Does Cow's Milk Have Cholesterol?

The question, “Does milk have cholesterol?” used to have a simple answer: “Yes, except for skim, or nonfat, milk. Next question.”

But times have changed, and our “milk” now comes not just from cows (and, to a lesser degree, from goats), but also from plant-based sources such as soybeans, almonds, rice, and coconuts. And, as you probably know, even dairy (cow’s) milk is now available lactose (milk sugar)-free and in various forms based on its fat content.

A woman drinking a glass of milk
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What Type of Milk Is Best for Me?

Perhaps the most important basic fact you should know is that whole milk, dairy milk from which no fat has been removed, has more calories and cholesterol than any other form of milk. Other important factors to consider include:

  • Periods of growth and development have specific nutritional requirements. Pregnant women, children over age 2 years, and teenagers need the protein, calcium, and vitamin D that are abundant in dairy milk.
  • On the other hand, people who need to limit their cholesterol intake (for example, those who are trying to lose weight or are following a heart-healthy diet), should probably consider other, nondairy, forms of milk.

So how do you decide which form of milk to use? If the taste is important to you, you can try them all. However, you should also consider their different nutrition profiles, suitability based on your dietary needs and/or allergy concerns, and health benefits. The information here can help you make your choice.

Dairy (Cow’s) Milk Is Traditional and Tasty

No doubt you’re familiar with the varieties of dairy milk available: whole milk (3% or more saturated fat, the type with the most cholesterol), 2% (fat) milk, 1% (fat) milk, skim (fat-free, nonfat) milk, and even lactose-free milk.

Whole Milk. Cow's milk with none of the fat removed, whole milk contains the highest amount of dietary cholesterol compared to reduced-fat milk (see below). It also has 150 calories and 8 grams of fat per cup, 8.5% nonfat milk solids, and 88% water. In addition to its high-fat content (3%), whole milk is high in natural proteins, vitamin D, and calcium.

Fat-removed Dairy Milk. Milk containing 1% and 2% fat is known as “reduced-fat” milk, and nonfat or fat-free milk is commonly called skim milk.

Lactose-Free Milk. This is dairy milk processed to break down lactase, a natural sugar found in milk products. Lactose-free milk comes in the same varieties as “regular” dairy milk and has the same nutritional profile.

When it comes to lowering your cholesterol level, the less saturated fat in your dairy milk, the better.

Almond Milk Is a Nutty Alternative

Made from ground almonds, almond milk is naturally lactose-free, has no saturated fat, and is low in calories compared with other milk. But while almonds are high in protein, almond milk isn’t, and it’s not a good source of calcium, either—although many brands are supplemented with calcium and vitamin D.

Note: If you’re allergic to any kind of nut, you should avoid drinking almond milk.

Soy Milk Is Popular With Vegans

As you may know, soy milk is made from soybeans. Naturally, lactose- and cholesterol-free, soy milk is a good source of protein, potassium, vitamins A, D, and B12, and (when supplemented) calcium. It’s also low in saturated fat and comparable in calories to skim milk.

Note: Some clinical research suggests that higher intakes of soy-based foods may cause fertility problems.

Rice Milk Is Least Likely to Trigger Allergies

Made from milled rice and water, rice milk is the least allergenic of all of the milk, so it can be a good choice for people who are lactose intolerant or have nut allergies. It’s not a good source of calcium or vitamin D unless it’s supplemented with these nutrients.

Rice milk is very low in protein and very high in carbohydrates, so it’s probably not the best choice for people with diabetes, the elderly, or athletes.

Coconut Milk Is High in Nutrition and a Healthy Type of Fat

You may be surprised to learn that coconuts are classified as fruits, not nuts, so most people with allergies to nuts can drink coconut milk without having an allergic reaction. (If you have a nut allergy, however, it’s best to check with your doctor before starting to eat or drink products containing coconut.)

Coconuts are rich in fiber and contain many important nutrients including vitamins C, E, B1, B3, B5, and B6 and minerals such as iron, selenium, sodium, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus.

Coconuts also contain a lot of saturated fat—normally a big “no-no” for people who need to limit their intake of dietary fat. But here’s another surprise: The fat in coconuts is converted in your body into a very healthy substance called monolaurin, which has both antibacterial and antiviral effects. So drinking coconut milk may help your body fight off infections. In addition, the fat in coconuts appears to be digested and eliminated more quickly, meaning it’s less likely to be stored as fat.

Note: Because it’s saturated, the fat in coconuts can contribute to the development of heart disease. If you have heart disease or risk factors for it, check with your doctor about consuming coconut-containing products.

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Article Sources
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  1. Singhal S, Baker RD, Baker SS. A Comparison of the Nutritional Value of Cowʼs Milk and Nondairy BeveragesJournal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition. 2017;64(5):799-805. doi:10.1097/mpg.0000000000001380

  2. Vanga SK, Raghavan V. How well do plant based alternatives fare nutritionally compared to cow’s milk? Journal of Food Science and Technology. 2017;55(1):10-20. doi:10.1007/s13197-017-2915-y

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