milk alternatives

Cow’s Milk or a Non-Dairy Alternative?

Over the past decade, numerous alternatives to dairy milk have popped up in grocery stores across the nation.

Part of this recent expansion came about due to concerns that cow’s milk may be linked to certain conditions like IBS, acne, and digestive distress (Shaeffer, 2012).

For individuals who are unable digest lactose, non-dairy alternatives to milk can alleviate stomach upset and digestive issues associated with consumption of dairy products. Vegans and strict vegetarians also have many options to choose from if they prefer to avoid dairy. However, it is important to note that from a health perspective, cow’s milk beats out many of its competitors in terms of protein and mineral content.

For example, 1 cup of cow’s milk naturally contains 8 g of protein, 300 mg of calcium, 220 mg of phosphorus, and 350 mg of potassium. Most non-dairy alternatives do not even come close on protein, and only certain brands are fortified with the above minerals to boost nutrition content. This may be a concern for some adults, and it is especially important to consider for growing children.

A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition noted that children who drink cow’s milk grow more than children who don’t (a difference of 1.5 cm by age 3, on average) (Maguire, 2017). This is likely due to the higher levels of protein and fat available naturally in cow’s milk, both of which are integral for growth.

Based on this research, I would strongly recommend cow’s milk for children unless otherwise contraindicated by an intolerance or digestive disorder.

Key Differences

For adults, the choice ultimately comes down to individual preference. However, there are a few key differences to keep in mind when choosing.

If you are most concerned about calcium, choose either dairy milk or an alternative that has been fortified with at least 300 mg of calcium.

Soy milk and cow’s milk are the best sources of protein (6 and 8 grams per cup, respectively, vs. 1-2 grams in nut, rice, and coconut milks). Coconut milk is higher in saturated fat, so I would not recommend this for anyone with heart disease, high cholesterol, or weight loss goals. However, this could be a good alternative to half & half in coffee if a small amount is used.

Aim for 12 grams of sugar or less per cup (unsweetened varieties of non-dairy milk should have 5 or less). For anyone who struggles with blood sugar control, it’s important to note that dairy does naturally contain some sugar, but in combination with the high protein content of milk, this is not likely to affect blood sugar drastically.

Soy milk should be used minimally for anyone with a history of breast cancer or estrogen-related disorders due to its high isoflavone content.

For more information on this topic, please see the references below. Please feel free to e-mail me or leave me a comment if you have questions!


Schaeffer, J. (2012). Dairy food substitutes—the sky is the limit. Today’s Dietitian, 14 (8), 38. Retrieved from:

Maguire, J. (2017). Association between noncow milk beverage consumption and childhood height. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.doi:10.3945/ajcn.117.156877​

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