Comparing Milk and Milk Alternatives: Which Options are the Healthiest?

You’re probably familiar with the “Got Milk?” advertising campaign, which champions milk’s many benefits for health, wellness, energy and nutrition. But, these days, when you’re standing in the milk aisle at your local supermarket, you may feel overwhelmed by the variety of ‘milks’ available to you. Here, to help you understand different types of milk and cow’s milk alternatives, is Lahey Health registered dietitian Helen Long, RDN, CDE of Winchester Hospital in Winchester, Massachusetts.

“I get lots of questions about cow’s milk, which really is an important dietary source of several essential nutrients, particularly calcium, vitamin D, protein, calories and fat,” said Long. “In young children, milk also contributes significant calories for growth and development. It’s easy for families to get off-track about milk and proper nutrition, especially when there are so many options available. Always check with your doctor or registered dietitian when you’re not sure about what your child should or shouldn’t consume.”

Maybe ‘Not Milk’ for Everyone

Not everyone should drink milk or wants to, Long says, especially if they:

  • Have lactose intolerance or a milk allergy
  • Are trying to reduce animal fat and cholesterol consumption
  • Want to avoid synthetic growth hormones or antibiotics
  • Choose to follow a vegan diet or consume other special food preferences

Still, maintaining a balanced diet is always important, and she recommends the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s well-known MyPlate eating plan, with its focus on the five basic food groups. Dairy foods are part of a healthy, balanced diet and a cup of milk provides 8 grams of protein, 300 milligrams of calcium and 100 IU of vitamin D.

Some milk alternatives contain minimal protein, she says. “If you aren’t getting sufficient protein from a milk product, include protein-rich foods in your diet, such as lean meats, eggs, nuts and tofu. Most plant-based milks come fortified with calcium and vitamin D, but if they don’t meet your personal needs, look for non-dairy calcium-rich food such as broccoli, fortified orange juice and salmon, as well as vitamin D food sources such as tuna, mackerel, salmon or egg yolk.”

She’s often asked if cow’s milk alternatives are as good as or better than regular cow’s milk.

“There are nourishing milk alternatives, but many have shortfalls, so make sure to read Nutrition Facts labels on anything you buy,” she says. You’ll be looking for products made from plants, such as nuts, seeds and grains.

A Product Just Right for You

These are the most common plant-based milks among all those different types of milk:

Soy milk: Made from soy beans, it’s the most popular alternative to cow’s milk, with beneficial antioxidants. Soy milk has been proven to help reduce cholesterol and promote heart health — plus, it contains essential fatty acids.

Rice milk: It’s made from boiled rice, brown rice syrup and brown rice starch. This milk has the least fat, but has two times more carbohydrates than cow’s milk, so diabetics should avoid it. It has a low level of protein, so it’s not a great choice for kids. Other grain-made milks include hemp, flax and oat. Oat milk has more protein, while hemp or flax contain fewer carbohydrates, but minimal protein.

Almond milk: No surprise, almond milk is made from ground almonds — along with water and sweetener, and has a nutty taste. It’s low in fat, with no cholesterol, but with helpful amounts of antioxidant vitamin E. Again, this one has minimal protein and added sugar, so it’s probably not advisable for children. You may also try cashew milk, with its similar specifications to almond milk.

Coconut milk: This thick liquid comes from ground coconut meat and pieces. It’s low in both calcium and protein, but high in saturated fat — a red flag for heart health.

Ripple milk: A dairy-free milk, it’s a good source of protein that’s equivalent to cow’s milk, with 50 percent more calcium than regular milk and a boost of omega-3 fatty acids. The milk is made from North American-grown split yellow peas blended with water and sunflower oil, and except for its unsweetened variety, contains organic cane sugar.

a2 Milk: This new product comes from cows that only naturally produce the A2 protein, since A1, also in cow’s milk, may cause digestive discomfort in humans. Cows get no hormones or antibiotics, and are nourished by local, sustainable family farmers.

The Truth About Organic

If you wonder whether organic milk is more nutritious, Long hopes you won’t jump to conclusions before you make your choice. “Please don’t think that if milk isn’t labeled ‘organic,’ that it’s dangerous or not as healthy,” she says. “Every American dairy farmer wants us to know that the milk supply is safe.”

Organic labeling is about the process followed to make the milk. Organic and regular milk both have the same nutrients.

What would make milk organic? Organic cows must graze to fulfill at least 30 percent of their diets instead of eating only corn. That means farmers spend more — often on land — to earn a USDA Organic certification. Hormones for increased milk production, antibiotics, and the use of syntheic pesticides on the cow’s grass are all not allowed. And, yes, organic milk can sometimes cost up to twice as much as regular milk.

Consider that not every milk labeled “organic” may have been made according to “the rules,” as the Washington Post documented. Know that many “regular” dairies also do not use hormones and antibiotics, which is typically stated on the product.

If you’re concerned about the cost of any milk alternatives, shop smarter by choosing store brands, just as you would when choosing other items. And, if you have any questions, be sure to ask the nutritionists at Lahey Health.


*The content on this website is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Please consult a physician regarding your specific medical condition, diagnosis and/or treatment.

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