Got (Almond) Milk? How 6 Popular Milk Alternatives Measure Up

STACK checks the nutritional content and efficacy of six types of milk—almond, soy, goat, rice, coconut, hemp—plus cow milk.

We all remember the famous ads from days past, our favorite athletes smiling below white milk mustaches and big letters questioning us, "Got Milk?"

Well if those same ads ran today, they'd have to be a bit more specific.

Although many, perhaps most of us associate milk first and foremost with cows, milk from alternative sources has recently grown in popularity. If you're lactose-intolerant or dead set on removing animal products from your diet, or if you just want to cut back some calories, milk alternatives may be what you're looking for. To help you sort through the seemingly countless options, STACK looked at six different milk alternatives to see what each offers in terms of athlete nutrition.

Baseline: Cow Milk

Skim Milk: 83 calories, 0.2 grams fat, 0 grams saturated fat, 12 grams carbohydrates, 103mg sodium, 12 grams sugar, 8 grams protein, 382 mg potassium, 29% of daily calcium

Whole Milk: 103 calories, 2.4 grams fat, 1.5 grams saturated fat, 12 grams carbohydrates, 107mg sodium, 13 grams sugar, 8 grams protein, 366mg potassium, 30% of daily calcium

In 2012, U.S. cow milk sales tallied nearly 6 billion gallons. That is the lowest total in decades, yet cow milk is still by far the most popular milk in America, so we took a look at the nutrition facts for both skim and whole varieties.

Skim milk is traditional cow milk with all of the cream removed. Removing the cream essentially removes all of the fat from the milk, resulting in fewer calories, less fat and less saturated fat (obviously). Whole milk contains 3.25% of the fat from natural cow's milk, which gives it a higher fat content than skim, 1% and 2% milk. However, that higher fat content isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Brian St. Pierre, MS, RD, CSCS, sports dietitian and nutrition coach at Precision Nutrition, explains. "The fat content of milk is where many of its nutrients are located, such as vitamin A, vitamin K2 and omega-3 fatty acids. When you remove the fat to create skim milk, you're removing a lot of those nutrients as well," Pierre says.

Those milk fat nutrients and the fact that whole milk keeps you fuller for longer are two big reasons why studies are saying that whole milk might actually be better for you than skim.

Both skim and whole cow milk are packed with protein, potassium and calcium, but are fairly high in sugar. But overall those nutrition facts aren't bad.

So why are so many people moving away from cow's milk?

St. Pierre says that lactose intolerance is the big issue. "About 40 to 60 percent of all adults are unable to tolerate the lactose sugar in (cow) milk, causing some not-so-fun gastrointestinal issues," he says. People are also concerned with the way that some dairy cows in the U.S. are treated with antibiotics and hormones to increase their milk production, which can have negative health effects on both the milk you're drinking and the cow that made it.

Organic cow milk avoids such issues and is healthier because of it.

St. Pierre advises consumers to check the Cornucopia Institute Scorecard to compare the various conditions under which different brands of cow's milk are produced. The card scores each brand based on factors such as hormones and antibiotics used on the cows, health and longevity of the cows, and grazing and open land provided for the cows. All of those factors can impact how healthy your milk is.

Almond Milk

Original Almond Milk: 60 calories, 2.5 grams fat, 0 grams saturated fat, 8 grams carbohydrates, 160mg sodium, 7 grams sugar, 1 gram protein, 35 mg potassium, 45% daily calcium, 50% vitamin B12, 50% vitamin E, 30% riboflavin

To create the base of almond milk, almonds are shelled and toasted and then blended with water. People have been going nuts for almond milk recently (no pun intended), and it's easy to see why when you look at how positively packed with vitamins it is. Almond milk has more calcium, vitamin B12, vitamin E, vitamin A, riboflavin, iron and zinc than cow's milk, and significantly fewer calories.

The most surprising thing about almond milk's nutrition is the lack of protein. Almonds are bursting with protein. A serving of 23 almonds (1 oz.) contains 6 grams of protein. One serving of almond milk (which has just 1 gram of protein) contains less than four actual almonds.

Almond milk makes sense for athletes looking to stay slim (especially if you opt for the unsweetened option, which contains even fewer calories), but it's severely lacking in the protein department. If you're looking to add some inches to those biceps, you're better off looking for an option higher in protein. But if it's more important to you that your milk doesn't count harshly toward your calorie count, almond milk makes sense.

Some almond milks do contain carrageenan, a potentially dangerous ingredient we covered in a recent article, but many do not. To check out what products do and do not contain carrageenan, check out this guide from the Cornucopia Institute.

Soy Milk

Original Soy Milk: 110 calories, 4.5 grams fat, .5 grams saturated fat, 9 grams carbohydrates, 105mg sodium, 6 grams sugar, 8 grams protein, 370mg potassium, 45% daily calcium, 30% riboflavin, 50% vitamin B12, 25% phosphorus, 15% magnesium

The base of soy milk is created by pressing soy beans in water and removing the okara, which is basically the insoluble pulp that's left over after pressing the beans.

Soy milk looks like a great non-lactose option for those who want their milk alternative to pack a protein punch, as well as anyone looking for a milk chock-full of vitamins.

Soy contains a high concentration of phytoestrogens, a natural compound that resembles estrogen. There have been concerns that eating too much soy can cause issues for both men (such as lowering testosterone) and women (such as breast cancer), but keeping intake moderate can avoid these problems.

Soy milk offers a non-lactose option that has more vitamins than cow's milk and similar protein, but more calories than other alternative options such as almond milk. Soy milk makes sense for athletes who want a protein-packed alternative to cow milk but are not too concerned about calories or fat.

Some soy milks do contain carrageenan, but carageenan-free options are available.

Goat Milk

Low-Fat Goat Milk: 89 calories, 2.4 grams fat, 1.5 grams saturated fat, 11 grams carbohydrates, 100mg sodium, 9.4 grams sugar, 7.4 grams protein, 0 potassium, 27% daily calcium

Long popular outside the U.S., goat milk is now becoming more common here due to the rise of those desiring traditional milk alternatives. Being lactose-intolerant and having a milk allergy are not the same thing, so the fact that some lactose-intolerant people react better to goat milk, and the fact that goat milk doesn't include the allergy-inducing casein protein contained in cow's milk, are big plusses.

But is goat milk the G.O.A.T?

Although the nutritional facts about goat milk are not so amazing that they'll knock you off your feet, goat milk is pretty comparable in nutrition to cow milk. If you are one of those people who fare better on goat milk than cow milk, you'll be happy to know you aren't missing out on much protein. However, goat milk isn't packed with vitamins like some other milk alternatives. If you have serious issues with cow milk and want to give goat milk a go, first consult your doctor.

Rice Milk

Original Rice Milk: 120 calories, 2.5 grams fat, 0 grams saturated fat, 23 grams carbohydrates, 100mg sodium, 10 grams sugar, 1 gram protein, o potassium, 27% daily calcium, 25% vitamin B12, 15% phosphorus

Rice milk is pretty self-explanatory, as it's created using (usually brown) rice. But is this non-dairy substitute really up to snuff?

Rice milk's calorie count is more than whole milk, the protein count is worse, and the potassium content is non-existent. Rice milk lacks the protein that could justify a high calorie count and doesn't have the high vitamin content of some other milk alternatives. It does contain a decent amount of phosphorus, which helps the body store energy and assists in the breakdown of carbs, fats and proteins. If you're looking to bulk up, slim down or get extra vitamins from your milk, there are better options to be had than rice milk.

Some brands of rice milk contain carrageenan, but carrageenan-free options are available.

Coconut Milk

Coconut Milk: 70 calories, 4.5 grams fat, 4 grams saturated fat, 15mg sodium, 8 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 0 grams protein, 90mg potassium, 50% daily vitamin B12

Coconut milk is created by grating and squeezing actual coconut flesh, which is the white part inside the shell. Coconut milk is different from coconut water, which is the watery liquid that can be found sloshing around the inside of the coconut.

One thing that makes coconut milk special is its high content of medium chain fatty acids, or MCFAs. MCFAs are easy for the body to convert into energy, meaning they are used as fuel instead of stored as fat. Coconut milk's fairly high saturated fat content is a result of these MCFAs, so it should be seen as a good thing rather than a negative. When you take that into account, coconut milk is a good option for anyone active and looking to cut down on calories compared to cow's milk.

Those MCFAs are great for creating energy, which makes coconut milk ideal prior to practice or games. However, the fact that it doesn't contain any protein means it's probably better suited for pre-activity intake than post-activity recovery.

Like many other milk alternatives, some brands of coconut milk contain carrageenan.

Hemp Milk

Original Hemp Milk: 100 calories, 6 grams of fat, .5 grams of saturated fat, 125mg sodium, 9 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 2 grams protein, 0 mg potassium, 25% riboflavin, 25% vitamin B12, 30% calcium, 20% phosphorus

Hemp is a name used for varieties of the Cannabis plant (don't worry, you can't get busted for hemp milk), and it can be used to make products such as paper, rope, cloth and even protein powder. Its utility doesn't end there, as hemp seeds can be ground up in water to create hemp milk. Hemp milk has a nutty, creamy flavor.

Hemp milk brings on the vitamins, containing at least 20 percent of your daily phosphorus, vitamin B12, riboflavin, vitamin D and calcium, and it also packs significant amounts of magnesium, vitamin E and vitamin A.

Hemp milk also contains all nine essential amino acids. Its considerable amount of fat is partially due to a healthy presence of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. While Hemp Milk doesn't have the protein cow milk does, it's vitamin-heavy content makes it a similar option to almond milk, albeit with more calories.

Some hemp milks do contain carrageenan.


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: PROTEIN | VITAMINS | SODIUM | CALORIES | CARBOHYDRATES | ALMOND MILK | CALCIUM | COCONUT | POTASSIUM | SATURATED FAT | SOY MILK | VITAMIN B12