What “Milk” is in the Milk Aisle?

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For the past few weeks, we’ve been reviewing what’s available in the various aisles of the grocery store. If you’ve been shopping online, you’re likely sticking to your usual list and either picking things up or having them delivered to your door. If you’re physically going inside the grocery to shop, you may be in a hurry to get through to reduce your risk of COVID exposure. Either way, you may be missing new products that are out.

For many of us, the term “milk” meant one product- cow’s milk. Over the years, consumer demand for plant-based milks grew due to lactose intolerance, dairy allergy or the desire to follow a vegan or animal-free lifestyle. According to a recent survey by Cargill, roughly 50% of consumers use plant-based milks. 1

But not all kinds of milk are created equal. This week we’ll take a look at what’s out there in the dairy and non-dairy world.

Cow’s milk

Cow’s milk, as most of us know it, comes in four varieties. Whole milk or full-fat milk contains 3.5% milk fat and has a fuller, creamier texture due to its high saturated fat content. It’s also higher in calories yielding 150 calories per serving. Two percent milk fat, often seen with a dark blue cap and known as low-fat milk, provides half the fat of whole milk and 120 calories per 8 oz. serving. One percent milk is even lower in fat and calories, providing 100 calories and 2.5 grams of fat. Skim milk, also known as fat-free milk, is the lowest in calories at 90 calories per serving and zero grams of fat.

Each milk provides 8 grams of protein and 12 grams of carbohydrate. As skim milk has had the fat removed, it is fortified with fat-soluble vitamins, A and D. All varieties of milk provide riboflavin as well as 300 mg of dietary calcium, roughly 30% of the DRI.

Plant-based milk

After several lawsuits from the dairy industry, the FDA determined in 2019 that non-dairy “milk” may be called milk according to the first amendment. For a long time, soymilk held the spotlight in the non-dairy category, but then came rice and almond milk. Now, you can find coconut milk, cashew milk, pea protein, and more recently oat milk. 2

Each milk varies nutritionally. While almond and rice milk are lowest in protein and calories, they are fortified to provide the same (or sometimes more) calcium, and vitamins A and D. Cashew and coconut milk tend to be higher in fat and calorie content while oat milk is equivalent to 2% milk in calorie and fat content, but has the benefit of soluble fiber. Pea protein-based milk, such as Ripple, is another alternative for consumers that is vegan and higher in protein than nut-based milk. Hemp milk is another new milk that’s commercially available. This type contains more heart-healthy polyunsaturated fats and does not separate in hot drinks, making it a good substitute for higher fat coffee creamer.

Which milk is right for you?

The type of milk you choose (or don’t choose) is a matter of taste, tolerance, availability, health benefits, and cost. The consumption of cow’s milk is considered safe, though health experts advise low-fat varieties to reduce saturated fat intake as it relates to heart disease and some cancers. Excessive calcium (from any source) raises the risk of prostate cancer. 3, 4   Compared to plant-based milk, cow’s milk is the least expensive and most widely available. Soymilk is frequently available at most groceries, but you may need to try specialty stores for the newer plant-based milk.

Plant-based milk including soy and nut-based milk is becoming more popular as people move towards a vegan lifestyle, though individuals with soy or nut allergies need to be careful about which milk they choose. Soy milk is the closest (nutritionally) to cow’s milk, but some varieties may contain more sugar. Coconut or oat milk may work for those with allergies but will come at a higher price and are less widely available. Almond milk is a good alternative for those requiring a low protein diet, as in kidney or liver disease.

Ways to use milk

  • Use milk in place of coffee or coffee creamer to boost calcium and protein intake with less fat.
  • Add soy or other milk to smoothies.
  • Try plant-based milk in oatmeal for a smoother texture.
  • Substitute almond or oat milk for regular milk if you require a lower protein diet.
  • Use coconut or cashew milk in soup or curry-based dishes.
  • Have almond milk over your breakfast cereal if you’re limiting calories or carbs.
  • Try hemp milk to boost polyunsaturated fat intake.

Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD


  1. Half of Dairy Consumers in the U.S. Also Use Dairy Alternatives, New Research Out of Cargill Shows | Nutritional Outlook
  2. https://www.forbes.com/sites/nicksibilla/2019/01/31/fda-crackdown-on-calling-almond-milk-milk-could-violate-the-first-amendment/#34a82d847b70
  3. Clifton PM, Keogh JB. A systematic review of the effect of dietary saturated and polyunsaturated fat on heart disease. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2017 Dec;27(12):1060-1080.
  4. Rahmati S, Azami M, Delpisheh A, Hafezi Ahmadi MR, Sayehmiri K. Total Calcium (Dietary and Supplementary) Intake and Prostate Cancer: a Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Asian Pac J Cancer Prev. 2018 Jun 25;19(6):1449-1456.

This article is part of a series on healthy shopping and shopping and nutrition research.

  1. Frequency of shopping means a healthier diet
  2. Fruit
  3. Vegetables
  4. Meat
  5. Grains 
  6. Dairy

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