A new study breaks down the differences between soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk, and rice milk to reveal the healthiest milk for people who can't drink cow's milk.

By Marisa Cohen
Updated January 30, 2018
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Child holding glass of milk
Credit: Michael Wildsmith/Getty Images

I have two lactose-intolerant teens, who get major GI symptoms if they drink cow’s milk, but who still crave a frosty glass of milk with their chocolate-chip cookies (I mean, who doesn’t?). Luckily, there’s an eye-popping range of plant-based milk available at our local supermarket: almond, soy, cashew, hemp, oat, coconut, rice, macadamia. It truly is a Golden Age of alterna-milks.

While my kids are partial to almond milk and coconut milk—and I’m thankful they can splash it over their cereal or drink a glass without immediately running to the bathroom—I always wonder if they’re getting all the nutrients they need for their growing bodies. Turns out, a new study from McGill University has the answer. Researchers poured glasses of the four most popular plant-based milks sold in the U.S. (soy, rice, almond, and coconut), and compared them with the gold standard, cow’s milk.

And the winner for healthiest milk alternative? Drumroll please…

Let’s hear it for soy milk!

Soy milk may be the least flashy and exciting of all the milks (after all, it’s been around for at least 40 years), but it measures up as the best choice nutritionally, say the researchers. It has 8g of protein per serving, nearly the same as cow’s milk, and even more calcium than cow milk (330mg to 294mg). As an added benefit, a cup of soy milk has only 95 calories, a significant drop from the 158 in whole milk. Soy also contains anti-carcinogenic phytonutrients present in the milk known as isoflavones.

The down side? Well, let’s be honest, soy milk can taste kind of funky (the researcher’s refer to the flavor as “beany”), and it contains “ant-nutrients,” which can reduce the absorption of all the other good stuff. In addition, because ot the phytoestrogens present in soy milk, some experts recommend limiting it to one or two glasses a day for young children.

Rice milk and almond milk also had the benefit of a big calcium boost, with over 300mg in each per serving, but with only 1g of protein each, they fell far short of soy and cow. Rice milk is also high in calories and carbs, but it’s a good option for kids who have allergies to soy and nuts.

Almond milk—which is super popular, especially in my house—has a high content of monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA), which is great for adults who are trying to manage their weight and cholesterol levels, but researchers point out that almond-milk drinkers need to make sure they are getting essential nutrients such as proteins from other sources.

Finally, there’s coconut milk, perhaps the tastiest of all the creamy white beverages. But while coconut milk had a similar low-calorie profile to almond, it has 0 protein and only 220g of calcium.

So let’s all raise a glass to soy—the other white milk.