Milk is a staple in the American diet, whether you drink it by the glass or use it while you cook. Many of your favorite go-to grocery store items likely contain milk products, too. Milk has been a mainstay for centuries, and there are more types of milk available today than ever before. If you’re looking to try a nondairy alternative because of food allergies, taste preference, diet or just plain curiosity, there’s no shortage of options.
Like most things in life, each of the different types of milk has its pros and cons when it comes to health, sustainability and other factors. Here’s what you should know to choose the one that’s right for you.
Traditional cow’s milk contains more protein than many popular alternatives. There are many varieties, ranging from skim to whole milk. While skim wins the prize for being low-calorie and high-protein, it contains a considerable amount of sugar. Though whole milk is high in calories and saturated fat, it allows for better absorption of its vitamins and minerals.
Cow’s milk also contains lactose, which is a common food intolerance that requires avoiding dairy products. Additionally, dairy cows can produce significant greenhouse gas emissions and pollute local water sources, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
This option is made from almonds, water and, in some cases, a sweetener. It’s usually low in calories compared to other types of milk. While it’s a great source of vitamin B, it contains very little protein, so you may want to avoid it if increasing protein intake is a priority for you.
On the sustainability side, things don’t look so great: It takes more than a gallon of water to produce a single almond. This is not ideal news for drought-prone California, which produces 80 percent of the world’s almonds.
This option has a great flavor and is excellent for cooking. While it’s a good source of calcium and vitamins, it contains very little protein. Like other coconut products, it contains saturated fat, which may be something to keep a tab on if you’re trying to keep your arteries clean and clear.
On the plus side, producing coconut milk requires less water and energy and produces fewer greenhouse gases than other milk alternatives, according to the nonprofit environmental magazine Grist.
Soy really packs a punch when it comes to per-serving delivery of protein, vitamins and minerals. If you can’t consume cow’s milk, it’s a solid alternative with a similar nutritional profile. There’s been concern over a connection between soy and increased breast cancer risk; however, the most recent research has all but debunked this claim. You should be safe if you consume soy products in moderation.
Soy milk production also requires less energy and resources than traditional milk. In fact, the water footprint of soy milk products is just 28 percent that of the average cow’s milk.
The nutritional makeup of cashew milk is similar to that of almond milk. But cashew milk has a sweeter, creamier taste and (surprisingly) more calcium than cow’s milk.
It contains very little protein, but unlike almonds, cashews crops are spread out across the globe and virtually unaffected by drought issues.
Rice milk is a great option for those who must avoid one or more of the above due to soy, dairy or nut allergies. However, it doesn’t stack up to the nutritional profiles of rival milk alternatives. Rice milk typically contains a large amount of sugar and not much in terms of vitamins or protein. Additionally, rice cultivation is among the top man-made contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.
There’s no such thing as perfect when it comes to milk — you’ll need to weigh the pros and cons (not to mention your personal taste) when choosing your favorite. If getting all the right nutrients is your top priority, the more, the merrier: You can incorporate multiple types into your diet to get the maximum nutritional benefits.