Non-Dairy Beverages


By Melinda Maryniuk, MEd, RD, CDCES

Question: Are certain kinds of milk better to drink? 

Short Take:

Milk can be an important source of protein, vitamins and minerals in our diets.  While cow’s milk is the most common variety, many milk alternatives or “non-dairy beverages” can be used, and the nutrition profile of each is unique. While each one offers some great features, some can be very high in carbohydrate, fat, or calories.

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Drinking milk is a wonderful 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 a good place to start. It normally is low in price 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, plant-based, or vegan meal plan, try one of the many plant-based beverages, such as soy, oat, pea, or almond milk.  Most of these are enriched with calcium, vitamin D, and 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. Use a dairy-free milk alternative such as a soy, nut, hemp or rice beverage.

Are you trying to control carbs?  Rice and oat milks can be high in carbohydrate. Nut and hemp beverages tend to be very low in carbs, and are great for making smoothies if you’re aiming to conserve carbs.

Interested in boosting your protein?  Best sources would be cow’s milk, pea “milk”, or soy “milk”. By looking in the chart below, you can see the protein count of each milk. Beverages made from nuts, rice, hemp and oats are lower in protein when compared to cow’s 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? Add some variety in your diet by trying plant-based beverages. 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. Read the nutrition facts panel so you know what you’re getting.

A word of caution:

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

Check to see if what you are grabbing is plain or unsweetened, versus sweetened. Buying a sweetened beverage adds extra carbs and calories.

Most dairy 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 cup Cal Carbs (g) Pro (g) Fat (g) Cost per ½ gal* (delete this column)
Cow’s Milk
Milk (1% fat) 103 12 8 2.5 $2.39  
Fairlife* (1% fat) 100 6 13 2.5 $4.49  
Lactaid* (1% fat) 110 13 8 2.5 $3.88  
Milk Alternatives
Pacific* Hemp Milk, unsweet 60 0 3 4.5 $6.79  
Organics* Plain Almond Milk 40 2 1 3 $3.99  
Organics* Plain Soymilk 90 7 7 3.5 $3.49  
Oatly* Oat Milk Lowfat 90 16 3 1 $4.99  
Rice Dream* 120 23 1 2.5 $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.

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.