Milk 411 Part 2 of 2: Milk Compared to the Alternatives


Milk: It does a body good!  Most of us have heard that phrase at some point.  There is so much controversy around milk that it makes us wonder..."Does it really?"  Well, let’s see!

Cow’s milk contains calcium, protein, potassium, phosphorus, vitamins: D, B12, A, B2 and B3.  Finding all these essential nutrients makes cow’s milk a nutrient-dense food; which provides you with more nutrition for the calories consumed.  Why are these nutrients so important (especially for active individuals) you may ask?  Keep reading…

Calcium does not only help your body build and maintain the strength of your bones and teeth; it is also essential for nerve function, muscle contraction and blood clotting.  1 cup of cow’s milk has the same amount of calcium (30% of the Daily Value) as 30 cups of raw spinach!

Protein allows your body to build and repair muscle tissue.  At the same time, it provides a good source of energy during high powered endurance exercises.  Cow’s milk contains protein which is considered “high-quality”; this means it has all the essential amino acids (amino acids your body can not produce, at least not enough).  An 8 oz serving of cow’s milk provides 16% of the Daily Value for protein, the same as ½ a chicken breast.

One cup of cow’s milk provides 11% of the Daily Value for potassium, the same as 3 small bananas and more than many sports drinks.  This is an important nutrient which regulates your body’s fluid balance as well as maintains normal blood pressure.

As a great source of phosphorus, cow’s milk provides ¼ of the Daily Value (25%) in an 8 oz cup; you would get the same amount in 3 ½ cups of canned kidney beans.  Phosphorus is important as it not only strengthens your bones but it also generates energy in your body’s cells.

In addition, cow’s milk is a great source of many vitamins:

- Vitamin A (10% of Daily Value) - not only allows you to maintain normal vision and skin, but also helps regulate cell growth and protect the immune system. 

- Vitamin B12 (22% of the Daily Value) - helps build red blood cells (these cells transport oxygen from the lungs to your muscles) and maintain the central nervous system.

- Vitamin B3 or Niacin (10% of Daily Value) – allows for the normal function of several enzymes (proteins in your body that allow chemical changes to happen) in your body including the metabolism of sugars and fatty acids.

- Vitamin B2 or Riboflavin (26% of Daily Value) - converts food into energy which is extremely important for your muscles when you exercise.

- Vitamin D (25% of Daily Value) - helps your body absorb calcium to build or maintain strong bones. 

Milk Glasses

The consumption of cow’s milk has been studied and compared to soy milk in active individuals after they exercised (1-3 hours after).  The results showed that the protein composition of dairy milk (compared to soy milk) provides a greater benefit for muscle protein balance and increased muscle mass.  In addition, it showed a higher loss of body fat; this is most likely due to the higher calcium content and/or the properties of the proteins (whey and casein) in cow’s milk. 

For this reason, over the past years, milk has had an increased presence at many athletic events.  From my own experience…a cold serving of low fat chocolate milk is the perfect recovery drink after a good run!

Let’s Talk Alternatives!

Nowadays, there are many people who cannot drink milk because they have an allergy (You can actually still enjoy milk if you are lactose intolerant. Read more about that here)   Others choose not to due to vegan preferences.  Either way, now that you know the benefits of the nutrients that milk provides, you can compare to non-dairy beverage alternatives and find one that suits you.

Soy milk:

  • made from filtered water and whole soybeans
  • rich and creamy
  • nutritionally it is similar to cow’s milk

TIPS – look for fortified varieties, they will have added vitamins and other nutrients

 Almond milk:

  •  made of filtered water and ground almonds
  • slightly nutty
  • it has very small amounts of protein

TIPS – look for ones that have calcium and vitamin D added

 Hemp milk:

  •  made of filtered water and shelled hemp seeds
  • creamy consistency, stronger flavor
  • contains calcium, vitamin D and moderate amounts of protein

TIPS: beware that many varieties are higher-calorie, higher-fat

Rice milk:

  • has a neutral flavor (slightly sweet), light and not as creamy (thin consistency) as other cow milk alternatives
  • minimal protein

TIPS: look for fortified varieties with added calcium and vitamin D

Oat milk:

  •  made of oat groats, filtered water with other grains and beans
  • creamy; has a mild and sweet flavor
  • good source of protein (fortified varieties are also great sources of calcium and vitamin D)

TIPS: read the label for possible soy ingredients if you are looking for a soy-free choice

Coconut milk:

  •  made of coconut cream (water, coconut, guar gum), cane sugar with added nutrients
  • creamy, smooth and sweet; it does not have a strong flavor
  • minimal protein but as much saturated fat as whole milk
  • good source of vitamin D and vitamin B12

TIPS: coconut milk cartons (usually found in the dairy section) are different than canned coconut milk (which is usually coconut water/juice)

Here is a nutrient comparison of cow's milk with other "milk type" alternatives:

Cow's Milk Compared With Alternatives


In summary, read those labels and compare!  Look for higher protein content, fortified versions that will provide more vitamins and minerals and if possible, lower added sugars.

PS - As a pediatric dietitian I also have to add that neither cow’s milk or these non-dairy alternatives are equivalent to breast milk or commercially available infant formulas.  Infants can suffer devastating deficiencies if not provided with the nutrients they require.

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