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Milk, Minus the Cow

Cow-free milk is no passing trend: The milk-alternatives market grew 12.5 percent last year, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation. "While cow's milk contains nutrients such as calcium, vitamin D, and protein, people are turning to nondairy varieties because of allergies, lactose intolerance, and concerns about hormones and antibiotics," says Elisa Zied, R.D., author of Nutrition at Your Fingertips. Some faux milks are more beneficial than good old moo juice and clock in at fewer calories (skim has 90 per eight-ounce glass), while others lack nutritional value or harbor hidden calories and sugar, particularly the vanilla-and chocolate-flavored ones. Consult this guide before you drink up.

Supercharge your diet with these powerfoods.

Almond Milk

Almond Breeze Original, Per cup: 60 cal, 2.5 g fat (0 g sat), 8 g carbs (7 g sugars), 150 mg sodium, 1 g fiber, 1 g protein

Taste: Creamy, rich, and slightly nutty with a hint of sweetness

Pros: The least caloric of the bunch, it's fortified with vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant that fights UV damage, as well as calcium and vitamins A and D.

Cons: While almonds themselves are a good source of fiber and protein, the milk contains skimpy amounts of these nutrients (that's because the milk is made by grinding the nuts and mixing with water). Almond milk is also higher in sodium than other alternatives.

Best in: Smoothies, coffee, and cereal

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Hemp Milk

Tempt Original, Per cup: 100 cal, 6 g fat (0.5 g sat), 9 g carbs (6 g sugars), 110 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 2 g protein

Taste: Nutty and earthy

Pros: It's naturally rich in omega-3 fatty acids—wonder nutrients for your heart, brain, and mood. Hemp milk is made with cannabis seeds, but it won't get you high, because it lacks significant THC (the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana).

Cons: Depending on the brand, you may gulp only 10 percent of your daily calcium needs. It's not a great source of protein either.

Best in: Mashed potatoes, muffins, and quick breads. Unobtrusive in flavor, it's a good stand-in for cow's milk in baked foods.

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Coconut Milk

So Delicious Coconut Milk Beverage Original, Per cup: 80 cal, 5 g fat (5 g sat), 7 g carbs (6 g sugars), 15 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 1 g protein

Taste: Thick, creamy, and, well, coconut-y

Pros: It has the least amount of sodium and can be fairly low-cal—even some flavored kinds will cost you only 90 calories per serving. Plus, most brands are fortified with half a day's worth of vitamin B12, a brain-boosting nutrient.

Cons: "The majority of fat is saturated," says Lauren Slayton, R.D., founder of Foodtrainers in New York City. But at five grams per serving, it constitutes less than 8 percent of your total daily value for fat.

Best in: Coffee, tea, pudding, smoothies, and oatmeal—it's a go-to thickener.

Rice Milk

Rice Dream Enriched Original, Per cup: 120 cal, 2.5 g fat (0 g sat), 23 g carbs (10 g sugars), 100 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 1 g protein

Taste: Light, watery, and sweet

Pros: The carbs. "Have a glass before or after a workout—it offers carbs to fuel and fluid to hydrate, and like a sports drink, it's a good source of electrolytes," says Nancy Clark, R.D., author of Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook.

Cons: The carbs. If you're trying to drop a few pounds, it's best to eat whole-grain carbs, which contain filling fiber; rice milk has zero.

Best in: Desserts, baked goods, pancakes, and French toast. Its natural sweetness complements indulgent foods.

Soy Milk

Silk Original, Per cup: 100 cal, 4 g fat (0.5 g sat), 8 g carbs (6 g sugars), 120 mg sodium, 1 g fiber, 6 g protein

Taste: Faintly sweet. Some varieties have a slight tofu flavor.

Pros: It has almost as much protein as cow's milk, plus plant chemicals that may help inhibit absorption of cholesterol. It's often fortified, so shake the carton well—added calcium tends to settle at the bottom, says Zied.

Cons: Some studies suggest that overconsuming soy promotes breast cancer. "A good guideline is about 25 grams of soy protein per day," says Zied.

Best in: Creamy soups and salad dressings, sauces, casseroles, and other savory dishes. Vanilla-flavored varieties are great in coffee or tea (or by the glass!).

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