Healthy Eating for Your Active Lifestyle

A few months ago, we took a look at the evolving yogurt aisle. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the milk cooler has also been evolving. With multiple choices of traditional cow’s milk and a variety of plant-based beverages, such as soy, almond, coconut and rice, which do you choose? I took a trip to the grocery store to look at some common brands and gather info on each. Let’s look at some popular options and see how they compare when it comes to key nutrients and price.


Milk has long been noted for its role in bone health, and for good reason. It has nutrients beyond calcium and vitamin D that play an important role. What sets the calcium in milk apart from other sources? It has good bioavailability, which refers to how it is absorbed and used in the body. As well, the type of vitamin D added to milk (D3) is considered to be the best form to raise blood levels of that vitamin. But the benefits of milk go beyond bone health, particularly when it comes to protein.

Skim, 1%, 2% and homogenized

What’s in it for you? Aside from the fat content, the nutrients in traditional cow’s milk is the same whether you purchase skim, 1%, 2% or homogenized.

  • Protein per cup - One cup of milk has 8 grams of high quality protein. About 20% of this is whey, the protein that is popular in many supplements as it’s quickly absorbed and easily digested. The other 80% is the more slowly-digested casein, also a high-quality protein.
  • Sugar per cup – Milk naturally contains 12 grams of a sugar called lactose.
  • Price per cup* - $0.44 You can rest assured that Canadian milk contains no artificial growth hormones or antibiotics. It is produced in compliance with high industry standards and regulations.

Lactose-free milk

Lactose-free milk is a great option for those with lactose intolerance (Note: this is different than milk allergy). A lactase enzyme, similar to the enzyme your body is missing if you have lactose intolerance, is added to milk during processing. This breaks down the lactose into glucose and galactose, making milk easy and comfortable to digest. Lactose-free milk contains the same nutrients as traditional milk and is produced according to the same standards.

  • Protein per cup – 8 grams of high-quality protein
  • Sugar per cup – 12 grams of glucose and galactose (the result of breaking down lactose)
  • Price per cup - $0.70

Organic milk

Organic milk is produced by cows whose feed is grown without synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. It may also be higher in omega-3s. However, we don’t know if there is a great enough difference in the amount of omega-3s to improve health. As with traditional milk, Canadian organic milk does not contain artificial growth hormones or antibiotics, making both equally safe and good for you.

  • Protein per cup – 8 grams of high-quality protein
  • Sugar – 12 grams of lactose
  • Price per cup – $0.78

Plant-based beverages

Plant-based beverages are rising in popularity, and many options have been added to the dairy cooler as milk alternatives. Before we look at some of the options, it’s important to consider a few points that are common to plant-based beverages.

  • Fortification – Not all plant-based beverages are made according to the same standards. This makes it important to look for the word ‘fortified’ or ‘enriched’ on the container. Fortified beverages will have added nutrients that mimic those found in milk, such as calcium and vitamins D, B12 and A, although not always in the same amounts. Note: if you make your own plant-based beverage at home, you will not be getting these added nutrients. 
  • CalciumResearch shows that when calcium is added to a food or drink, it is not as bioavailable, meaning it is not as well absorbed or used by the body. Also, the calcium tends to settle to the bottom making it important to shake the beverage well before you pour a glass. 
  • Vitamin D – Plant-based beverages use a plant form of vitamin D called vitamin D2. This form doesn’t raise blood levels of vitamin D as much as the D3 form that is found in traditional milk.
  • Tricky Terminology – You may think that the ‘original’ version of a plant-based beverage is as natural as it comes, but there is some tricky terminology involved. If you want to avoid added sugar, you need to look for the ‘unsweetened’ varieties. Original and flavoured varieties will have added sugar.
  • Calorie content – Soy and unsweetened rice beverages are similar to a cup of skim milk when it comes to calorie content (70-100 calories). The original variety of rice beverage is comparable to 2% milk with 130 calories. The unsweetened and original varieties of almond and coconut beverage are lower, ranging from 30-80 calories. Why the difference? It’s because of the different amount of macronutrients, such as protein.
  • Not suitable for young children – Because plant-based beverages are nutritionally incomplete compared to breast milk, formula and cow’s milk, they aren’t a good choice for children under two. If this is a concern for you, you can get help from a registered dietitian. Ask your doctor, or check Dietitians of Canada to find a registered dietitian.

Soy beverage

What’s in it for you? Soy beverage is the plant-based beverage most similar to milk, particularly when it comes to protein. Because of this, it’s often recommended for those who choose not to drink milk.

  • Protein per cup - Soy is the only plant-based beverage that has a high amount of protein – 6 to 8 grams per cup, depending on the brand.
  • Sugar per cup - Unsweetened soy beverage has 0 to 2 grams of natural sugar per cup. The original varieties have around 5 grams of added sugar per cup.
  • Price per cup – $0.53

Almond beverage

What’s in it for you?

  •  Protein per cup - Almond beverage is a poor choice when it comes to protein, with only one gram per cup, the equivalent of 3½ almonds. If you choose almond beverage as a milk substitute, make sure you’re not relying on it for protein.
  • Sugar per cup - Unsweetened almond beverage has no natural or added sugar. However, the original varieties have as much as 8 grams of added sugar per cup.
  • Price per cup - $0.55

Coconut beverage

What’s in it for you?

  • Protein per cup – Like almond beverage, coconut beverage is a poor choice when it comes to protein. It has less than 1 gram per cup, the equivalent of 14 grams of coconut.
  • Sugar per cup – Unsweetened coconut beverage has no natural or added sugar. The original version has 7 grams of added sugar per cup.
  • Price per cup – $0.57

Rice beverage

What’s in it for you?

  • Protein per cup – Once again, this plant-based beverage is a poor source of protein, with less than 1 gram per cup. This makes sense considering rice itself isn’t a great source of protein.
  • Sugar per cup – Unsweetened rice beverage has 1 gram of natural sugar per cup. The original variety has 9 grams of added sugar per cup.
  • Price per cup - $0.66

Bottom line

Whether choosing traditional, organic or lactose-free options, milk is a great source of nutrients, including calcium, vitamin D and high-quality protein. It is produced according to high industry standards and regulations, making it a nutritious and safe choice.

If you choose not to include milk in your diet, your most comparable alternative and best option is fortified soy beverage. When it comes to plant-based beverages on a whole, it is important to be aware of the different fortification standards, the lower bioavailability of calcium, very low protein content (almond, coconut and rice) and the amount of added sugar in original and sweetened varieties.

*Note: Information is based on refrigerated versions of all beverages (with the exception of unsweetened rice beverage). It is more common to find unfortified versions of shelf-stable products. Price/cup is based on prices at Superstore, Edmonton, as of May 2017. 

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Kristina Isaac, RD.

Registered Dietitian

Kristina (BSc, RD) is a registered dietitian and blogger for Nourish Move Thrive. She enjoys finding creative, fun and simple ways to communicate the science of nutrition.

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