A Dietitian’s Guide to Buying Milk

a buyer's guide to better milk

Buying a carton of milk used to be a pretty uncomplicated affair. Nowadays, the options are endless, with everything from grass fed to goat, cashew to coconut.  In our house, 1 % organic cow’s milk was always the refrigerator staple. These days I also stock a plant milk (or two), which changes depending on who is home and what looks interesting on any given day. To help you navigate the line-up of (sometimes) overwhelming options, here is my Dietitian’s Guide to Buying Milk.

Which Milk to Buy?

A whole range of considerations may go into the milk you keep in your fridge or pantry, including:

Allergies & Sensitivities (cow’s milk and nuts are common allergens; lactose intolerance is prevalent)
Environmental Concerns (you can learn the impact of various milks here)
Animal Welfare (a motivating factor for many consumers)
Taste and Texture (it’s nice to drink what you love)
two glasses and a container of milk

Cow’s Milk: The Classic Choice

You might be surprised to hear that cow’s milk is the most minimally processed of the bunch. It’s naturally rich in both protein and calcium, and the only ingredients typically added are vitamins A and D. What you should know:

  • Those with a dairy allergy should look elsewhere when buying milk. If you’re lactose intolerant, look for cow’s milk labeled lactose-free or consider a plant-based alternative. Those who don’t tolerate casein, the protein in standard milk may find that A2 Milk goes down easier (read more about A2 Milk by heading here).
  • To keep your level of saturated fat to a minimum, reach for 1% or nonfat milk. The exception is children under two, who need the fat in whole milk for brain development. 
  • Despite the recent interest in raw milk, I don’t think it’s worth the risk of food-borne pathogens that come along with a glass of unpasteurized milk (most especially for pregnant women, young children, and anyone who is immune-compromised).
  • There is evidence linking cow’s milk to acne, as discussed in this piece by the American Academy of Dermatology (it’s worth noting that the same is not true for yogurt and cheese). There is also research suggesting that milk may be a trigger for ezcema and psoriasis among people with a dairy sensitivity.
small pitcher milk

Goat’s Milk and Other Dairy Alternatives

Those with an allergy or intolerance to cow’s milk can sometimes do goat milk without a problem. Same goes for sheep’s milk, as well as the newest addition to this milk category in this country, camel’s milk. What you should know:

  • The biggest challenge here is lack of availability in mainstream markets and price.
  • The nutritional profiles of these milks vary somewhat from cow’s milk, but all are sources of protein, calcium, fat, and carbohydrates.
Dietitian's Guide to Buying Milk

Soy Milk for Plant-Based Protein

A popular choice for decades, soy milk is nearly as good a protein source as cow’s milk. What you should know:

  • Although not naturally high in calcium, most soy milk is fortified to levels akin to cow’s milk.
  • If concern about GMOs is on your radar, opt for organic.
  • Soy milk sometimes has added sweeteners, flavorings, and additives that you may want to skip, so read the list of ingredients before putting it in your shopping cart.
  • Despite plenty of chatter to the contrary, the consensus among most nutrition experts is that whole soy foods, such as soy milk, are not linked to cancer in humans and be even be protective against cancer, a stance supported by the American Cancer Society.

Plant Milks: Nut, Seed, Grain, Pea, and More

What’s tricky about the array of plant-based milks at the market is that each variety offers something different from a nutrition standpoint. One may have just nuts and water, another includes flavors and sugars, a third features gums and oils. It’s confusing! What you should know:

  • Read the list of ingredients and nutrition facts label, so you know what’s in there.
  • If you’re looking for your milk to be an important source of dietary calcium, buy one that is fortified. Plant milks have little in the way of calcium.
  • Most nut/seed/grain milks don’t measure up to cow’s milk in terms of protein. The exception is pea milk, such as the brand Ripple, which has 8 grams per cup. Other plant milks are typically 1 to 3 grams per serving.
  • Skip products with added sugars and avoid milks made with carrageenan, a type of seaweed that may cause inflammation and GI distress.
  • I tend to favor products with the fewest ingredients, such as those with just nuts/seeds/oats and water. The downside to these milks, though, is twofold:
    • They tend to be on the thin side, lacking a luxurious texture.  
    • They don’t have the calcium that you’ll find in cow’s milk or fortified options.
  • Be aware that there is a difference between canned coconut milk and the cartons of coconut beverage you’ll find in the dairy aisle. Canned coconut milk is high in saturated fat and calories and typically used as a recipe ingredient rather than for pouring over cereal.
Dietitian's Guide to Buying Milk

Favorite Brands of Plant Milk

Over the years, I’ve sampled more than my fair share of plant-based milks. Below are a few favorites.

  1. For Everyday — Elmhurt, Malk, and Califia Organic Almond are solid choices with minimal ingredients to use in my smoothies or to pour over granola (I’m partial to the Elmhurst’s Walnut Milk for the level of protein and Omega-3s). For a real treat, I’ll pick up a bottle of Beber at the farmers’ market or make my own (this is my recipe).
  2. For a More Nutrient-Rich Everyday –If you want your milk to be a good source of calcium and protein look for soy milk by West Soy Plain with added Calcium or Eden Soy Extra.
  3. For Coffee –– I like a more luxurious texture for my coffee, so reach for Sown and Rise, both organic oat milks. They have added oils that give them some richness. Another option is Elmhurst Barista.
  4. For Recipes — For plant-based recipes (such as my Cashew Chocolate Pudding or Almost Vegan Alfredo) I find Oatly delivers a similar richness and mild sweetness you get in cow’s milk.

Be Sure to Shake your Plant-Based Milks

One important last note: Vigorously shake the container before you pour any plant-based milk, since the calcium can settle at the bottom and will never get to your bones.


featured photo credit: pixabay


10.24.2016 at5:29 AM #

Ginny Cobb, RD, LDN

Great article, Katie. This subject comes up frequently in my practice. I will refer to it often. I enjoy reading your posts! Keep up the good work!

10.24.2016 at5:29 AM #

Katie Morford

Hi Ginny, so glad this will be useful!

10.24.2016 at7:15 AM #

Catherine McCord

This is SO helpful and interesting!

10.24.2016 at7:38 AM #

Trina Robertson

Thanks Katie for this complete review. It’s a good reminder that milk, whichever your preference, is a nutritious part of your day. Speaking of that, it’s time to break out the 1% milk for my morning latte.

10.24.2016 at7:38 AM #

Katie Morford

Enjoy that latte 🙂

10.24.2016 at9:03 AM #

Kim-NutritionPro Consulting

Very informative post! Clears up many common misconceptions among consumers.

10.24.2016 at10:57 AM #

Noreen Gallo

Great article. So nice to clear up some of the “hype” around this topic. I will share often with my clients Noreen Gallo MS RD

10.24.2016 at12:32 PM #

Jessica @ Nutritioulicious

This is such a helpful run down of all the (many) milk options available these days. I recently saw a picture of Ripple, but didn’t know it was pea milk. So interesting! Thanks for sharing!

10.25.2016 at8:52 AM #


We always have cow’s milk and soy milk in our fridge. I prefer soy to almond or other nut milks due to it’s protein content. It is most used for smoothies that need those protein grams.

10.25.2016 at8:52 AM #

Katie Morford

I like soy milk in smoothies too…and I agree that it’s nice to get some protein in there.

03.01.2017 at6:19 AM #


thanks for the information

09.02.2017 at8:29 AM #


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12.31.2017 at10:24 PM #

April T.

Best milk alternative EVER: http://www.oatly.com/

Someone turned me on to it – it’s balanced (fat, protein, low sugar) and so creamy and delicious. You can use the ‘finder’ to try it at a coffee shop near you (many also sell it).

12.31.2017 at10:24 PM #

Katie Morford

Hi April,

Thanks for the comment. I haven’t seen Oatly in my neck of the woods, but will keep my eye out for it!

01.12.2018 at1:25 PM #


I don’t like nut or soy milks, but oat milk is delicious! To me it has a similar feel to cows milk and pleasant, mild taste. Whole Foods carries a shelf stable brand.

01.12.2018 at1:25 PM #

Katie Morford

Funny…I was just reading an article in this months vogue, which included a taste test of all of the alternative milks and oat was in the top five. Also up there was pea milk (Ripple brand), camel milk, sheep milk, and goat milk.

04.24.2019 at3:34 AM #


I’m a big fan of Dakin Dairy Farms milk (https://dakindairyfarms.com) that is sold in the Tampa Bay area of Florida. Our local Whole Foods Markets even repackage it under their 365 brand, which is awesome. It’s pretty much grass-fed and organic, and it’s local. I can tell that it isn’t pasteurized as much as the typical commercial cow’s milk, because it tends to go bad in less than a week. That makes it even better in my mind, since I’ve read that the higher the heat used to pasteurize milks, the less nutrients are left in them (why so many like raw milk).

04.24.2019 at3:34 AM #

Katie Morford

That sounds wonderful….worth seeking out for those who live in the area. We have Strauss brand in the Bay Area, which sounds very similar and is delicious (great yogurt, too).

11.08.2023 at7:16 AM #

Lisa Burke

Great article! We too keep cow’s and plant milk in our fridge. So many to navigate. It is very helpful to actually have recommended brands. Too often articles will not list. Also Imperfect sells a pecan milk that is very good! They have a lot of options for plant based products. Any thoughts on pecan milk? I think the brand is THIS PKN.

11.08.2023 at7:16 AM #

Katie Morford

That’s a new one to me. I’d be curious to know if it tastes sweet, since it has both monk fruit and stevia. It is fortified with calcium, but has little protein.

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