study found that participants who drank A2 milk reported less abdominal pain and better stool consistency than those who drank milk containing both A1 and A2 casein.

Not everyone needs to drink A2 milk, but if lactose-free milk doesn’t improve your digestive symptoms, experiment with A2 milk. Tolerating A2 milk but not lactose-free milk could indicate that you’re unable to digest the A1 beta-casein in cow’s milk rather than lactose.

A standard one-cup serving of 2% A2 milk provides:

  • Calories: 120 
  • Protein: 8 g
  • Total fat: 5 g
  • Saturated fat: 3 g 
  • Carbohydrates: 12 g
  • Added sugars: 0 g
  • Calcium: 298 mg, or 23% of the DV
  • Vitamin D: 100 IU, or 13% of the DV
  • Iron: 0 mg

Soy Milk

Soy, from soybean, is a popular plant-based protein alternative for people who can’t or don’t consume animal products.

Unlike most non-dairy milks, soy milk provides as much protein per cup as cow’s milk. Since soy milk is not naturally rich in calcium, many manufacturers fortify their products with vitamins and minerals—like vitamin D and calcium—to ensure the beverage meets consumers’ nutrition needs.

Some people may be allergic to soy and should avoid soy milk. Also, while some research indicates concentrated soy supplements may not be safe for people at risk for breast cancer, current evidence shows soy is safe to eat in foods for people with or at risk for breast cancer.

You can reap soy’s benefits by consuming minimally processed forms of soy, like organic edamame, tofu, and unsweetened soy milk. Ultra-processed sources of soy, like faux meats and soy protein isolates, are not as beneficial or nutrient-dense.

A standard one-cup serving of non-fortified, unsweetened organic soy milk provides:

  • Calories: 98 
  • Protein: 8.86 g
  • Total fat: 4.92 g
  • Saturated fat: 0.98 g 
  • Carbohydrates: 3.94 g
  • Added sugars: 0 g
  • Calcium: 28.8 mg, or 2% of the DV
  • Vitamin D: 0 IUs
  • Iron: 1.18 mg, or 6.5% of the DV

Pea Milk

Pea milk is free from dairy, nuts, and gluten, so it’s suitable for people who are vegan, gluten-free, or allergic to dairy or nuts.

Because legumes are naturally rich in protein, pea milk is one of the only plant-based milks (apart from soy milk) that delivers as much protein as cow’s milk. It’s also a better source of iron than both cow’s milk and soy milk.

A standard one-cup serving of fortified, unsweetened pea milk provides:

  • Calories: 70 
  • Protein: 7.99 g
  • Total fat: 4.51 g
  • Saturated fat: 0.5 g 
  • Carbohydrates: 0 g
  • Added sugars: 0 g
  • Calcium: 451 mg, or 35% of the DV
  • Vitamin D: 120 IU, or 15% of the DV
  • Iron: 2.69 mg, or 15% of the DV

Almond Milk

Almond milk is mild in flavor and low in calories and carbohydrates, but it’s not a good source of protein or iron. One cup of almond milk has 25% of the amount of protein in the same serving of cow’s or soy milk.

Also, if you’re choosing plant-based milk for environmental reasons, almond milk isn’t the best option since almond production requires significant amounts of water.

A standard one-cup serving of fortified, unsweetened almond milk provides:

  • Calories: 40 
  • Protein: 1.05 g
  • Total fat: 2.52 g
  • Saturated fat: 0.21 g 
  • Carbohydrates: 3.43 g
  • Added sugars: 0 g
  • Calcium: 482 mg, or 37% of the DV
  • Vitamin D: 107 IU, or 13% of the DV
  • Iron: 0.73 mg, or 4% of the DV

Cashew Milk

Cashew milk is another flavorful plant-based alternative to standard cow’s milk. The beverage is rich in heart-healthy unsaturated fats.

Cashews are a good source of mono- and polyunsaturated fats, both of which have been shown to improve risk factors of heart disease, such as low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, when consumed in place of of saturated fats.

A standard one-cup serving of non-fortified, unsweetened cashew milk provides:

  • Calories: 130 
  • Protein: 4.01 g
  • Total fat: 10 g
  • Saturated fat: 1.49 g 
  • Carbohydrates: 7.01 g
  • Added sugars: 0 g
  • Calcium: 14.4 mg, or 1% of the DV
  • Vitamin D: 0 IU
  • Iron: 1.01 mg, or 5.6% of the DV

Hemp Milk

Like most seeds, hemp seeds are excellent sources of healthy fats and minerals. The small but nutrient-dense seeds are a good source of essential anti-inflammatory fats called omega-3 fatty acids. These fats can help support heart health, along with other benefits.

Hemp seeds are also a great source of protein. Three tablespoons (tbsp) of hemp seeds contain nearly 10 grams of protein, more than you’d get from a whole egg. However, hemp milk will provide slightly less protein than the whole seeds.

A standard one-cup serving of fortified, unsweetened hemp milk provides:

  • Calories: 60
  • Protein: 3 g
  • Total fat: 4.49 g
  • Saturated fat: 0 g 
  • Carbohydrates: 1.01 g
  • Added sugars: 0 g
  • Calcium: 259 mg, or 20% of the DV
  • Vitamin D: 96 IU, or 12% of the DV
  • Iron: 1.39 mg, or 7% of the DV

Pistachio Milk

Pistachio milk has a similar nutritional profile to other nut-based options like almond or cashew milk. It’s low in protein, carbohydrates, and calcium (unless fortified) and provides a small amount of heart-healthy, unsaturated fats.

Try to opt for unsweetened pistachio milk if you plan to use the beverage as your main source of milk.

A standard one-cup serving of non-fortified, unsweetened pistachio milk provides:

  • Calories: 50 
  • Protein: 1.99 g
  • Total fat: 3.5 g
  • Saturated fat: 0 g 
  • Carbohydrates: 3 g
  • Added sugars: 0 g
  • Calcium: 19.2 mg, or 1% of the DV
  • Vitamin D: 0 IU
  • Iron: 0.5 mg, or 2.7% of the DV

Coconut Milk

Coconut milk may be the creamiest non-dairy milk thanks to its high fat content. However, coconut milk tends to be low in protein and rich in saturated fat, the type of dietary fat that raises LDL cholesterol levels in the blood.

Talk to your healthcare provider before choosing coconut milk if you’ve been diagnosed with heart disease or are working on optimizing your heart health. If you’re concerned about your saturated fat intake, consider enjoying coconut milk in moderation by adding a splash to your morning coffee and choosing another plant-based milk as the base for meals like smoothies or a bowl of breakfast cereal.

A standard one-cup serving of fortified, unsweetened coconut milk provides:

  • Calories: 40 
  • Protein: 0 g
  • Total fat: 4 g
  • Saturated fat: 4 g 
  • Carbohydrates: 2 g
  • Added sugars: 0 g
  • Calcium: 470 mg, or 36% of the DV
  • Vitamin D: 80 IU, or 10% of the DV
  • Iron: 0.5 mg, or 3% of the DV

Oat Milk

Oat milk is gluten-, nut-, and dairy-free, making it an allergy-friendly option for many people.

However, oat milk is higher in carbohydrates than other nut- and seed-based plant milks. If you’re trying to lower or manage your blood sugar levels, consider opting for an alternative milk lower in carbohydrates and higher in protein and fat.

Certain brands add ingredients like canola oil to their oat milk formulations to achieve a desirable texture. If oat milk is the main milk you drink at home, look for a product made from a few simple ingredients, like organic oats, filtered water, and salt.

A standard one-cup serving of non-fortified, unsweetened oat milk provides:

  • Calories: 79 
  • Protein: 4.01 g
  • Total fat: 1.49 g
  • Saturated fat: 0 g 
  • Carbohydrates: 14 g
  • Added sugars: 0 g
  • Calcium: 19.2 mg, or 1% of the DV
  • Vitamin D: 0 IU
  • Iron: 1.01 mg, or 5.6% of the DV

Tips for Consuming Milk

Whether you’re opting for classic cow’s milk or a plant-based alternative, milk is versatile. Here are simple ways to incorporate more milk into your diet:

  • Drink it straight as a refreshing beverage
  • Use it as the base when cooking oatmeal or blending smoothies at home
  • Add milk to mashed potatoes for extra creaminess
  • Blend your milk of choice with cheese or nuts and herbs to create pasta sauces
  • Use milk in homemade popsicles and ice creams
  • Add milk to your coffee or tea
  • Add milk to scrambled eggs for creamy flavor and fluffy texture

If you drink non-dairy milk, consider choosing a product that’s fortified with calcium and vitamin D. If you prefer to choose non-fortified milk, make sure you meet your calcium needs from other calcium-rich foods like canned sardines, canned salmon with bones, bok choy, almonds, sesame seeds, and fortified tofu.

If possible, choose non-dairy milk made from simple ingredients. Many plant-based milks contain added sugars, artificial flavors, low-quality oils, gums, and ingredients like carboxymethyl cellulose—an additive that promotes gut inflammation.

A Quick Review

There’s no single healthiest milk for all. Which milk is best for you depends on factors like your lactose tolerance, food allergies, cardiovascular health, protein needs, and flavor preferences. Some milk options also offer more nutrients than others.

You can find more and more products at stores. For example, walnut milk and sunflower milk are two other dairy-free options.

If you choose non-dairy milk, look for a product fortified with vitamin D and calcium that contains simple ingredients with minimal additives. You can also experiment with making dairy-free milk at home.

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