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Is milk by any other name (almond, soy, coconut, rice, hemp, quinoa) still … milk?

Many people like dairy-free “milks” because they are vegan-friendly, lactose-free and often lower in calories. But are they more healthful than real milk?

That depends. Before you switch to a plant-based milk, consider what you’re getting, and what you aren’t.

If you eat a varied, high-quality diet that includes green leafy vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds and adequate protein, cow’s milk isn’t necessary.

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That said, milk is a rich source of complete protein, vitamin B12, riboflavin and calcium. It’s also generally fortified with vitamin D to aid in calcium absorption.

Organic milk is produced without antibiotics, growth hormones, pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. One cup of 2 percent milk has 122 calories, 8 grams (g) protein, 12 g carbohydrate and 5 g fat.

Before you ponder how to milk a soybean or an almond, know that plant-based milks are made by soaking a bean, nut or grain — before or after grinding it — then straining the mixture.

Because many people use milk alternatives, manufacturers offer fortified versions that contain supplemental calcium, vitamin B12 and other nutrients. However, some added nutrients might not be absorbed as well as nutrients naturally found in foods.

To mimic the taste and consistency of milk, nondairy milk may also contain added ingredients you don’t want or need — including added sugar. Look for “unsweetened” on the package then double-check the ingredients list.

Many milk alternatives contain the controversial seaweed-based thickener carrageenan, which is linked to gastrointestinal inflammation. Read ingredient labels if you want to avoid it.

Here are the main entrants in the milk-alternative category:

Soymilk: The most popular alternative, soymilk has nearly as much protein as milk and is the only nondairy milk to contain complete protein (i.e., has all of the essential amino acids). Unfortified soymilk naturally contains many important nutrients and isoflavones.

A downside is that soy allergies are relatively common, particularly in young children, and use of soy is controversial in women who have breast cancer.

Soy is one of the most commonly genetically modified crops, so if that is of concern to you, opt for organic soymilk.

One cup, unsweetened, contains about 80 calories, 7 g protein, 3 g carbohydrate and 4 g fat.

Almond milk: As with the nuts it is derived from, almond milk is a good source of a number of vitamins and minerals, as well as the healthful plant compounds flavonoids.

One cup, unsweetened, contains about 30 calories, 1 g protein, 2 g carbohydrate and 2.5 g fat.

Rice milk: Rice milk is the most allergy-friendly and a good source of many minerals and B vitamins. It’s high in carbohydrates and low in protein. It’s also low in calcium, unless fortified.

Because rice milk is naturally sweet due to its high carbohydrate content, “unsweetened” versions tend to be more highly processed and contain more additives.

Once cup, unfortified, contains about 120 calories, 1 g protein, 24 g carbohydrate and 2.5 g fat.

Coconut milk: It used to be that coconut milk was that thick stuff in a can, but you’ll now find coconut-milk beverages alongside the other milk alternatives.

One cup, unsweetened, contains about 40 calories, 0 g protein, 2 g carbohydrate and 4.5 g fat.

Carrie Dennett is a registered dietitian nutritionist with a Master of Public Health degree in nutritional sciences from the University of Washington. Her blog is and her website is She can be reached at

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