Shopping for a carton of milk used to be so simple. You’d go to your local market or grocery store, find the aisle containing refrigerated dairy goods, and select the milk of your choice – whole, skim, or low-fat. It used to be easy  – but shopping for a product as straightforward as a carton of milk has gotten a bit more complicated.

In recent years, the market has evolved. Plenty of people have always been lactose intolerant or allergic to dairy, and needed non-dairy alternatives. But it wasn’t until relatively recently that companies began mass-producing and selling a range of  alternatives to cow’s milk – many of them chockfull of the same nutrients.

Now when you scour the shelves, you’re likely to have too many choices to count. Goat’s milk. Soy milk. Almond or cashew milk. Rice, oat, or hemp milk. Even cow’s milk that’s entirely manufactured, with no actual cows involved.

It can be overwhelming to know what’s the best and most nutritious choice for your diet. And the question becomes, what should you purchase and which milk offers the most nutritional value?

Well, here’s an answer no one ever likes: there is no right answer. Each of these milk alternatives have their advantages and disadvantages.

The best option to boost your calcium and protein intake, especially if you need something non-dairy, is soy milk, which will give you roughly the same amounts of these nutrients as a glass of cow’s or goat’s milk: 7-12 grams of protein per cup; about a third of your daily calcium needs; all for 95 calories or so. Soymilks are naturally cholesterol-free and also contain phytonutrients known as isoflavones, shown to have a number of health benefits.

What if soy’s natural carbohydrates are too hard for you to digest? What if the sometimes-bitter taste of soymilk isn’t one you wish to acquire?

Have no fear. You can pour yourself some almond or cashew milk, both plant-based, cholesterol-free, and lactose-free as well. And, cup-for-cup, they both have fewer calories than nonfat milk, and contain some healthy fatty acids. But, the protein content tends to be low – perhaps only one gram per cup. At the same time, most almond and cashew and other nut-based milks are calcium-fortified, so you will get that benefit if this becomes your go-to milk source.

Next there’s rice, oat, and hemp milks, which – like most other non-dairy milks – are valuable for what they do not contain: no lactose, no saturated fat, no cholesterol. Rice is the least protein heavy – about one gram per cup – while you could get up to four grams per cup with oat or hemp. Each boasts naturally mild, sweet flavors – so they typically are made with less sugar – and are usually more appealing to your taste buds. These, too, are generally calcium-fortified, matching what you might get from cow’s milk, but they also have a higher calorie count, up 120 per cup.

Here’s the bottom line: cow’s milk is a balanced and complete source of fat, protein, and carbohydrates available. But, if you can’t handle dairy or lactose, soy is likely your best bet for protein and calcium. If you just need something low calorie to pour on your cereal, almond or cashew might save you some calories while giving you some calcium.  But all of the alternatives have their advantages and disadvantages, so read labels carefully so you know exactly what nutrients you’re getting and how they will help you meet your nutritional goals.

Susan Bowerman

Susan BowermanM.S., R.D., CSSD, CSOWM, FAND – Sr. Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training

Susan Bowerman is the senior director of Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training at Herbalife. She also serves as the Vice Chair of the Dietetic Advisory Board (DAB). As a registered dietitian, she educates distributors about our global nutrition philosophy and is responsible for developing nutrition education and training materials. Bowerman earned a B.S. in Biology with distinction from the University of Colorado and an M.S. in Food Science and Nutrition from Colorado State University. She is a fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and holds two board certifications as a specialist in Sports Dietetics and in Obesity and Weight Management. When she is not busy teaching and writing, Susan enjoys spending time with her family, cooking and gardening. Her favorite Herbalife products include Simply Probiotic and Herbalife Formula 1 Healthy Meal Nutritional Shake Mix Banana Caramel.