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Which ‘milk’ should you drink?

Products sold as milk come from coconuts, almonds, cows and rice. Products sold as milk come from coconuts, almonds, cows and rice.


Market shelves are filled with varieties of nondairy beverages that call themselves milk. They may taste good whirled into a smoothie or poured over cereal. But they likely cost more than cow’s milk, and they are probably not nutritionally equivalent.

Upstate registered dietitian nutritionist Maureen Franklin urges adults to read the food labels to see whether their chosen milk alternatives measure up. Many nondairy beverages add vitamins and minerals, along with sugars, so their nutritional content may differ greatly from that of regular milk.

Some people avoid milk and other dairy products because of an intolerance to lactose, a sugar found in milk, or because they prefer plant-based foods.

(Hear Maureen Franklin explain the differences between cow's milk and its alternatives in this "HealthLink on Air" interview.)

A few surprises: Rice milk is higher in carbohydrates than you might imagine. Almond milk is far lower in protein. Pea milk has a creamy texture that Franklin finds most similar to cow’s milk. And coconut milk? Look out for saturated fats.

One cup of traditional cow’s milk contains 8 grams of what Franklin calls “good, high quality protein.” It’s also a good source of calcium and potassium and contains only natural sugars. Milk is a blend of protein, carbohydrates and fat, the total content of which depends on whether it’s whole, 2 percent, 1 percent or skim milk.

What about kids?

For dairy beverages for children over age 1, pediatricians recommend whole cow’s milk.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says infants should receive only breast milk or formula for the first six months. Then, at age 1, babies transition to whole cow’s milk for at least a year.  “The fat in the whole milk is really important for brain development,” says pediatrician Beth Nelsen, MD, associate professor of pediatrics at Upstate.

She also says new research suggests kids should keep drinking whole milk beyond their second birthday to help keep kids at a healthy weight. “If you drink a glass of whole milk with a meal, you get fuller faster,” Nelsen explains.

As children grow, calcium intake is important for lifelong bone health. Nelsen says cow’s milk remains the best dietary source for that.

Are any of the nondairy beverages more nutritious than cow’s milk?

“Some can be,” Franklin says. “They can be higher than milk in terms of calcium, or they could be higher, maybe, in terms of a certain vitamin. It really depends on what that manufacturer has chosen to add to that product.”

Your calcium needs

How much calcium your body needs changes as you age. Females have higher calcium requirements than males because of the effects of the female hormone estrogen on bone formation. Calcium is also required to keep our heart, muscles and nerves functioning properly, and for blood to clot. The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine provides these recommendations for daily calcium intake:

Birth to 6 months: 200 milligrams

6 to 12 months: 260 milligrams

1 to 3 years: 700 milligrams

4 to 8 years: 1,000 milligrams

9 to 18 years: 1,300 milligrams

19 to 50 years: 1,000 milligrams

Males 51 to 70 years: 1,000 milligrams

Females 51 to 70 years: 1,200 milligrams

70 years and older: 1,000 milligrams

If you don’t like milk

Cow’s milk is a great source of calcium, but if you can’t stomach it, here are some other calcium-rich options. Read food labels for exact calcium content:

Almond milk

Baked beans, canned

Bok choy

Broccoli and broccoli rabe

Cereals, fortified

Cheese (American, cheddar, mozzarella, feta or ricotta)

Collard greens


Oatmeal, fortified

Orange juice, fortified

Rice milk

Salmon, canned with bones

Sardines, canned with bones


Soybeans or soy milk


Source: National Osteoporosis Foundation

Upstate Health magazine fall 2019 coverThis article appears in the fall 2019 issue of Upstate Health magazine. Click here for the full online version of the magazine.