Because these milks are produced from different animals or plants, their nutrition profiles differ somewhat. However, most non-dairy milk alternatives have been fortified with calcium and vitamin D.
The old stand-by. This familiar friend is high in calcium and has about twice the protein of other milks. Choose skim milk to avoid unhealthy saturated fat. Organic milk is made without growth hormones, pesticides, antibiotics or fertilizers, but it has not been scientifically proven to be nutritionally superior to regular cow milk.
Raw milk is animal milk that has not been pasteurized--the process of heating a food (usually liquid) to a specific temperature for a defined amount of time, and then immediately cooling it. Raw milk can contain dangerous bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria monocytogenes, Campylobacter jejuni, and Yersinia enterocolitic. These strains of bacteria can cause serious illness or even death.
Soy milk is produced by soaking and grinding soybeans with water and then straining them. Soymilk is certainly the most popular non-dairy milk alternative and it contains high-quality protein, no cholesterol and is low in fat.
Almond milk, which has become increasingly more popular in recent years, is made from ground almonds that have been mixed with water. Many people opt for almond milk for its nutty taste. It's also low in calories--one cup (unsweetened) contains only 40 calories. It's rich in magnesium, potassium, vitamin E and heart-healthy fats. Almond milk is very low in carbohydrate (1 gram per cup), which makes it a good choice for diabetics. One downside to almond milk is that it contains very little protein (about 1 gram per cup), so if you drink only almond milk, be sure to get enough protein from other sources. Also spotted on shelves are milks made from other nuts.
Rice milk is made from boiled rice, brown rice syrup, brown rice starch and water. Commercial rice milk often has thickening agents, sugar and flavorings added to it. Rice milk is a good choice for those with food allergies because it contains no soy or lactose. However, it provides less protein and vitamins A and C than other milks.
Coconut milk, made the ground meat and juice from coconuts, has traditionally been sold in a can and contains a staggering 550 calories a cup and more than two days worth of saturated fat. However, some new coconut milk beverages (like the kind from So Delicious) contain only about 50 calories a cup but still has about 5 grams of saturated fat (25% Daily Value).
Goat milk is commonly consumed in many countries around the world and contains the same amount of calcium as cow milk. Its flavor has been described as sweet and salty.
Sheep milk, although not popular in the U.S., is commonly consumed throughout Europe and the Mediterranean region. Sheep milk contains more vitamin A, vitamin B, vitamin E, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium than cow milk. Both sheep and goat milks may be more easily digested than cow milk because the fat globules are smaller.
Hemp milk is made from ground hemp seeds mixed with water and has a creamy, nutty flavor. One cup unsweetened contains 70 calories, 6 grams of fat, 1 gram of carbohydrate, and 2 grams of protein.
Flax milk is the most recent milk to hit the supermarkets. It's simply cold-pressed flax oil mixed with filtered water. One cup unsweetened has 50 calories and provides heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, but contains no protein.
Oat milk is made from oat groats (hulled oat grain broken into smaller pieces) and water. Sometimes other grains and beans are added. Oat milk is an excellent source of calcium, vitamin D and riboflavin, and one cup provides a surprising two grams of fiber. Oat milk does tend to be higher in calories--130 calories for one cup (unsweetened).
The bottom line: Avoid raw milk at all costs, unless you're a fan of potentially life-threatening food-borne illnesses. Choose a milk that suits your taste preferences and overall dietary goals. Avoid milks that are sweetened with caloric sweeteners, as these add unnecessary calories to an otherwise healthy beverage.
Kari Hartel, RD, LD is a Registered Dietitian and freelance writer based out of St. Louis, MO. Kari is passionate about nutrition education and the prevention of chronic disease through a healthy diet and active lifestyle. Kari holds a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from Southeast Missouri State University and is committed to helping people lead healthy lives. She completed a yearlong dietetic internship at OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, IL, where she worked with a multitude of clients and patients with complicated diagnoses. She planned, marketed, and implemented nutrition education programs and cooking demonstrations for the general public as well as for special populations, including patients with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, obesity, and school-aged children. Contact Kari at KariHartelRD@gmail.com.