Milk Alternatives: Which is Best?

By: Laura Kenny MS, RD, CD

Grocery stores are becoming well-stocked with milk alternatives, but consumers should not assume that all products are nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk.  Of particular importance to the American diet, cow’s milk is a key source of protein, calcium and vitamin D.  So…should you choose soy, rice, almond, hemp or just stick with cow milk?  Read below for nutritional descriptions on each option to see which one fits your nutritional needs best.  For reference, 8 fluid ounces (fl oz) of 1% cow’s milk has 105 calories, 2.4 grams (g) fat (mainly saturated), 12 g carbohydrates, 8 g protein, 300 mg calcium and 100 IU vitamin D.

Soy Milk: Soy milk is the most common milk alternative and provides 80-120 calories per 8 fl oz depending on if flavored or unflavored.  Soy milk is not naturally high in calcium or vitamin D so be sure the product is fortified and should contain around 350 mg of calcium and 100 IU vitamin D per 8 fl oz.  Soy milk also has 7 g of plant protein, 3 g of healthy fat and 8 g of carbohydrate.

Rice Milk: Rice milk contains 120 calories in 8 fl oz and has around 300 mg of calcium and 100 IU vitamin D in an “enriched” product.  Rice milk is primarily carbohydrates (22 g per 8 fl oz) and is not naturally high in protein (1 g per 8 fl oz).   Consumers who prefer rice milk need to be sure to consume adequate protein from other sources and always purchase an “enriched” rice milk product.

Almond Milk: Almond milk has 30-70 calories in 8 fl oz depending if unsweetened or sweetened.  It also contains between 300-450 mg of calcium, 100 IU vitamin D and only 1 g of carbohydrate.  Similar to rice milk, almond milk does not contain a lot of protein (1-2 g per 8 fl oz).  Monounsaturated fats found in almond milk would be a great choice for individuals with elevated cholesterol or individuals at risk for heart disease.

Hemp Milk:   Hemp milk has between 70-170 calories per 8 fl oz depending on flavoring.  Per 8 fl oz, hemp milk has 300-500 mg calcium and 100 IU vitamin D.  It contains slightly more protein than the almond and rice alternatives (3 g per 8 fl oz) and 6 g of healthy polyunsaturated fat.  The flavored hemp milk products would be a good choice for individuals looking to gain weight the healthy way by increasing consumption of plant protein and healthy fat.

*Note: Nutrition information can vary by brand and flavor