Between your doctor, the grocery store and trending news reports, understanding what you should eat has become … well, complicated. Let’s take milk, for example. No longer does the local milkman drop off glass cartons of dairy on your front stoop. Now, you’ve got endless options—cow’s, soy, almond, coconut and many more—to choose from. It can be challenging (and controversial) to figure out where to get the most nutritional bang for your buck. So, we spoke to several experts to try to help clarify which type of milk may best suit your needs.
What type of milk should I drink?
“What type of milk should you drink is one of the most sensitive questions to answer for the general population,” notes Stella Metsovas, gut health expert and author of Wild Mediterranean. “Since more than half of U.S. adults can’t digest cow’s milk, this has caused a surplus of plant-based milks to enter into the marketplace,” she adds.
For the most part, milk now falls into a couple of key categories: dairy, soy, nut-based, coconut and more recently, plant-based. Registered dietitian Rachel Brandeis says this wide variety is good for consumers, since people have different needs and preferences; however, these options don’t necessarily provide the same nutritional benefits.
“Dairy milk provides an excellent source of protein and calcium—8 grams of protein and 300 milligrams of calcium, per serving. Soy milk provides 7 grams of protein and varying amounts of calcium, depending on how much fortification is added,” Brandeis explains. “Most consumers don’t realize that nut milks, such as almond milk and even coconut milk, do not provide the protein found in dairy and soy. These nut milks are essentially water-based milks fortified with calcium and vitamin D,” she says.
If you’re wondering whether or not non-dairy milk is a better alternative to dairy milk, Brandeis says the answer is no. “When consumers are looking at all the different milk options, they should be mindful that just because it says ‘milk’ on the front of the label, it does not mean the same thing nutritionally across the entire category,” she says. “As always, consumers need to look at the nutrition facts on the back of the label to make sure they are choosing the best option,” she advises.
Don’t forget about added sugar.
Finally, it is important to also look at added sugar content, according to Associate Professor at the Department of Nutritional Services at Rutgers University Dr. Nurgül Fitzgerald. “Unsweetened varieties are better choices for people who need to control blood sugar levels or body weight; sweetened varieties can add lots of extra sugar and calories to one’s diet,” she informs.
What’s the difference between cow’s, nut- and plant-based milks?
Amy Goodson, a registered dietitian and nutrition specialist, says, “When looking for vitamins, minerals, protein, and a lower cost, cow’s milk is your best option. Cow’s milk contains 1 gram of protein per ounce, or 8 grams for 1 cup. The other milks don’t measure up, protein-wise, with 0-1 grams for 1 cup (8 ounces).”
But Metsovas says that’s changing, due to the current market of plant-based milks with a higher consideration of protein amounts. She also emphasizes the importance of a balanced diet: “Although plant-based proteins are considered ‘incomplete’ amino acid structures, [when] compared to animal sources, you’re still in a good zone if you balance your protein sources throughout the day with eggs, chicken, fish and lean meats.”
Additionally, nut- and plant-based milks offer options to anyone who struggles with a lactose intolerance, or has a milk, whey, or casein allergy. For those such individuals, both Goodson and Dr. Fitzgerald recommend soy milk as a great substitute.
Here’s a quick round-up of the pros and cons related to most common milk options.
Emily Braaten, a registered dietitian based in Washington, D.C., says cow’s milk carries “a concentrated amount of protein and calcium that makes it hard to imitate: 8 grams and almost 30 percent of your daily needs per cup, respectively.” Goodman calls cow’s milk a “nutrition powerhouse,” since it contains, “nine of the essential nutrients (calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A, phosphorus, vitamin B12, potassium, riboflavin, niacin, protein) your body needs every day to function and grow” at a generally low cost. For children and older adults, Dr. Fitzgerald suggests fat-free or low-fat (1 percent) milk instead of whole or 2 percent milk, due to lower saturated fat and calorie content.
“Among non-dairy milks, unsweetened soy milk is probably the most nutritious, because it is low in calories and saturated fat, and high in protein (in similar amounts to cow’s milk),” says Dr. Fitzgerald. “Fortified soy milk can also be a good source of nutrients such as vitamins A, D, B12 and calcium,” she adds. With 6 grams of protein per cup, Braaten prefers soy milk as a backup to dairy, with this little tip: “Don’t forget to shake the container, because the added calcium will settle at the bottom!”
Braaten says almond milk contains almost 50 percent of your daily calcium needs per cup, but with almost zero protein. Still, Dr. Fitzgerald indicates almond milk can be a good source of vitamins B12, A, D and E. It’s also low in calories, with no saturated fats.
“Similarly, rice milk has very little protein,” says Dr. Fitzgerald, “which is necessary for [the] growth and maintenance of normal body functions.”
“Coconut milk is high in calories and saturated fat,” warns Dr. Fitzgerald. “It has more protein than almond and rice milk, but not as much as soy or cow’s milk. A light version of this milk is a better choice than regular coconut milk because of its lower saturated fat and calorie content,” she recommends.
Does milk intake really impact my health as a whole?
Associate Clinical Professor Emeritus of the Department of Pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine Dr. Keith Ayoob, says he understands why consumers are confused regarding milk nutrition. But many studies, like this one, indicate milk and dairy intake meets nutrient recommendations, and may protect against chronic, prevalent diseases, as well as support bone health.
“Not including dairy nutrition, such as milk and yogurt (especially Greek yogurt), is a real missed opportunity,” says Dr. Ayoob. “Bone health doesn’t get noticed until there’s something wrong, like a broken hip. By then, you’re looking at many decades of inadequate bone nutrition,” he adds.
Your best bet? Enjoy the milk that best suits you. But, as always, prioritize a well-rounded diet high in protein and calcium. Contact your health care provider or a nutritionist to figure out what type of milk is ideal for your health and lifestyle.