What's the healthiest milk out there? The answer depends on many factors. The nutrition contained in different milks and non-dairy alternatives varies greatly. Depending on your nutrition needs, health goals and/or medical conditions, more than one kind of “milk” might suit you! Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Let's compare and contrast several types of milk you'll likely find in your local grocery.
Cow’s Milk: Vitamin D/Whole, 1% and Skim
The original milk still has its place in a nutritious diet. All varieties of cow’s milk are a good source of protein, naturally occurring carbohydrates (lactose), calcium, and (because all milk sold in the U.S. is fortified) Vitamins A and D. Vitamin D/Whole, low-fat (1% and 2%) and skim milk differ only in milk-fat percentage (see chart at end), which means that low-fat milk is lower in fat and calories than its whole milk counterpart.
While toddlers between the ages of 1 and 2 benefit from the fat content of whole milk due to their rate of growth and brain development, the rest of the general population doesn’t need the saturated fat content of whole milk. Both 1% and skim milk provide the benefits of cow’s milk without the high fat content.
For those with mild lactose intolerance, Acidophilus milk can relive the uncomfortable side-effects of milk digestion; it contains the addition of the acidophilus probiotic to assist in the breakdown of lactose, a naturally occurring sugar. For those with a more severe lactose intolerance, lactose-free milk is a good alternative. It's cow's milk that's processed to break down lactose sugar to the simpler galactose and glucose monosaccharides, making it easier to digest.
Overall, low-fat cow’s milk is a nutrient-dense addition to a healthy meal plan and has the taste and texture many of us grew up with. However, individuals allergic to dairy products or those living a dairy-free or vegan lifestyle will benefit from avoiding cow’s milk and opting for milk alternatives instead.
Positives of Cow’s Milk: Nutrient-dense, provides numerous essential vitamins and minerals, and is widely available and affordable (including low-fat, skim and lactose-free varieties).
Negatives of Cow’s Milk: It's a common allergen for many individuals. Whole milk is high in saturated fat and calories.
Milk Alternatives: Almond, Coconut, Rice and Soy
Several types of milk-like beverages have become popular substitutions for cow’s milk. We call these products “milk alternatives,” as they are plant-based and not from an animal with mammary glands; however, they tend to function in the diet as milk products would.
Opting for the unsweetened version of a milk alternative will help you steer clear of excess calories and added sugars. The nutrient content discussed below is considering only the unsweetened versions of these products.
Almond milk is made from ground almonds and filtered water. Many varieties contain starches and thickeners to give it a more “milk-like” consistency and make it more shelf-stable, which is common practice in all types of milk alternatives. While whole, natural almonds are rich in protein and fiber, these nutrients are stripped away and diluted during the processing of the milk. Almond milk is not naturally rich in calcium or Vitamin D, but many brands are supplemented, making the vitamin and mineral content more comparable to dairy milk. The unsweetened versions of almond milk taste rich and slightly sweet and are lower in calories than other milks. Almond milk is also vegan and lactose-free.
Positives of Almond Milk: When fortified, almond milk contains similar amounts of calcium and Vitamin D as dairy milk. It’s lower in calories than other non-dairy milks, with zero saturated fat and cholesterol.
Negatives of Almond Milk: It is not a good source of protein, many of the nutrients of the raw almonds are lost in processing, and it's not suitable for those with nut allergies.
Try It In: Smoothies, coffee and cereal
Coconut milk is made from filtered water and coconut cream (a combo of coconut meat, water, salt, a thickener, and other ingredients based on the brand). Coconut milk is high in saturated fat, but research shows some of the fat might help with weight loss; the verdict's still out. While coconut milk does not naturally contain calcium, Vitamin A or Vitamin D, it can be fortified. Many brands are also fortified with Vitamin B12.
Positives of Coconut Milk: It's typically easy to digest, and it tends to be lower in sodium than cow’s milk and other milk alternatives. It's cholesterol-free and can be fortified with calcium and vitamins.
Negatives of Coconut Milk: It's high in calories and saturated fat. It's not a good protein source and contains thickening agents and shelf stabilizers.
Try It In: Coffee, tea, pudding, smoothies or oatmeal—it’s a go-to thickener.
Rice milk contains a range of nutrients, but it's low in protein. This makes sense, seeing how it's made from milled rice and water with additives. It's the most hypoallergenic of all milks—safe for people with lactose intolerance and nut allergies. However, since rice is a grain, it has the most carbohydrates of the milk alternatives. Another issue is its elevated amount of inorganic arsenic, which is a potential risk for pregnant women and infants. Rice milk is often fortified with the same amounts of calcium and vitamins that you'll find in cow's milk.
Positives of Rice Milk: It’s high in calcium and contains no saturated fat or cholesterol, making it a good choice for heart health. It's the most hypoallergenic milk, and and can be fortified with Vitamin A, Vitamin D and calcium.
Negatives of Rice Milk: It's low in protein and high in carbohydrates, a potential issue for diabetics or those seeking a low-carb diet. The higher levels of inorganic arsenic can be unhealthy for certain population groups.
Try It In: Desserts, baked goods, pancakes or French toast. Its natural sweetness complements these rich foods.
Soy milk is produced from soybeans, water, and additives. Because it is plant-based, soy milk is naturally cholesterol-free, lactose-free and low in saturated fat. It's a popular choice in vegan diets because soy milk is a good source of protein and calcium (especially when fortified) while being low in carbohydrates. There are also fermented or probiotic-rich versions of soy milk available. (My Pre/Probiotics & Your Health blog reviews the health benefits of probiotics.)
Increased soy intake can cause health problems for those with thyroid disease, a soy allergy, or other conditions complicated by soy consumption. Soy has also been somewhat controversial because some research has linked increased intake with increased risk of breast cancer.
Positives of Soy Milk: It's high in protein (almost as much as cow’s milk) and low in saturated fat and cholesterol. It is rich in Vitamin A and Vitamin B12 and can be fortified with calcium and Vitamin D.
Negatives of Soy Milk: Soy allergies are common, and soy has been linked to complications of thyroid disease and increased risk of breast cancer. Also, many soybean crops in the U.S. are genetically modified plants, which is an issue for those individuals concerned with GMOs.
Try It In: Creamy soups or sauces, casseroles and other savory dishes. Unsweetened vanilla-flavored varieties are good in coffee, tea or by the glass!
To sum it up: both milk and milk alternatives can be included in a healthful diet. Individuals with allergies, specific medical conditions or certain beliefs about food can be confident that any of the milk alternatives they choose to consume are nutritionally beneficial. The foundation of any healthy diet is consumption of a variety of nutrient-dense foods, so give any or all the milk choices a try!
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