Non-Dairy Beverages


By Melinda Maryniuk, MEd, RD, CDCES

Question: Are certain kinds of milk better to drink? 

Short Take:

Milk is an important source of protein, vitamins and minerals in our diets.  While cow’s milk is the most common (and least expensive) variety, many “milk alternatives” or “non-dairy beverages” can be found and the nutrition profile of each is a little different.  While each one offers some special features, some can be very high in carbohydrate, fat and calories. 

Tell Me More:

Drinking milk is the best way to get calcium, an essential nutrient.  It is recommended that adults have 2-3 servings of milk or dairy alternatives /day (including yogurt).  However, there are so many milks crowding the shelves, it’s hard to know what to choose! 

Cow’s milk is always the best place to start.  It is the lowest cost and is naturally rich in protein and calcium. It also is a good source of a natural carbohydrate (carb) or sugar called lactose.   Don’t avoid milk just because it has carbs – but do count it within your overall carb allowance.   A new dairy milk is now available called “ultrafiltered” milk (brand names, Fairlife or Simply Smart).  Through a filtering process, this milk is higher in protein and lower in lactose. 

If you have trouble digesting lactose or follow a dairy-free or vegan meal plan, try one of the plant-based beverages such as , soy, almond or oat milk.  To be closer in the nutrient content of cow’s milk, most of these are enriched with calcium and some other nutrients.  You can even make your own. (recipes below)

Think about what is important to you and read the labels carefully. 

Do you have trouble digesting milk?  Are you lactose intolerant?   Try a lactose-free or low-lactose milk such as Lactaid (lactose-free) or an ultrafiltered milk.  Also dairy free milk alternative such as a soy, nut, hemp or rice beverage.  . 

Are you trying to control carbs?   Watch out for rice milk which is very high in carbohydrate and oat milk is moderately high.  Nut and hemp beverages tend to be very low in carbs and thus are great for making smoothies if you’re aiming to conserve carbs. 

Interested in boosting your protein?  Best sources would be cow’s milk, ultrafiltered milk or soy beverage.  Notice in the chart below that beverages made from nuts, rice, hemp and oats are very low in protein compared to cow milk.   

Focusing on fiber?  The best sources of fiber are vegetables, fruits and whole grains.  However, some plant based beverages (nut and oat) offer between 1-2 grams of fiber per cup. 

What to Do:

Think about the sources of dairy foods in your usual diet.  Are you getting enough dairy?  Is it meeting your calcium needs?  If all your sources of dairy are high-fat cheeses, you may want to cut back a little and have more low-fat milk options instead.  Add some variety in your diet by trying plant-based beverages.  Read the nutrition facts panel so you know what you’re getting.

A word of caution:

While many of the alternative milks are enriched with vitamins and minerals (such as calcium), not all are.  Read the labels carefully. 

Check to see if what you are grabbing is “plain” or “sweetened” or flavored.  Buying a sweetened vanilla soy beverage adds extra carbs and calories.

Most milks come as either full-fat, low-fat or skim.   Your choice will depend partially on taste and preference, and partly based on your overall calorie needs.  Most people benefit from limiting saturated fat, but small amounts in a glass of full-fat cow’s milk or yogurt, is not harmful.

Per 1 cupCalCarbs (g)Pro (g)Fat (g)Cost per ½ gal*(delete this column)
Cow’s Milk
Milk (1% fat)1031282.5$2.39 
Fairlife* (1% fat)1006132.5$4.49 
Lactaid* (1% fat)1101382.5$3.88 
Milk Alternatives
Pacific* Hemp Milk, unsweet60034.5$6.79 
Organics* Plain Almond Milk40213$3.99 
Organics* Plain Soymilk90773.5$3.49 
Oatly* Oat Milk Lowfat901631$4.99 
Rice Dream*1202312.5$3.48 

*Brand names are provided not as a recommendation, but as a reference for the nutrient and cost information.  Check labels for other varieties.  If a half gallon price was not available, the price of two quarts was used.

Make Your Own:  Making your own plant based milk is quick and easy if you have a high speed blender.  It can be made even smoother if you strain it through a nut-bag or cheesecloth. Try making beverages with oats, hemp, almonds or cashews.  Remember that plant-based milks you make at home won’t have the benefit of added calcium, but the cost is much lower than buying it at the store. 


Start by soaking 1 cup of oats (old fashioned rolled or steel cut)  for about 20-30 minutes in a bowl of warm water (about 2 cups). 

Strain the oats through a sieve and discard the water. 

Put the oats in a high speed blender and add 4 cups of water.  Blend about 2 minutes or until very smooth and creamy looking. 

If desired, you can strain this mixture through a nut milk bag or cheesecloth to make it even more milky.  To enhance the flavor, try adding 1/8 tsp. salt, 1-2 dates for sweetness and ½ tsp vanilla extract).


Place 1 cup raw almonds (not roasted or salted) in a small container with a lid.  Cover with water, then put the lid on and let sit on the counter overnight.  In the morning, drain, rinse.

Put the almonds in a high speed blender along with 4 cups water. 

Blend for about 1-2 minutes or until smooth.  If desired, add flavorings (such as 1/8 tsp salt, 1-2 dates for sweetness and/or ½ tsp vanilla extract.)

Strain through a cheesecloth or nut milk bag.  Keep refrigerated in a covered glass bottle or jar for 4-5 five days.