The Differences Between 8 Types of Milk

Need some help deciding what to drink? Here's a list of commonly consumed milks.

woman looking at milk in the supermarket

Noel Hendrickson / Getty Images

Stand in front of a dairy case these days and you may feel a little overwhelmed by the options. There are so many types of milk made from a wide range of ingredients that it can be hard to figure out what's best.

"Nutritionally and functionally, these milk products are very different," says Bonnie Y. Modugno, a registered dietitian and nutritionist in Los Angeles. "As with every question about what to eat, the answer lies with the individual's metabolic status and personal preference."

Here's what you need to know about several popular types of milk in order to make an informed decision.

1. Almond Milk

Almond milk is low in protein compared to some of its counterparts, but it has a wide range of other nutrients. (Photo: Africa Studio/Shutterstock)

This is a dairy-free milk created by toasting and grinding the crunchy nuts and blending them with water. The result is an appealing milk with a creamy texture and a nutty taste that accounts for an impressive 64% of the nondairy milk market share in the U.S.

Comes in: Sweetened and unsweetened flavors

Wins points for: Magnesium, selenium and vitamin E, which can improve the health of your bones, provide antioxidants, and help your immune system and metabolism, says Candice Seti, a certified nutrition coach in San Diego.

Almond milk is also cholesterol- and lactose-free, making it a popular alternative for those who want to avoid dairy products or those who are lactose-intolerant. Because almond milk is low in sodium, it’s also a great option for anyone to maintain a healthy heart.

"Where almond milk beats out the competition is with calories, carbs and sugars and calcium," Seti says. "At only 30 calories, almond milk is the lowest-calorie option, and it has 0 grams of carbs and sugar and provides a whopping 45% of your daily calcium—even more than cow's milk."

Loses points for: When compared with soy milk and cow's milk, almond milk is very low in protein. Almonds require significant amounts of water to grow, and California, where 80% of the world's almonds are grown, is a parched state experiencing prolonged drought.

2. Cow's Milk

A pitcher and glass of milk in a pasture with cows
Dairy milk has lots of protein and vitamins, but it's also high in saturated fats. Alexander Chaikin/Shutterstock

The most popular of milks, this is produced by the mammary glands of cows.

Comes in: Whole milk, 2% fat, 1% fat, skim

Wins points for: This milk is high in protein (and a complete protein, which means it has all the essential amino acids the body needs to synthesize protein), calcium (it provides 29% of the daily recommended intake), and vitamin B12, a vitamin that can only be naturally found in animal products, says Rebecca Lewis, a registered dietitian for Hello Fresh, a meal delivery service.

"This vitamin is critical for our brain function and nervous systems as well as the carrier that brings iron into our bloodstream to help form new blood cells." It's touted as the milk to drink for strong bones and muscles and even to help fight cavities. "Since it's an alkaline fluid, it reduces the acidity in our mouths," Lewis says. "This helps fight plaque formation, reduces the risk of cavities and prevents tooth decay."

Loses points for: Milk is higher in saturated fat than other options on this list. It has a much greater environmental impact than plant-based milks. From Our World in Data: "It causes around three times as much greenhouse gas emissions; uses around ten times as much land; two to twenty times as much freshwater; and creates much higher levels of eutrophication."

3. Oat Milk

oat milk
Oat milk is made by soaking oats in water, blending, and straining the mixture. Irina Rostokina/Shutterstock

Oat milk comes from Sweden and is slowly gaining in popularity at coffee shops across the U.S. It can also easily be made at home with just oats and water.

Comes in: Organic or conventional in original and flavored varieties

Wins points for: Oat milk is high in soluble fiber and contains beta-glucans. (Beta-glucans are sugars found in oats and can help boost a person's immune system.) It also contains more B vitamins than soy or coconut milk. It's a good alternative for people with nut and soy allergies.

Oats require six times less water to grow than almonds, so this milk has a smaller environmental impact. The crop can be raised in diverse locations around the world. The oat pulp left over after processing is often repurposed into livestock feed.

Loses points for: Low in protein, vitamins, sugar, and minerals. Oat milk also contains more fat than other milk alternatives. It has half the protein and double the carbohydrates of dairy milk, and it can be expensive.

4. Hemp Milk

Hemp milk in a measuring cup on a wooden table with seeds
Hemp milk is a creamy, cholesterol- and blood pressure-friendly option. marekuliasz/Shutterstock

This milk is made from hemp seeds that are soaked and ground in water. The result is a nutty-beany tasting milk that's creamier than other milk options. It's a fairly new addition to the U.S. market, arriving on store shelves in 2018.

Comes in: Organic, non-GMO, and unconventional options in unsweetened, original, and flavored varieties

Wins points for: Hemp seeds are packed with omega-3 fatty acids that can help keep cholesterol levels and blood pressure in check. With 140 calories, 5 grams of fat and 3 grams of protein per cup, hemp milk is a nutritious alternative to cow's milk, especially if you can't eat dairy foods for allergy, medical, or lifestyle reasons.

Loses points for: Fat content. Unsweetened hemp milk has more fat than other milk options. It is low in protein compared to other plant milks, and some options have added sugar. Hemp production uses more water than oats, soybeans, and peas, but still less than almonds and dairy cows.

5. Kefir

A pitcher of kefir - a fermented yogurt-like beverage
Kefir is fermented, making it a different milk choice. (Photo: Sea Wave/Shutterstock)

Kefir is a fermented milk that resembles a drinkable yogurt in taste, similar to buttermilk. It can be made from cow, goat, or sheep milk, and sometimes tastes carbonated thanks to the fermentation process. It's used in the same as milk would be—drunk in a glass, added to smoothies or cereal, used in baking.

Comes in: Organic or conventional and sold as bottled drinks, frozen kefir, and cheese

Wins points for: Being high in beneficial yeast, probiotic bacteria, protein, calcium, vitamins D and B12

Loses points for: Kefir may cause constipation and/or intestinal cramping.

6. Rice Milk

homemade rice milk

Westend61 / Getty Images

The most hypoallergenic of all the milk options, rice milk is a dairy-free milk made from boiled rice, brown rice syrup, and brown rice starch. It's also the sweetest of the milk options.

Comes in: Sweetened and unsweetened

Wins points for: Rice milk is very low in fat and also contains high levels of magnesium to control blood pressure, says Seti. It has lots of calcium and vitamins A, B12, and D. It's also dairy-free, so it's good for anyone who is lactose intolerant.

Loses points for: Rice milk doesn't contain as much calcium or protein as cow's milk. It also contains high levels of carbohydrates, making it a relatively high glycemic food. "Rice milk comes in at 26 grams of carbs per serving, significantly more than all of the others," Seti says. "This makes it higher in sugars as well. Rice milk is also the highest calories, so for anyone watching their calorie and carb intake, rice milk might not be a good fit."

7. Soy Milk

Glass of soy milk and soybeans on woven tablecloths
Soy milk offers a complete protein, like dairy milk, but it can affect hormonal balance. vanillaechoes/Shutterstock

Soy milk is produced by soaking dried soybeans and grinding them in water.

Comes in: Flavored and unflavored varieties

Wins points for: Soy milk is a complete protein (like cow's milk) and fiber; it's also low in sodium and can help reduce LDL, or "bad" cholesterol. A 2018 study in the Journal of Food Science and Technology compared the nutritional profiles of soy, almond, rice, and coconut milks and found that soy came out on top. After cow's milk, which is the most nutritious, soy was the clear winner. It's also the highest in protein of the alternative milks tested, with about 8 grams for an 8-ounce serving.

Loses points for: Soy is considered a phytoestrogen (or plant-sourced estrogen), and the soy estrogens in soy milk can affect hormonal balance. "It's also one of the highest milks in terms of fat and is lowest in calcium," Seti says.

8. Coconut Milk

coconut milk and coconut
Coconut milk is popular in Asia and South America. HandmadePictures/Shutterstock

Coconut milk isn't the liquid inside the coconut. Instead, it's made by shredding the meat of a freshly opened coconut, then simmering it in water and straining out the pieces. The fat-rich cream layer is combined with coconut water to make milk.

Comes in: Sweetened and unsweetened

Wins points for: Coconut milk is low in calories, with about 45 calories per 8-ounce serving. Many people prefer the taste over other alternative milks. Coconut milk has a creamy texture, similar to cow's milk, making it an easy substitute in recipes. It's a staple in Asian cooking.

Loses points for: Coconut milk has no protein. It's also high in saturated fat, but some nutritionists argue that these are medium-chain fatty acids, which only raise good cholesterol. Canned varieties can have numerous additives, so read the ingredient list before purchasing and opt for the purest ones.