Which Milk Is the Healthiest?
With dozens of different types of dairy and plant-based milks to choose from, the choice can be overwhelming. These are the healthiest types of milk you can drink.
This article is based on reporting that features expert sources.
Milk does a body good. It was a message that was made popular by a famous 1980s marketing campaign, and in ensuing years, another milk ad featured photos of celebrities sporting milk mustaches, with the slogan “Got milk?” They were simple messages, but the reality about milk nutrition is more complex.
Certainly, traditional cow’s milk provides many vitamins and nutrients. But decades after that famous milk promotion, dairy alternative milks – such as those made from almonds, soybeans and other starchy plants or nuts – have become widely popular. These beverages are marketed as a healthier or more sustainable alternative to dairy products.
“Milk alternatives or substitutes are made by blending or extracting plant material in water,” explains Candace Pumper, a staff dietitian at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center‘s Comprehensive Weight Management and Metabolic/Bariatric Surgery Program in Columbus. “The plant materials then undergo homogenization and thermal treatment to enhance the physical stability and shelf-life of the final product.”
While plant-based milks may taste just as good as cow’s milk, they may not provide the same amount of nutrients, such as vitamin D, calcium, potassium and protein. As such, they are often fortified with these added vitamins and minerals to help people meet their nutritional needs.
“All ‘milks’ are not created equal,” says Lise Gloede, a registered dietitian based in Arlington, Virginia. “Nutritional differences are vast. Consider using a plant-based milk (like soy milk) if you have allergies (or a lactose intolerance), but keep in mind that your intake of protein and riboflavin will be less. These are important nutrients.”
The Importance of Calcium
One thing to keep in mind when deciding which milk is best for you is calcium content. Calcium helps build and maintain strong bones and helps your heart, muscles and nerves function optimally.
Too little calcium carries health risks. Kids who don’t get enough calcium may not reach their full adult height, and adults may have low bone mass, which is a risk factor for osteoporosis.
The recommended daily allowance of calcium varies by age and gender. Men ages 19 to 70 should get 1,000 milligrams of calcium, and men 71 and older should get 1,200 milligrams daily, according to the National Institutes of Health. Women between the ages of 19 and 50 should get 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day, and 1,200 milligrams if they are 51 and older.
Children need varying amounts of calcium depending on their age. Infants less than 6 months old should get 200 milligrams daily. The amount rises with age, ranging from 700 milligrams daily for kids between ages 1 and 3 to 1,300 milligrams a day for adolescents between ages 14 and 18.
How Much Calcium Is in Milk?
Different types of milk contain varying levels of calcium. An 8-ounce cup of whole milk has 276 milligrams of calcium, while skim milk has 299 milligrams, says Michelle Dudash, a registered dietitian based in Carmel, Indiana, and the author of “Clean Eating for Busy Families.”
The same amount of unfortified soy milk – milk that has not been enriched with added nutrients – has 61 milligrams of calcium, while one brand of almond milk contains about the same amount. Most soy milks are fortified with calcium and contain 25% to 50% of the recommended daily allowance of calcium for adults, Dudash says.
Dairy milk is also fortified with vitamin D, and naturally contains:
By contrast, “all of the nutrients that are found in almond and oat milk are fortified in considerable quantities,” Pumper says. “Almond and oat milk are generally nutritionally inferior to traditional dairy milk unless fortified. However, both alternative milk substitutes have their own unique benefits and drawbacks.”
Types of Milk
These days, consumers can choose from a wide array of different kinds of milk, including more than a dozen plant-based options:
Types of cow’s milk
Regular cow’s milk provides healthy vitamins and nutrients, including:
- Vitamin A.
- Vitamin D.
In recent years, A2 milk has become more popular and is now available in many grocery stores. But what exactly is A2 milk? A1 and A2 are types of beta-casein, a protein largely found in cow’s milk. In the U.S., the majority of dairy cows produce milk that contains about the same amounts of A1 and A2. However, in other parts of the world, cows are more likely to produce milk that contains just the A2 beta-casein protein. A2 milk is marketed to be easier to digest than regular cow’s milk, but there’s limited evidence to support these claims. Nutritionally, A2 milk is no different from whole cow’s milk.
Lactose-free milk comes in various fat levels, with 2% or whole being the most popular, Gloede says. This type of milk does not have the lactose removed but has the lactase enzyme added to help people who cannot properly digest lactose.
“It is a more popular option for those with lactose intolerance or those who find cow’s milk gives them gas or bloating,” she says.
For people who like cow’s milk and are watching their calories, low-fat milk could be a good option. A cup of low-fat milk contains 102 calories, 8 grams of protein and 3 micrograms of vitamin D.
Types of plant-based milks
Almond milk has a smooth and creamy texture, and is low in carbs and calories. Like soy milk, original and sweetened types of almond milk contain added sugar from cane sugar, so it’s best to get unsweetened or light varieties, says David Friedman, a clinical nutritionist and board-certified alternative medical practitioner based in Wilmington, North Carolina. Consuming too much added sugar is associated with elevated inflammation in the body, insulin resistance and weight gain.
Banana milk is a nutritious alternative to traditional dairy milks, providing many vitamins and minerals, including potassium.
“Potassium helps with muscle contraction and nerve transmission,” says Lisa Jones, a registered dietitian based in Philadelphia. “Not only that, but banana milk is lower in carbs than cow’s milk and contains almost no fat. It also contains calcium, which is important for bone health, as well as phosphorus and magnesium, both essential for proper body function.”
Banana milk derives its natural sweetness from the bananas themselves, so you can get all the benefits without added sugars or artificial sweeteners. Plus, it contains naturally occurring fiber, which helps with digestion and slows absorption of glucose into the bloodstream.
“As such, it can be a great choice for people trying to manage their blood sugar levels. All this makes banana milk an excellent choice for anyone looking for a healthier alternative to traditional dairy milks,” Jones says.
With its rich, creamy texture, cashew milk is similar to traditional cow’s milk in taste. In fact, it can be used in a number of recipes that call for cow’s milk. Keep in mind that homemade cashew milk is relatively low in calcium, but most store-bought versions will be fortified with the essential mineral to provide approximately 30% of your daily value.
Be aware that this kind of milk packs more saturated fats than other milk alternatives.
“Coconut milk has a nice creamy consistency and a pleasant (coconut-flavored) taste, but doesn’t stack up nutritionally to cow milk and soy milk,” Dudash says.
Coconut milk contains coconut cream, which is made from coconut meat, water, salt, a thickener such as locust bean gum, an emulsifier like sunflower lecithin and other vitamins and minerals the manufacturer adds, she says.
Made from flaxseeds, flax milk has an earthy and nutty flavor and will work well in any diet, Jones says. You can sub in flax milk into almost any recipe that calls for dairy or plant-based milks, including smoothies and baked goods, or enjoy it straight from the cup.
“Flax milk is a great nutritional choice for those looking for an alternative to traditional dairy milk,” she says. “It is naturally rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for brain development, heart health and reducing inflammation in the body. It is also low in sugar and cholesterol-free, making it a great option for those watching their calorie intake or following a vegan diet.”
Sweet and nutty, a cup of hazelnut milk provides 70 to 100 calories, depending on the brand. Hazelnut milk typically contains more protein per serving than unsweetened almond milk.
Keep in mind, the downside of drinking hazelnut milk is that its fat content is higher and its calcium content is lower than other plant-based milk options.
This type of milk is made from the seeds of the hemp plant. Although hemp plants are the same species as the marijuana plant, hemp food products are made from seeds that do not naturally contain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, and cannot produce the high associated with the plant, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
Macadamia milk contains iron, manganese, potassium and vitamin B6. This type of milk has an extra creamy taste and texture because of its monosaturated fat content. A 1-cup serving of macadamia nut milk contains 70 calories, 5 grams of fat, 1 gram of carbs and 1 gram of protein.
“This type of beverage could be helpful if you’re looking to replace some high-carb beverages in your daily routine or want something that’s richly textured without all the sugariness typically found in other beverages,” Jones says.
“Oat milk is known for its smooth, creamy texture and balanced flavor, much like that of dairy milk, which makes it beneficial in espresso-based drinks and for both cooking and baking,” Pumper says. However, in many cases, oat milk is supplemented by a small amount of oil – typically sunflower oil – to give it that creamy texture.
If you’re trying to lose weight, it’s important to note that oat milk typically contains more calories than other plant-based milks.
Overall, pea milk typically doesn’t provide the same amount of nutrients as you’d get from cow’s milk or soy milk. But this shouldn’t be an issue if you consume meat, poultry, seafood or eggs. If you’re a vegan and eat no animal products, be sure you’re consuming a nutritionally balanced eating regimen. Consulting with a registered dietitian who has experience with plant-based eating could be helpful.
This type of milk has an earthy flavor. Pistachio milk can be used in a wide array of recipes for baked goods, homemade ice cream, smoothies and yogurt.
This popular type of milk has a number of health benefits. Unfortified soy milk contains vitamin B, which helps maintain healthy nerves, and magnesium, zinc and folate. However, like most widely available store-bought plant-based milks, you’ll likely find soy milk options that have been fortified with vitamins and minerals – including calcium and vitamin D – on the shelves of your local grocery store.
Creamy in texture and nutty in flavor, spelt milk also contains an array of nutrients, including calcium, iron, magnesium and vitamins B, D and E. It’s important to keep in mind that spelt milk differs from other plant-based milk in that it contains gluten, Jones says. Therefore, people with celiac disease should avoid it.
This type of milk is slightly sweet, nutty and has a distinct quinoa flavor, Jones says. One cup of quinoa milk contains about 70 calories, 1 gram of fat, 12 grams of carbs and 2 grams of protein.
“Quinoa milk is high in protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals,” Jones says. “It’s a nutrient-dense food that provides all the essential amino acids.”
Essential amino acids are important for an array of important functions, including:
- Tissue repair.
- Nutrient absorption.
- Protein synthesis.
- Muscle development.
This milk has a strong flavor that some consumers have compared to maple and toasted walnuts, and has a consistency similar to chocolate milk, Jones says. One cup of walnut milk contains 120 calories, 11 grams of fat, 3 grams of protein and 1 gram of carbs. Walnut milk is a good source of protein, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. On the down side, it’s relatively high in fat and low in calcium.
Milk Nutrition Facts
“Given the wide variety of plant-based milk alternatives on the market, the best approach is to read the nutrition label, making sure to choose a low-sugar option, higher in calcium and vitamins, and a smaller ingredient list,” says Cesar Sauza, a registered dietitian with AltaMed Health Services in Los Angeles. “The more ingredients used for the plant milk typically means more added artificial ingredients, fillers, preservatives, added sugars and more.”
The table below represents nutritional values per 8-ounce servings. The percent daily values for calcium and vitamin D are based on the Food and Drug Administration’s daily value of 1,300 micrograms and 20 micrograms, respectively.
The nutritional profile of these items can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer depending on how they process these foods and which vitamins and minerals are added. Unless otherwise specified, nutrition values were sourced from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s FoodData Central database.
|TYPE||CALORIES||TOTAL FAT (GRAMS)|
SATURATED FAT (GRAMS)
|PROTEIN (GRAMS)||SUGAR (GRAMS)||CALCIUM (% DAILY VALUE)||VITAMIN D (%)|
|Spelt (per 100 milliliter serving)|
For some people, the desire to select a plant-based milk is driven by concerns for the environment. Production of plant-based milk is relatively more sustainable than that of dairy milk. In fact, studies on the production of dairy milk have shown to have the greatest environmental impact when considering land use, greenhouse gas emissions, pollution and energy requirements for raising dairy cows. When it comes to sustainable farming practices and creating less environmental impact, it seems that plants may be better than animals.
In addition, while plant-based milks are often considered a healthy alternative to dairy milk, experts warn against feeding it to children.
“(Milk alternatives) shouldn’t be considered nutritional substitutes for breast milk, infant formula and cow’s milk during infancy and childhood,” Pumper says. “Breast milk and infant formula should not be replaced with plant-based milk because developing babies require specific calories and nutrients that these types of milk provide.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children between ages 1 and 2 consume whole cow’s milk. Substituting a plant-based milk for animal-based dairy products in babies and young children could lead to nutritional deficiencies.
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