Milk and Milk Alternatives

Written by Joyce Reich, Extension Associate

The old slogan of “milk does a body good” still holds true. According to the USDA National Nutrient Database, milk is a naturally good source of all kinds of nutrients including calcium, potassium, phosphorus, riboflavin, and vitamin B12. It also contains a fair amount of magnesium, thiamine, and zinc. Let’s look at some nutrients in milk and milk alternatives.


Milk is best known for being an excellent source of calcium, which helps build strong bones and prevents development of bone diseases like osteoporosis.  Calcium also plays other roles in the body such as energy metabolism, blood pressure regulation, and muscle contraction.1 An 8-ounce glass of milk provides 20-30 percent of the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for calcium for people over age 3. But we may be unlikely to get enough calcium if we don’t eat or drink dairy foods.2 The good news, though, is that milk alternatives like soy, rice, and almond milk are usually fortified with calcium so they provide the same amount as a glass of milk. However, some types of calcium are more easily absorbed by the body; on the ingredient list, look for calcium carbonate instead of calcium triphosphate.3


Milk is an excellent source of protein.  Proteins help your body do important things, like build and move muscles, transport molecules, and repair damage. But not all proteins are the same. Some amino acids can only be obtained from the diet; these are called essential amino acids. The proteins in milk are complete proteins, which contain all of the essential amino acids in the right amounts.5  Of the common milk alternatives, soy milk is the only one that contains a similar amount of protein. Soy protein is considered a complete, high quality vegetable protein, but it is lower in several essential amino acids compared to milk.4  

Fat and Carbohydrates

Whole cow’s milk contains saturated fat and cholesterol. Low fat or fat free milks are recommended because they have only minimal amounts. Soy, rice, and almond milks are generally low in total and saturated fat and do not contain cholesterol because they are not derived from animals. Coconut milk generally contains a significant amount of saturated fat.

Milk contains a naturally-occurring sugar called lactose. It can cause problems for some people whose bodies don’t make enough of the enzyme to break it down. Luckily, lactose-free milk is a widely available option. Soy, coconut, rice, and almond milks are sometimes available unsweetened which are very low in sugar. Look at the ingredients list to find out if sugar has been added.

Considerations and Recommendations

Another consideration to milk alternatives is cost. Dairy milk is usually two-thirds to half the cost of rice, soy, nut, or coconut milk according to the Midwest Dairy Council.

Two to three cups or the equivalent of per day of milk, dairy, or milk alternatives are usually recommended for kids and adults by the USDA Dietary Guidelines and MyPlate. Remember that even though milk is a healthy choice for kids and adults, milk and milk alternatives aren’t recommended for babies. Babies need specialized nutrition, such as breast milk or infant formula, until age 1. If your baby or child has milk-related issues, please consult your health care professional.

Whether you use fresh dairy milk or a milk alternative, choose wisely and what it best for you. Just remember, it is important for your overall health to eat calcium-rich foods.

Some ways that I like to boost my calcium intake is use milk in smoothies and cream soups. I also often sprinkle dry milk powder into cream soups, gravy, mashed potatoes, oatmeal, and casseroles. And I add cheese to everything…sandwiches, soups, casseroles, salads….

Pinterest pins (4)Orange Slushie

4 Servings


  • 1 (6 oz.) can frozen orange juice concentrate
  • 1 c. low-fat milk or milk alternative
  • 1/2 c. water
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla
  • 4 ice cubes


Place all ingredients in a blender and process on high until smooth. Serve right away.


  1. National Institutes of Health. Dietary supplement fact sheet: Calcium. Accessed May 25, 2016.
  2. Gao X, Wilde PE, Lichtenstein AH, Tucker KL. Meeting adequate intake for dietary calcium without dairy foods in adolescents aged 9-18 years (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2001-2002). J Am Diet Assoc. 2006; 106(11): 1759-1765.
  3. Zhao Y, Martin BR, Weaver CM. Calcium bioavailability of calcium carbonate fortified soymilk is equivalent to cow’s milk in young women. J Nutr. 2005; 135(10): 2379-82.
  4. Luiking YC, Deutz NEP, Jaekel M, Soeters PB. Casein and soy protein meals differentially affect whole-body splanchnic protein metabolism in healthy humans. J Nutr. 2005; 135: 1080-1087.

This post was reviewed by Morgan Hartline MS, RD, LMNT


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