Got Milk?-Navigating the Dairy Aisle

Lately there has been an explosion of alternatives to dairy products.  Cashew milk, almond milk yogurt, non-dairy nut cheese just to name a few.  Let’s look at the difference between some of these products and good old, regular milk.

Milk from Mammals

Dairy products have been getting a bad rap lately related to misconceptions about the use of growth hormones and antibiotics.  However, lots of companies are no longer using growth hormones because of consumer push back and there are already strict guidelines on antibiotic use.  If a cow is being treated with antibiotics the milk from that animal is either discarded or collected separately.  All milk is tested for antibiotic residue typically before trucks are loaded at farms and again before being unloaded at the packing facilities.

Facts on Fat

Dairy products are full of nutrition and can certainly fit into a healthy meal pattern.  Some dairy products are also full of fat and sugars so it’s best to know how to read the labels.  Try to choose low fat or non-fat products, which is typically noted on the front of the packaging.  If it’s unclear whether a product is full fat or not, check the Total Fat on the back and choose a product with the least amount.  This is because the fat found in dairy products is saturated fat, which can be a risk for heart disease.  Nutrition recommendations state that whole dairy milk can be used at age 1 until 2 and then transitioned to low fat or non fat milk (note: dairy alternatives that are fat free are not nutritionally adequate for children age 1. Do not substitute these products for dairy milk without consulting a child’s pediatrician).  Below is a comparison of the 4 main types of milks.  They all contain 8gm of protein per 8 ounce serving, contain potassium, and are good sources of Vitamin D, Calcium, and B vitamins.

Whole                                                                        Reduced Fat (2%)  



Low Fat Milk (1%)                                                     Non-Fat Milk (Skim)


What about Sugar?

Dairy contains some natural sugars (lactose, more on that below) so label reading can be tricky sometimes.  Yogurt is a great example.  Plain yogurt only contains about 5-6 grams of natural dairy sugar per 6 ounce serving.  Be weary of fruited yogurts or any flavored yogurts, they usually pack in a lot of extra sugar.  There are several brands that are being more mindful of added sugars in their flavored yogurts and there are some with as little as 9-12 grams of sugar per serving.   However, some popular brands of fruited yogurt can have up to 20 grams of sugar per serving.  Check labels! If in doubt, use plain yogurt and add your own toppings like crushed pineapple, nuts, seeds, cinnamon, or vanilla.  Watch out for granola which usually also contains a lot of extra added sugars.

Lactaid Brand Products

Lactaid brand products are great for those that are lactose intolerant.  However, keep in mind that lactose intolerance is different than a dairy or milk allergy.  Lactose intolerance occurs when a person’s body is unable to break down the natural milk sugar lactose in the digestive system.  When lactose isn’t able to be broken down appropriately it can cause abdominal discomfort like cramping, gas, and diarrhea.  Lactaid products contain lactase, which is the enzyme needed to break down the lactose in dairy products.  Adding this enzyme allows for proper digestion and maintains the nutrition of dairy products.

Non-Dairy Milks

There are quite a few brands and versions of non-dairy milks out there right now.  There are nut milks (coconut, almond, cashew), soy milks, and rice milks.  Each has a little bit of a different nutrition profile, let’s look at them a little more closely.  Most of these dairy alternatives have less calories than dairy milk and some have more calcium and vitamin D as well.  This is likely due to the fact that they do not contain much natural protein or carbohydrates.  However, some can contain added sugars, especially the flavored varieties.  Here a few things to note:

  • Soy milk has almost as much protein as regular dairy products.
  • Coconut milk has almost as much saturated fat as whole dairy milk.

Let’s look at a few labels:

Cashew Milk-Unsweetened           Coconut Milk-Unsweetened                      


  Soy Milk Unsweetened


Almond Milk Unsweetened             Almond Milk Vanilla


 Rice Milk

Which one is right for you? If you can tolerate dairy, choose regular dairy milk.  If you are lactose intolerant, try Lactaid products.  If you are vegan or vegetarian, soy would be a great option for the protein and B12 content.  Really, it comes down to personal preference.  Drink whichever one you like the best and that fits your health needs.