If the dairy aisle could do the #10yearchallenge, it wouldn’t even recognize itself. I mean, half of what’s in the dairy aisle these days isn’t even dairy at all.
Back in the day, you had just a few types of milk to choose from: whole milk, skim milk, and maybe soy for the hippies. Today, though? As more and more people ditch dairy for a plant-based diet, options abound.
From all sorts of dairy milks (I saw half-percent milk the other day, I kid you not) to a seemingly endless array of plant-based “milks” made from oats, cashews, and everything in between, the selection is honestly a little overwhelming. (How does one milk a cashew, exactly?)
While you can use pretty much any of these milk and milk alternatives to lighten your coffee or soak your cereal, there are some subtle and not-so-subtle differences in taste, texture, and nutrition, you should know about, says dietitian Brittany Modell, RD, CDN, founder of Brittany Modell Nutrition and Wellness.
Plus, there are a few things to look out for in those plant-based milks. “Be wary of the added sugar and other ingredients,” Modell says. Look for a carton that’s unsweetened and be mindful that thickening agents, like carrageenan or xanthan gum, while probably harmless, are pretty under-researched.
Which creamy liquid should you ultimately go for? Consider this your guide to all of your milk and not-milk options.
1 Skim Milk
“However, we now know that fat isn’t so bad after all,” says Modell. “In fact, studies show that fat actually increases satiety.”
Though skim may get the job done in that bowl of cereal, Modell doesn’t recommend it for baking or cooking, since it does not add much flavor or richness.
Per cup: 80 calories, 0 g fat (0 g sat fat), 125 mg sodium, 12 g carbs, 12 g sugar, 12 g fiber, 8 g protein
2 Whole Milk
Though a cup of whole milk contains five grams of saturated fat (the kind many experts recommend limiting to no more than 10 percent of your total calories), it can absolutely be part of an overall healthy diet.
Whole milk comes in clutch in cooking and baking, and acts as a tenderizer and moisturizer, says Modell. Cakes and muffins made with whole milk tend to not dry out as much and have a finer crumb.
Per cup: 150 calories, 8 g fat (5 g sat fat), 106 mg sodium, 12 g carbs, 12 g sugar, 0 g fiber, 8 g protein
3 2% Milk
When it comes to cooking, 2 percent is great when you want to cut down on fat without totally sacrificing the lusciousness of your eats.
Per cup: 122 calories, 5 g fat (3 g sat fat), 125 mg sodium, 12 g carbs, 12 g sugar, 0 g fiber, 8 g protein
4 Lactose-Free Milk
To make lactose-free milk out of regular dairy milk, the lactose (the sugar found in milk that gives lots of people’s stomachs trouble) is hydrolyzed, meaning it is predigested. Otherwise, lactose-free milk offers all the good stuff (like calcium and other nutrients) that’s in regular milk.
That said, if you digest regular milk no problem, lactose-free milk probably isn’t worth the slightly higher price tag.
Per cup (2% lactose-free milk): 122 calories, 5 g fat (3 g sat fat), 115 mg sodium, 12 g carbs, 12 g sugar, 0 g fiber, 8 g protein
Though it works in cooking and baking, almond milk is thinner in both texture and flavor than cow’s milk, so it won’t cut the bitterness of coffee as well.
Per cup (unsweetened): 37 calories, 2.5 g fat (0 g sat fat), 173 sodium, 1.5 g carbs, 0 g sugar, 0 g fiber, 1.5 g protein
6 Cashew Milk
Like almond milk, cashew milk is low in calories and fat. “Cashew milk is also a good source of polyunsaturated fats, vitamin, A, and vitamin E,” Modell says.
With a nutty, creamy rich texture, cashew milk is a great addition to smoothies.
Per cup (unsweetened): 25 calories, 0 g fat (0 g sat fat), 160 mg sodium, 1 g carbs, 0 g sugar, 0 g fiber, <1 g protein
Though it’s higher in calories than many other plant-based milks, it’s also a little higher in protein. Oh, and that creaminess? It comes from oat milk’s higher carb count, which also provides some extra fiber.
Thanks to oat milk’s heartier flavor and texture, it’s become a popular plant-based milk in coffee shops. Try it in a latte when you’re feeling fancy.
Per cup (unsweetened): 100 calories, 7 g fat (1 g sat fat), 100 mg sodium, 9 g carbs, 2 g sugar, 1 g fiber, 2 g protein
8 Rice Milk
Rice milk is a popular option for dairy-free eaters with soy or nut allergies, says Modell.
Though naturally sweet, it has a distinct flavor that doesn’t taste as milk-like as many other plant-based alternatives. Unless you have an allergy or particularly like its unique flavor, rice milk prooobably isn’t about to be your new go-to.
Per cup (unsweetened): 113 calories, 2.5 g fat (0 g sat fat), 94 mg sodium, 22 g carbs, 13 g sugar, 0.5 g fiber, 0.5 g protein
9 Soy Milk
“A rich source of protein and carbohydrates, soy milk is the plant-based alternative most comparable to cow’s milk,” Modell says. (It’s just lower in saturated fat and doesn’t natural contain calcium, though it’s often fortified.)
In Modell’s opinion, if you’re going to cook or bake with a milk alternative, soy milk gets the job done beautifully.
Per cup: 105 calories, 3.5 g fat (0.5 g sat fat), 115 mg sodium, 12 g carbs, 9 g sugar, 0.5 g fiber, 6.5 g protein
Coconut milk is high in fat, particularly saturated fat, which gives it a super thick and creamy texture.
Though coconut milk’s fat content makes it great for cooking and baking, its distinct flavor means it doesn’t typically work in coffee or cereal, unless you really love coconut.
Per cup (full-fat, canned): 445 calories, 48 g fat (43 g sat fat), 29 mg sodium, 6 g carbs, 4.5 g protein