No single milk can claim to be the healthiest. The best choice will depend on your metabolism, dietary needs, and current diet.
The variety of milk in stores is wider than ever before, which can make choosing the healthiest milk a little complicated.
People once heralded cow's milk as vital, particularly for children. And studies support the idea that it provides important health benefits.
But more recently, some researchers have called the benefits of cow's milk into question. And there’s evidence that it carries risks for some people.
Meanwhile, some of us have turned away from cow's milk due to environmental and ethical concerns.
While manufacturers of plant-based milks often market their products as a healthy choice, many are highly processed and contain added ingredients.
In this article, we look at the nutritional profiles of nine of the most popular milks. And we dive deep into milks’ possible effects on your gut health, weight, and heart health.
1. Cow's milk
Cow's milk is nutritionally dense, offering good amounts of protein, calcium, potassium, and a range of vitamins.
Whole, reduced-fat, low-fat, and fat-free varieties are available. Manufacturers often add vitamin D.
One cup (240 milliliters) of whole cow's milk contains:
protein: 8 grams
sugar: 12 g
total fat: 11.7 g
calcium: 300 milligrams
potassium: 366 mg
fiber: 0 mg
One cup of reduced fat (2%) cow’s milk contains:
protein: 8.2 g
sugar: 11.9 g
total fat: 4.6 g
calcium: 307 mg
potassium: 388 mg
fiber: 0 g
Cow's milk is largely unprocessed, though manufacturers usually pasteurize it to remove harmful bacteria. Luckily, the pasteurization process doesn’t have a large impact on the nutritional value.
Unpasteurized, or raw, milk is popular with some people who prefer completely unprocessed foods.
But drinking raw milk does carry some risks, and you shouldn’t give it to children under 5.
Cow’s milk can also be hard to digest if you have a lactose intolerance or are recovering from the stomach flu.
2. Lactose-free milk
Manufacturers create this by filtering cow’s milk to remove most of a sugar called lactose. Afterward, they add an enzyme called lactase that digests lactose.
One cup of lactose-free whole milk contains:
protein: 8 g
sugar: 11.7 g
total fat: 7.8 g
calcium: 300 mg
potassium: 366 mg
fiber: 0 g
The nutritional profile of lactose-free milk is identical to that of regular cow's milk. It’s for people who have a lactose intolerance.
3. Goat’s milk
Goat's milk can be easier to digest than cow's milk. Plus, it’s more nutritionally dense, and it’s high in vitamin A. But the strong flavor isn’t for everyone.
One cup of goat's milk contains:
protein: 8.7 g
sugar: 10.9 g
total fat: 10.1 g
calcium: 327 mg
potassium: 498 mg
fiber: 0 g
4. Soy milk
Soy milk is the original plant-based milk — it’s been available for decades. It’s manufactured from soaked and ground soybeans, and you can make it at home.
One cup of unsweetened soy milk contains:
protein: 8.7 g
sugar: 1.4 g
total fat: 5.2 g
calcium: 246.4 mg, though this varies
potassium: 385.5 mg
fiber: less than 1.1 g
Like cow's milk, soy milk contains protein, but it has less fat and potassium. Soy milk also has other components, like soy isoflavones.
Manufacturers often fortify soy milk and other plant milks with vitamins and minerals.
The amount of calcium can vary — it depends on what the manufacturer has used to fortify the milk.
Sweetened varieties contain added sugar. There may also be thickeners and salt in soy milk.
When it comes to plant-based milks, one review of research concluded that soy milk is the closest to cow's milk, in terms of its nutritional value.
5. Oat milk
Oat milk is easy to froth, which makes it popular in coffee.
One cup of unsweetened oat milk contains:
protein: 2 g
sugar: 5.8 g
total fat: 6.8 g
calcium: 368.5 mg
potassium: 368.5 mg
fiber: less than 1.8 g
Oat milk has more fiber than most plant milks. But due to the manufacturing process, very few of the healthy compounds in oats make it into the milk.
Watch out for oat milks that include sweeteners, oils, thickening agents, emulsifiers, stabilizers, or preservatives.
6. Almond milk
Makers of almond milk soak almonds and strain the resulting liquid, removing most parts of the nut that are beneficial for health.
One cup of unsweetened almond milk contains:
protein: 1.3 g
sugar: 0 g
total fat: 3 g
calcium: 422.1 mg
potassium: 75.6 mg
fiber: less than 1.1 g
Some brands of almond milk contain salt and added vitamins and minerals, as well as stabilizers and preservatives.
Check the packaging to see what vitamins the manufacturer has added.
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7. Hemp milk
To make hemp milk, manufacturers soak hemp seeds and grind them down. This milk is low in carbohydrates — and it has fewer calories than cow’s milk and most other plant milks.
One cup of plain hemp milk contains:
protein: 3 g
sugar: 0 g
total fat: 4.5 g
calcium: 283 mg
potassium: 101 mg
fiber: 0 g
Store-bought hemp milk may contain salt and added vitamins and minerals, as well as stabilizers and preservatives.
8. Coconut milk
Coconut milk is gaining popularity as an alternative to cow’s milk. It has many uses in cooking, and its flavor can shine in smoothies.
Making it involves mixing the white part of the coconut with water.
One cup of plain coconut milk contains:
protein: 0.5 g
sugar: 6.1 g
total fat: 5 g
calcium: 459 mg
potassium: 46 mg
fiber: 0 g
Compared with cow's milk, coconut milk has much less protein. Some varieties contain stabilizers, salt, flavorings, and added vitamins.
9. Rice milk
Rice milk has much less protein than several other plant-based milks. However, it tends to have more manganese and selenium.
One cup of plain rice milk contains:
protein: 0.7 g
sugar: 12.9 g
total fat: 2.4 g
calcium: 288 mg
potassium: 65.9 mg
fiber: 0.7 g
Store-bought rice milk often contains added oils, salt, and sweeteners. Some people make it at home to avoid these added chemicals.
Milk and health
Next, we’ll look at what the research says about how different milks might affect certain areas of health.
A systematic review from 2020 found that consuming dairy may increase the amount of helpful gut bacteria. But it didn’t seem to improve the diversity of gut-dwelling microorganisms.
It’s worth noting that this study included fermented dairy foods like kefir and yogurt, which may have had a bearing on the findings.
In the end, the best milk for your gut depends on many factors. If you’re generally healthy and can tolerate cow's milk, it could be a good option.
If you prefer plant milks, make sure to avoid those with added sugar and emulsifiers. Some emulsifiers may cause inflammation in your gut.
At ZOE, we run the largest nutrition science study in the world, and we know how important the microbes in your gut are for your overall health.
If you want to learn more about the bugs living in your gut and the best ways to eat with them in mind, you can take our free quiz.
Some old research suggested that low-fat cow's milk and other milk with added calcium could help with weight loss. This could be due to the high calcium content in milk, as calcium is thought to increase metabolism.
Another older study involved 14 participants who tried a calorie-restricted diet. The results suggested that soy milk was as effective as skimmed cow's milk at promoting weight loss.
However, a meta-analysis of 22 studies concluded that milk consumption doesn’t aid weight loss.
If you’re looking to lose weight, just adding milk to your diet is unlikely to help.
But drinking milk instead of sugary beverages like sodas or fruit juices could reduce the amount of added sugar you consume.
Dairy products contain saturated fat, which could contribute to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and stroke if you have too much of it.
However, a recent review of research found that drinking up to 200 ml of cow’s milk a day didn’t seem to affect cardiovascular health.
If you’d like to learn more about saturated fats, you can listen to the ZOE Science & Nutrition podcast on the topic.
Dairy milks typically have the most nutritional value. Among the plant options, soy milk comes closest to the nutritional profile of cow’s and goat’s milks.
Many plant-based milks are lower in saturated fat and calories than cow's milk.
But the manufacturing process often destroys the parts of the plant that provide nutrition, and it adds lots of new ingredients.
Many companies market their plant milks as healthier than dairy, but little research can back up these claims.
There’s so much variety in plant milks that we can't lump them all together. They may not be bad for our health, but they’re not quite delivering the health benefits that most of us think.
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