Cows’ Milk Alternatives – What you need to know about plant–based milk alternative options

glass of milk sitting outside with grass in backgroundPeople choosing plant-based drinks in place of cows’ milk has surged over the past eight to ten years. The popularity has fueled increases in sales and there are many options to choose from in grocery and health food stores. The biggest reason many people choose plant-based drinks is that they don’t tolerate dairy or want to avoid animal products. Many people think they are just healthier options than cows’ milk. But there is confusion about what nutritional benefits plant –based drinks really offer and the differences among these choices. Soymilk, almond milk, hemp milk – which of these are nutritionally the best?

First, let’s look at what cows’ milk offers nutritionally. It is naturally rich in protein, calcium, potassium and several B vitamins and is typically fortified with Vitamins A and D. Cows’ milk does provide a superior nutritional profile when it comes to protein and calcium, in particular, in comparison to most plant-based drinks. 

Let’s look at some plant–based alternatives to milk to compare:


  • These milks have about the same amount of protein as cows’ milk and if fortified, have similar amounts of vitamins and minerals.
  • Soy does contain all the essential amino acids (these proteins cannot be made by the body), but it can be a common allergen – so people may be intolerant or sensitive.
  • They can have added sugar and higher sodium, so need to check labels. Go for the unflavored, organic soymilk for choices with the least additives.
  • Soymilk is the most nutritionally balanced of the plant-based milks and is closest to cows’ milk.
  • Soy is unique in that it contains a high concentration of isoflavones (a type of plant estrogen) that is similar in function to human estrogen, but with much weaker effects. There is not substantial evidence that soy definitively increases or decreases cancer risk.

Almond milk:

  • These milks have a lower protein content and poorer protein quality than cows’ milk or soymilk.
  • Some are higher in total fat, but it is primarily healthy fat.  
  • Many are fortified with calcium and Vitamins A and D. Check labels.
  • Almond milk is not recommended for those with nut allergy or sensitivities.

Cashew milk:

  • These milks have a lower protein content and poorer protein quality than cows’ milk or soymilk; is also low in other macronutrients.
  • A good alternative to almond milk if you don’t like the almond flavor and want lower calories.
  • Not recommended for those with nut allergies or sensitivities.

Hemp milk:

  • One of the few plant-based complete proteins containing all the essential amino acids.
  • Hemp milk is rich in Omega-3 fatty acids that are good for health.
  • Hemp milk is made from the hemp seeds from the hemp plant, cannabis sativa. It does not contain the psychoactive component of the Cannabis Sativa plant (used to make marijuana and CBD). 

Oat milk:

  • Oat milk has slightly more protein than many almond milks, but less than soy or cows’ milk.
  • It is higher in carbohydrates and calories and has a somewhat creamy taste.

Rice milk:

  • Calories come primarily from carbohydrates. 
  • Rice milk has a poor protein content and is low in nutrient content unless vitamins and calcium are added to it.
  • Rice milk is the least likely to trigger allergies.

Coconut milk:

  • Coconut milk has little or no protein.
  • These milks are high in saturated fat, which can raise the risk of heart disease.
  • All are fortified with Vitamin D, but few with calcium.
  • Many people with tree nut allergies are able to drink coconut milk – but it is important to test for coconut allergy specifically.

The Environmental Footprint:

Many people are choosing plant-based beverages to reduce the environmental impact. They can be healthier choices for the planet; however; drawing firm conclusions from studies can be challenging. A 2018 study from the University of Oxford, found that dairy milk uses nine times more land to make a liter of dairy milk than a liter of soy, oat, or almond milk. Greenhouse gas emissions from cows’ milk production were also much higher than plant-based alternatives.  

However; plant–based options can also have environmental impacts. Almond milk, for example requires large quantities of water for irrigation to produce. Additionally, these products are transported long distances to retail stores, such as almond products produced in California. Rice emits large amounts of greenhouse gases from the methane that bacteria create in flooded rice paddies. Soy and oat production can lead to high land use and perhaps deforestation. No matter what type of plant-based milk you buy, choose organic to reduce the environmental impact of pesticides. Shifting to plant-based choices is a generally good environmentally sustainable idea to wean away from dependence on meat and dairy.


All milk and plant-based milk alternatives offer various health advantages.  A good strategy may be to mix up the types of milk you drink. That way, you can get the best of each of them.  Remember to check the labels for ingredients like added sugar or unwanted additives to avoid those with undesirable add-ins. And choose milks with better protein and nutrient profiles. Knowing the difference in these milks will allow an informed decision regarding your nutrition and health. 

Article by Sharon Gray, UConn Extension

Updated May 19, 2020


Almond, oat and soymilk. Consumer Reports November 2019 p.33-35.

Going nuts about milk?  S. Ferreira January 25,2019 you-need-to-know-about-plant-based-milk-alternatives

Reducing Food’s Environmental Impacts Through Producers and Consumers, J. Poore & T. Nemecek Science 01, Jun 2018: Vol 360, Issue 6392, DOI: 10.1126/Science.aaq0216