As far as milk options go, we live in exciting times. The last ten years has been a veritable renaissance for milk alternatives, especially when you consider that up until recently, the only alternative was soy. But with so many options, it may be hard for you to figure out which milk does YOUR body good. Below, I explore traditional and alternative milk options to help you decide what works best for your health needs and goals.
Conventional Cow’s Milk vs. Grassfed Cow’s Milk
For those who tolerate dairy and aren’t lactose intolerant, keeping traditional cow’s milk in your diet isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, choosing grassfed milk over conventional will provide you with more nutrition. Conventional milk comes from dairy cows that aren’t living in the most sanitary conditions, nor are they eating the healthiest diet; usually, they’re fed corn and are pumped full of antibiotics and hormones. Unhealthy, unhappy cows don’t produce great milk; therefore, it’s refortified with the vitamins that naturally occur in grassfed milk. While you can choose between skim, low-fat, reduced-fat, and whole-fat versions, it’s worth noting that while whole milk is higher in calories, it also has the most protein and nutrients.
In recent years, A2 milk has been popping up in grocery dairy cases because it is believed to be more easily digested and better tolerated than traditional cow’s milk. This is because of the only difference between the two: regular milk contains both A1 and A2-beta caseins while A2 milk only contains A2 beta-casein. For some people, milk that contains only the A2 beta-casein is easier to digest and better tolerated. It is important to note that it is NOT the same as lactose-free milk, nor is it entirely free of casein, which may also cause stomach upset.
While you’ve likely had goat cheese, you’ve probably never had a glass of goat’s milk. For some, goat’s milk appears to be easier to digest. It is also the highest calorie milk option, though it is also a rich source of protein and heart-healthy fat, as well as calcium, magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus. Although it is dairy milk, it is less likely to provoke milk allergies. Research shows that it can also help lower “bad” cholesterol. Another benefit is that the protein in goat milk seems to be much more digestible, meaning your body can use it more easily.
Kefir provides all the same nutrition as dairy milk—but with the added benefit of probiotics. It’s actually an even more potent source than yogurt! Kefir is made by adding kefir grains (grain-like colonies of yeast and lactic acid) to cow, goat, or even sheep’s milk. Even better—this is a dairy source that is generally well-tolerated by the lactose-intolerant. This is because the lactic acid turns lactose into more lactic acid, and it also includes enzymes that help break lactose down even further.
Almond and Other Nut Milks (Macadamia, Cashew, Hazelnut, etc.)
While almond was arguably the nut milk breakout star, in recent years, if there’s a nut out there, chances are someone has “milked” it. Although a handful of nuts would be more calorie dense, as well as a good source of protein and fat, nut milk is actually quite different. Nut milks are significantly lower in calories than dairy milk (at least, the unsweetened kinds) and are also quite low in protein—coming in around a single gram per serving. They are typically fortified with vitamin D and calcium, however, so they can offer some of the nutrients of dairy milk for those on a plant-based diet. In addition to being unsuitable for many folks with nut allergies, some contain carrageenan. Carrageenan is used as a thickener and preservative, and it can aggravate stomach sensitivities. When seeking out store-bought, look for the unsweetened varieties with minimal ingredients. Alternatively, you can easily make your own. It’s more cost effective, too!
Hemp and Flax Milk
If nuts are an issue for you, or you want more protein from your plant-based beverage, seed milks may provide a good alternative. Hemp milk usually has around three grams of protein a serving, but it is a complete protein, and is rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
Flax milk is also rich in omega-3 fatty acids, is lower in calories, and certain brands fortify it with pea protein to punch up its nutritional value. It’s a good alternative for those allergic to nuts and/or are lactose- or gluten-sensitive/intolerant.
Coconut Milk Beverage
Not to be confused with canned coconut milk, the less thick and non-refrigerated coconut “milk” is actually a watered-down version of the canned stuff. Although coconut milk beverage doesn’t contain any protein, it is a good source of healthy fat and because it’s not actually a nut, can be a safe alternative for those with nut allergies.
If you aren’t sensitive to legumes, increasingly popular pea milk might be good choice for you. Pea milk is high in protein, vegan, and nut-, soy-, lactose-, and gluten-free. Coming in at under 100 calories per serving, pea milk is low in carbohydrates (and therefore good for people with diabetes) while offering eight grams of protein and nearly five grams of healthy fat. It’s a good natural source of calcium and potassium as well. Added bonus: it’s the most sustainable milk choice out there as it requires far less water and resources than its competitors. The only downside is that it’s not super popular yet, making it harder to find.
Oat milk is enjoying its time in the spotlight—largely due to its soluble fiber which makes it one of the creamiest dairy milk alternatives. While enthusiasts note its creamy texture and neutral flavor profile, it may be troublesome for those with gluten sensitivities. It is also higher in calories and carbohydrates, though with an average of three grams of protein a serving, it offers more than nut or coconut milks. It’s also commonly sold sweetened, so it may be difficult to find one without added sugar.
Soy, while high in protein and sharing a similar nutritional profile to dairy milk, may not be the best choice for regular consumption for everyone. This is because soy is a phytoestrogen, and regular consumption of phytoestrogens can lead to hormone imbalances as well as estrogen dominance in both men and women. It’s also a common allergen for both children and adults. And because of how soy is farmed in the U.S., it’s important to choose organic if you go this route.
Rice milk consistently ranks at the bottom of milk alternative lists—and for good reason. While it’s a gluten-free option, it’s low in protein and fat. It’s also high in carbohydrates, making it a poor choice for diabetics. Furthermore, rice can contain mold and trace amounts of arsenic—the latter of which can pose a health risk, especially for infants and children.
With so many options on store shelves, it may be a little overwhelming to figure out which milk is best for you—but I’m here to help. Together, we can determine your own unique health needs and goals—all of which benefit you far beyond just picking a milk or milk alternative to include in your diet.