Which Milk Is Best for Your Body—and the Planet?

Written by: Denise John, PhD


Published on: February 29, 2024


Whether you’re navigating the dairy aisle or ordering a latte, choosing the best milk can be more complicated than we’d like. There’s taste to consider, of course, but many of us are also concerned about how our milk choices affect our health and impact the environment.

“This conversation is never straightforward,” says nutritionist Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN. “What’s good for one person may not be suitable for another.” There are many factors to consider—like food allergies and sensitivities, nutrition, environmental impact, animal welfare, taste, and texture. Even if one milk has a compelling nutritional profile, your overall health is the priority—avoid milks that include ingredients that you may be allergic or sensitive to, no matter how good they seem on paper. And for all your health concerns, like your nutritional needs or food allergies or sensitivities, consult your doctor and nutritionist.

If you’re considering the environmental impact of your milk choice, Dora Marinova, PhD, a professor of sustainability at the Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute, says that there’s more to consider than the milk itself. “How we package milk has a huge environmental footprint,” says Marinova. “If you use packaging that cannot be recycled or decomposed, you are solving one problem but creating others—in some cases, the environmental footprint of the packaging is 10 times higher than the content of the milk.”

For example, Marinova says many plant-based milks come in boxes that are lined with plastics. It’s difficult—and, in some locations, impossible—to recycle them. She recommends that you check with your local recycling facility or purchase milks that come in standard recyclable containers. (We also like the company TerraCycle, which works to recycle single-use plastics and other hard-to-recycle materials.)


Here’s a nutritional and environmental breakdown of the most popular milks in the US. Note: Values may vary depending on the brand you purchase, whether it’s fortified with vitamins and minerals, and whether it comes with added flavors. Look for brands with fewer binding ingredients and added sugars.


Nutrition: Compared to plant-based milks, Feller says that cow’s milk is more nutrient-dense: It has about 8.2 grams of protein per serving (or eight ounces); at least 20 percent of the daily value of calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin B2 (riboflavin); about 10 percent of the daily value of vitamin D; and about 11.5 grams of sugar. It also has some heart-healthy fat in it, she says, and the lowest percentage of water—88 percent—compared to plant-based milks.

Environmental: Cow’s milk is well-known for its high environmental footprint—including land use, greenhouse gas emissions, fresh water use, and eutrophication (the rapid growth of microorganisms in a body of water, caused by runoff, that leads to oxygen depletion). Its environmental impact is higher than that of all plant-based milk options by at least two times.


Nutrition: Of all the plant-based milks, Feller says that soy stands out as being the most nutritionally robust. An eight-ounce cup has about 92 percent water, 6 grams of protein, at least 20 percent of the daily value of calcium and vitamin B2, 10 percent of the daily value of phosphorus and vitamin D, and 9.7 grams of sugar. “The other thing about soy is it’s a complete protein because it has all the essential amino acids that we require as humans,” says Marinova.

Environment: There are also environmental benefits to soy milk. “Soy is a legume, which means that it is very good for the soil,” says Marinova. It fixes nitrogen, meaning it converts nitrogen from the atmosphere into a form that can be used by plants—which helps fertilize the soil, so fertilizers aren’t needed during crop rotations.


Nutrition: Almond milk is the top-selling alternative milk in the US, yet it’s the least nutritionally robust. “Almond milk has such a big percentage of water in it,” says Marinova. That is, 97 percent water—the largest percentage among plant-based milks. One serving of almond milk has 1 gram of protein, which is one of the lowest of all the alternative milks (except rice and coconut), and about 6 grams of sugar. Its calcium levels, however, are the highest compared to many alternative milks—exceeding 20 percent of the daily value—and it has 10 percent of the daily value of vitamin D.

Environment: The environmental impact of almond milk is one of the greatest of plant-based milks. Compared to other plant-based milks, almond milk uses the most fresh water: 372 liters per liter of milk. Rice milk requires 270, oat milk requires 48, and soy requires 28.


Nutrition: An eight-ounce glass of oat milk contains about 91 percent water. And it has about 2.7 grams of protein; at least 10 percent of the daily value of calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D; 20 percent of the daily value of vitamin B2; and 10 grams of sugar. “I know that there’s a bunch of discussion around oat milk spiking blood sugar levels,” says Feller. “I have to say, I’ve looked at the research and I haven’t come to my own conclusion yet.” When it comes to managing your blood sugar, she says it’s all about the quantity of sugar being consumed (whether you’re drinking a latte with alt-milk or eating dessert) and what you pair it with—preferably protein to help manage your blood sugar levels. If you prefer oat milk but you’re concerned about it spiking your blood sugar levels, Feller suggests that you pair it with a meal.

Environment: “Oat milk is really good in terms of its environmental footprint—very, very low,” says Marinova. “Yet it’s grown as a monoculture, which makes it vulnerable to all kinds of bugs and pests. Therefore, we see increased use of pesticides, including glyphosate, which essentially have potentially toxic implications.”


Nutrition: Coconut milk—the one in the cartons, not the canned coconut milk for baking—is another popular alternative. Per serving, it has about 0.5 grams of protein, more than 20 percent of the daily value of calcium, 10 percent of the daily value of vitamin D, and about 3 grams of sugar.

Environment: Coconut milk also has a very low environmental footprint—one of the lowest of all plant-based milks. And it requires very little water to grow: 3 liters per liter of milk. Yet the increased demand for it has had a big impact: “We’ve seen a lot of devastation of rainforests so that we can grow coconut trees—that’s destruction of native habitat,” says Marinova.


Nutrition: A glass of rice milk contains about 89 percent water, 0.7 grams of protein, and 12 grams of sugar. It also has 20 of the percent daily value of calcium and vitamin B2 and 10 percent of the daily value of phosphorus and vitamin D.

Environment: “Rice has a higher water footprint,” says Marinova. “It’s about half of that of cow’s.” And its carbon footprint is highest compared to soy, oat, and almond milks. “Rice paddocks naturally develop methane, so when you grow rice, you also add methane in the atmosphere; methane is a stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.”

But rice doesn’t require a lot of land to grow. “Rice milk is probably the most efficient, from a land-use aspect,” says Marinova. “In the case of cow’s milk, it requires about 9 square meters per year for one liter of milk, and for rice, it’s 0.3.” It has one of the lowest land-use of plant-based milks (oat uses 0.76 square meters per year; soy, 0.66; and almond, 0.5).


Some alternative milks, like hemp, hazelnut, and macadamia, are not as abundant as the others but are still great options if you can find them. “Hemp is a very versatile plant,” says Marinova. “You can use all parts of the plant—you don’t just use the seeds [for milk]. You can use the stalks to make ropes, bags, and clothes and to create building materials. Many people describe it as a game changer for the future.” According to Marinova, because hemp requires a continental climate to grow—cold, long winters and hot summers—it will take some time to commercialize hemp milk (although you can make it at home).

Another thing to consider when it comes to the environmental impact of your milk is how far it has traveled. “If you are in southern Europe, hazelnut milk may be a good option because hazelnuts grow there,” says Marinova. “The other nut milk that is quite popular in Australia and South Africa is the Australian macadamia nut. It’s very suited to the climate, and that means that it does not require as much water and it’s adaptable.”


Ultimately, the best way to choose your milk—for the environment and your body (and maybe even its taste)—is to diversify your milk choices. Mixing things up is beneficial for the environment because it minimizes the demand on one type of milk, which can have major environmental impact (e.g., devastation of rainforests or other natural habitats to keep up with the demand).

Feller says that variety is best for your body, too. “We know that when people eat varied patterns and there’s diversity [in the foods they’re eating], they tend to have a more diverse microbiome,” she says. This is very important for the gut and overall health. “That’s really what we want at the end of the day.”



This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.