You may have noticed that the milk case at your grocery store is full of more interesting options lately. In larger chains and specialty stores especially, plant-based milk alternatives seem almost as common as their mammal-based counterparts.
With so many options available, it can be hard to decide which type of milk to toss in your shopping cart.
Is one milk really better than another?
And what’s the deal with all the not-milk milks these days?
Understanding the nutrition profile of various milks as well as your family’s needs may help you choose the right milk for the job. (And at the very least, you’ll expand your palate a bit.)
When you think of the word “milk,” you probably think cow’s milk. And you likely know that cow’s milk contains calcium. But this staple of the American diet also contains nutrients like riboflavin, niacin, folate, and vitamins A, B6, B12 and E. The kind you get at the grocery store is usually fortified with vitamin D, too.
Cow’s milk can also be processed to reduce how much fat it contains. It’s then classified based on its fat and calorie content:
- Whole milk: 8 grams of fat / 250 calories per cup
- 2% milk: 5 grams of fat / 120 calories per cup
- 1% milk: 2.5 grams of fat / 100 calories per cup
- Skim milk (non-fat milk): 0 grams of fat / 80 calories per cup
Adjusting the fat level of cow’s milk doesn’t change the protein content, though. One cup has around 8 grams of protein.
There are also lactose-free varieties of cow’s milk. Lactose-free milk is a real dairy product that has been processed to break down or remove the lactose sugar that’s naturally present in milk. This makes it easier for some people with lactose intolerance to enjoy a glass of milk without any unpleasant side effects.
But while you might think “cow” when you think about milk, this classic variety isn’t your only option when it comes to mammalian milk.
Goat’s milk is a common alternative. Compared to cow’s milk, goat’s milk has more of several nutrients, including calcium, niacin, copper, selenium, potassium, vitamin A and vitamin B6. On the flip side, it contains less folic acid and vitamin B12. It’s also higher in fat than cow’s milk and less likely to be sold in reduced-fat versions.
Other dairy milks include sheep’s milk, buffalo’s milk and even camel’s milk.
We know, we know. You can only get milk from a mammal. There’s no such thing as milking an almond.
But for lack of a better word, plant-based “milks” are now widely available and offer a good alternative to milk for people who can’t enjoy a cold glass of the mammalian kind.
In fact, there are a variety of plant-based products that are similar in appearance to cow’s milk, and some offer pretty decent nutrition depending on how they’re made and processed. Some plant milks can also be substituted for dairy milk cup-for-cup in many recipes.
But where does plant milk actually come from?
Typically, plant-based milk is made by soaking a base ingredient and then grinding it to a fine paste. From there, adding water and flavoring can turn it into a milk-like product. Food manufacturers often add nutrients as well to beef up — no pun intended — the final product.
Popular plant-based milk options include:
Each variety has its own nutrition profile, but nearly all plant milk is lower in fat and calories than whole milk. And as a side note, one key benefit of plant milk is that it may be better for the environment than dairy milk.
That said, it’s important to note that you’re never going to get the exact same nutrition that you would from cow’s milk. Many plant milks are lower in protein, vitamin D, calcium and other vital nutrients. Also, some varieties contain high levels of added sugar.
Keep that in mind when you’re shopping for plant-based alternatives to milk. And read labels carefully for a breakdown of added ingredients.
Finding the Best Milk for Your Family
Milk needs change quite a lot throughout your life, especially in the first few years. Deciding which type of milk to feed your family will depend on people’s ages and dietary requirements.
During their first year of life, infants don’t need dairy or plant milk. Right at birth and up to their first birthday, infants need milk that’s made just for them.
Breastmilk is designed especially to meet the nutritional needs of human infants. For most women, breastmilk also comes naturally, though there may be a steep learning curve at the outset for both mom and baby.
As an alternative to breastmilk, baby formula provides many of the same benefits as its natural counterpart, including similar fat, protein, vitamin and mineral levels.
With either formula or breastmilk — or a combination of the two — you can meet your baby’s needs for calories, hydration and nourishment.
Most infant formulas are made from cow’s milk. There are soy formulas and other alternatives on the market for babies who can’t tolerate dairy-based varieties.
The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that breastfeeding can continue until the second birthday or longer. But formula-fed babies should switch to cow’s milk after turning one.
Toddlers who are still breastfeeding can start drinking some cow’s milk as well, but it’s not critical.
Until age 2, whole milk is recommended. It contains beneficial fat that supports a toddler’s brain development. Young children also get calcium and vitamin D from the milk they drink.
Most two-year-olds no longer need full-fat milk. At this age, your kiddo might be fine with milk that has a lower fat content. With these varieties, children can continue to benefit from milk’s calcium and vitamin D without consuming too many calories.
Important note: according to the Healthy Drinks, Healthy Kids initiative, children ages 5 and under should typically stick with dairy milk rather than plant milk. Kids who primarily drink plant milk may miss out on the critical nutrients found in cow’s milk.
The recommendations do make allowance for children who can’t have dairy milk for health or family reasons. If that’s the case, check in with your child’s pediatrician for advice. In fact, If you have any doubts or concerns about what (and what not) to feed your kids, start with the pediatrician.
Older Children and Adults
While many resources focus on milk consumption in the 5 and under crowd, there are fewer firm recommendations made about the best types of milk for older kids, teens and adults.
Two main considerations to keep in mind:
- Calcium needs
- Fat and calorie intake
Dairy milk is known for its calcium content, but almond milk is another good source. Most plant-based milks are naturally low in fat and calories. For those who choose cow’s milk, fat-free skim may be a better choice depending on your own diet needs and health risks.
Some experts even advise that flavored varieties, like chocolate milk, are acceptable in moderation if they help your kids — or you! — meet daily nutrition goals. Just watch for the sugar content on flavored milks. It can be pretty high.
Allergies or Food Intolerances
For people of all ages, special dietary needs may play a key role in deciding which type of milk to drink.
Lactose intolerance means that your body has a hard time digesting the lactose sugar that’s found in animal milk, especially cow’s milk.
One solution is to drink lactose-free milk. Or you might be able to take an over-the-counter lactase enzyme to help you digest cow’s milk. (As always, talk to your doctor before starting any new supplement.)
Other types of mammal milk might not be too bad for you, either. For instance, some people struggle to digest cow’s milk, but they can handle goat’s milk as an alternative since it has a slightly lower lactose level. And plant milks are naturally free of lactose.
But if you have a true milk allergy, lactose-free dairy products won’t solve the problem.
You’ll certainly need to avoid cow’s milk, and you may need to steer clear of other animal milks as well. That’s because cow’s milk contains two allergenic proteins. Only one of them is significantly present in goat’s milk, but scientific studies haven’t yet confirmed that it’s less likely to cause reactions.
Because of this uncertainty, plant-based milk varieties are typically your best bet if you’re allergic to dairy.
People with food allergies don’t necessarily have a free pass to consume any and all plant milks, though. For example, if you have nut allergies, you shouldn’t drink cashew or almond milk. Soy milk is a poor choice for anyone with a soy allergy, and it may also cause reactions for certain people with dairy allergies.
For those with multiple allergies, rice milk could be one of the least likely varieties to offend. Since rice milk isn’t rich in nutrients, though, it’s important not to depend on it as a key source of dietary vitamins and minerals. Also, check the package for potential cross-contamination since rice milk is sometimes processed in the same facilities as nut milks.
Some people shy away from certain types of milk over concerns that the estrogen and other hormones they contain could affect their own hormone levels or cause reproductive problems.
Scientists are still investigating the effect of the hormones in cow’s milk on humans.
Some studies suggest that they could play a role in tumor formation. Other studies indicate that this would require consuming 1,000 times more dairy than the average person. Deciding whether to avoid dairy for hormone reasons is a personal decision that you can make with your doctor’s input.
Soy milk also comes up in some discussions about milk and hormones. Soy contains isoflavones, which are estrogen-like compounds found in plants. While soy does have high levels of these compounds, they’re much weaker than natural human estrogen.
Research on the effects of soy products, particularly in relation to breast cancer, is ongoing.
In general, it seems that moderate consumption of soy doesn’t raise the risk of breast cancer, worsen the prognosis of those diagnosed or increase the risk of recurrence. Even still, your doctor might recommend avoiding soy milk and soy products in some situations — for example, if you’re undergoing hormone therapy.
If you’re following a vegan lifestyle, choosing the right plant milk can help you meet your daily vitamin and mineral needs. From a nutrition standpoint, soy milk is a great one to try. With each serving, you’ll get 330 milligrams of calcium and 8 grams of protein.
Alternatively, consider almond milk. Like soy milk, a serving has 330 milligrams of calcium. Although you’ll get only 1 gram of protein, you might appreciate the lower calorie count and the relatively neutral flavor of almond milk.
Above all, know that you may need to do some experimentation when it comes to milk. Each plant milk offers its own flavor profile, and taste-testing can help you settle on a favorite for both taste and nutrition.