Choosing the right milk for you

November 29, 2018 | by Toni Havala, MS, RD, LDN
Categories: Healthy Driven Life

We live in a land of choices, particularly when it comes to the milk aisle.

You now have a dizzying array of milk options, including cow’s milk and milk made from plants, such as almonds, cashews, soy, peas, hemp, flax, rice, coconut and oats. All are offered in a variety of flavors!

To add further complexity, cow’s milk is available with extra protein and lower sugar content, lactose- free, or containing a specific type of protein. Although all of these beverages may be called milk, they differ widely in nutritional content.

In fact, the dairy industry has been trying to get the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to crack down on the labeling of plant-based milks for nearly 20 years. In July 2018, the FDA put out a statement that the agency will look at the differences in nutritional content of traditional cow’s milk versus plant-based milk and the relation to public health.

So how do you choose the milk that best fits your nutritional needs and personal preferences? Below is a description of popular milks, and some pros and cons of each type from a nutritional standpoint.

Other factors to consider when choosing the best milk for you and your family are environmental and ethical concerns. As more people are trying to move toward a more plant-based diet, incorporating plant milk into your diet may be a good option for you.

Cow’s milk options include:

  • Traditional cow’s milk. Cow’s milk provides protein and calcium, and is fortified with vitamin D. An 8-ounce glass of 2 percent milk contains 276 mg of calcium, 8 grams of protein, and is fortified with 100 IU vitamin D. The impact of dairy fat on heart health is somewhat controversial, so a moderate approach is to drink 2 percent fat milk. Cow’s milk is relatively inexpensive for the nutrition it delivers and is a great choice for those who can tolerate lactose (the sugar found in milk) and do not have a milk allergy. Children from the ages of 1-2 years old who are not breastfed should drink whole cow’s milk unless they have an allergy to milk.
  • Lactose-free milk. This milk has the same nutritional value as traditional milk but the milk sugar, or lactose, has been broken down so it is more easily digestible.
  • Ultra-filtered high protein milk (e.g., Fairlife™). Filtered milks have reduced sugar content and increased protein content. The protein content is typically two-thirds higher and the sugar content is one-half that of traditional milk. The extra protein can be beneficial for those who are not eating enough protein, people recovering from illness, or those trying to lose weight. The lower sugar content makes this a good choice for those with diabetes or prediabetes, and those trying to lower their overall sugar intake. Because of the low lactose content, it’s better tolerated than regular milk for those with lactose intolerance. These milks tend to be more expensive and can cost from $3.50 to $4.50 for 52 ounces.
  • A2 milk (e.g., a2 Milk™). This milk is produced by cows that only make milk containing one type of casein protein, the A2 protein. Cow’s milk typically contains two types of beta casein protein, A1 and A2. By drinking milk with only the A2 protein, some people are better able to avoid the symptoms of bloating, gas, abdominal pain, diarrhea or constipation that some experience when drinking regular milk. A2 milk is not lactose-free, so if you have a true lactose intolerance this milk will not be easily digested. For those with digestive issues that are not relieved by lactose- free milk, it is highly likely that they would benefit from switching to A2 milk. This milk has the same nutritional content as traditional cow’s milk.

Plant-based milk options include:

  • Soy milk and pea protein milk. These plant milks have the advantage of naturally having nearly as much protein as cow’s milk. And all plant milks are naturally lactose- and casein-free. The majority of soy and pea protein milks are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, but it is a good idea to check. An 8-ounce glass should be fortified to provide at least 30 percent of the RDA for calcium and 25 percent of the RDA for vitamin D. Avoid flavored milks because they contain added sugar. For example, a 12-ounce bottle of Odwalla™ Al Mondo Vanilla Super Protein soy milk has 7.5 teaspoons of added sugar. An 8-ounce glass of unsweetened soy or pea milk has only 70-80 calories, 1 gram of sugar and less than a gram of saturated fat. Ripple™ is a brand of pea protein milk that boasts added fortification with the omega-3 fat DHA.
  • Almond, flax and cashew milk. Almond, flax and cashew milk have a unique, creamy nut-like taste that can be enjoyed in a variety of ways. Although nuts and seeds themselves are a source of protein, almond, flax and cashew milk have very little due to being diluted with water. A glass of nut or seed milk typically provides less than 1 gram of protein per 8-ounce glass. Recently, several companies including Silk™ and Orgain™ have added products fortified with pea protein to their line of nut milks. These products provide about 10 grams of protein in an 8-ounce serving. Unsweetened almond, flax and cashew milk have the nutritional benefits of having heart-healthy mono and polyunsaturated fats and a low calorie level of 30 calories per cup.
  • Coconut milk. This plant milk contains more saturated fat than other plant milks and has negligible protein and little calcium, so nutritionally it does not stack up to other plant milks. Unsweetened coconut milk beverage is 45 calories for an 8-ounce glass, and contains no protein or sugar, with 4 grams of saturated fat and only 10 percent of the RDA for calcium.
  • Hemp milk. This milk is made from the seeds of the hemp plant, which also produces marijuana. However, hemp milk is made from a different part of the plant and contains only trace amounts of the compound THC. Hemp milk is very high in calcium, providing 45 percent of the RDA in an 8-ounce glass. It also contains omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for your heart. The downside is that it contains 140 calories per 8 ounces, making it a high-calorie plant milk option. This can be a good choice for adults with multiple allergies to dairy, nuts and soy.
  • Rice milk. Rice milk can also be an option for those with multiple food allergies, but has few nutritional benefits. Rice milk lacks protein, and the fat lacks omega-3 and monounsaturated fats. A glass of unsweetened rice milk is high in carbohydrates at 23 grams and 120 calories per 8 ounces.

There are lots of milk choices out there and they vary widely. You may want to try a milk that’s new to you and see if you find a new favorite!

Related blogs:

Choose the right plant-based diet for your heart
How to make meal planning work when you’re busy
9 tips that will transform your food shopping
What's so bad about the white stuff?

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