Range of choices boggles the mind, raises health questions
Only a few decades ago, the milk shelf at the market contained just cow’s milk, with consumer’s main choice: whole or reduced fat? Today, shoppers face an abundance of milk options, such as goat, almond, soy, coconut and even milk from grains.
It’s no surprise then that Americans are consuming approximately 25 percent less dairy milk than they did in 1975, according to the U.S Department of Agriculture. At the same time, the alternative milk market has grown and consumers are deluged with options and information.
“There are so many milk choices, and the information about what’s healthy keeps changing,” says Erica Bazzy, a Colorado mother of three boys.
Why drink milk?
“Milk tastes good and it’s an easy, efficient and affordable way to get important nutrients, such as calcium, vitamin D and phosphorus,” says Jessica Crandall, registered dietician nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Cow’s milk has nine essential nutrients: calcium, protein, vitamins A and D, potassium, phosphorus, B12, riboflavin, and niacin. Moreover, dairy milk generally costs less than 20 cents per cup for conventional milk. Organic versions can cost two to three times more, says Jenna Allen, a registered dietician with Western Dairy Association.
According to current dietary guidelines for Americans, everyone over age 8 should consume three cups of milk per day or the corresponding amount of other dairy products. People who don’t drink milk are more likely to be deficient in nutrients, which can lead to health problems, such as osteoporosis, where bones become weak and brittle, Crandall says.
Other groups, such as the Harvard School of Public Health, consider three cups too much. They contend that consuming so much milk has little effect on bone health and might even contribute to other problems, such as heart disease and prostate and ovarian cancer. They instead advise more moderate consumption of dairy milk (and milk products) to a max of one to two servings per day, with an increased intake of calcium-rich foods, such as leafy greens, broccoli, and beans, and a vitamin D supplement.
Crandall still recommends dairy milk, because it is a convenient source for vital nutrients that so many people are lacking, she says. And, many people, including the Bazzy family, like milk, especially with morning cereal or coffee.
Why dairy milk?
“Those who can consume dairy milk should drink it over substitutes,” says Crandall. “Dairy milk is higher in nutrients and protein, and doesn’t have added sugars.”
Dairy milk recommendations vary by age and fat content. Children 1 to 2 years old should drink whole milk. After 2, kids should drink 2 percent or 1 percent, and adults generally should drink non-fat milk. A health professional can advise adjustments, if necessary, says Laura Watne, a registered dietician with Children’s Hospital Colorado.
Consumers can reap the benefits of dairy milk, without buying organic brands, Crandall says. They can also consider dairy from other animal sources. Goat’s milk is comparable nutritionally to cow’s milk but has a stronger flavor. As for sheep’s milk, it is higher in calcium, but also calories and fat.
Consumers should avoid the raw milk trend for any dairy milk because it can harbor dangerous micro-organisms, Crandall says. “The CDC says unpasteurized milk is 150 percent more likely to cause foodborne illness.”
Lactose-free milk is a more nutritious choice than plant-based milks for children and adults who have difficulties digesting lactose, Watne says. It’s still dairy-based and similar in calories and nutrients. She also recommends that people with lactose issues try yogurt before completely substituting with plant milks.
“There’s a growing group of people with an intolerance or inability to digest dairy – not just lactose, but also the milk proteins casein and whey,” says Karen Falbo, a certified nutritionist and director of nutrition education at Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage. There are also people with certain medical conditions who should avoid dairy, including those with auto-immune disease, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, Lyme disease, and those with neurological disorders, such as autism, Falbo says. And there are still others, such as Erica Bazzy and her husband, who just occasionally want some variety.
For these groups plus vegans, plant-based milks provide that much-craved, milk-like beverage. There are many options on the market, but Falbo and Crandall say consumers should consider three things:
- Fortification – look for ones with added calcium, vitamin D and other nutrients; otherwise, be diligent about your overall diet.
- Protein – alternatives are lower, so adjust your diet accordingly.
- Sugar – choose unsweetened options.
Alternative-milk drinkers should also be aware of gums, carrageenan, and other additives in non-dairy milk. Carrageenan is derived from red seaweed and is approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but some brands removed it from their products after consumers’ raised concerns about a possible link to digestive problems, Falbo says.
Almond milk has a mild, nutty flavor and is rich in calcium plus a good source of vitamins A, D and E. It is a lower-calorie option if it’s an unsweetened version, but it’s also lower in protein, Crandall says.
Soy milk is most comparable to dairy milk. It has more protein, but sugars are added. Some consumers remain concerned about research linking soy and breast cancer, but new research shows moderate consumption is fine, Crandall says. If you drink soy milk, buy organic/non-GMO versions, Falbo says. Soy has a thicker consistency than most substitutes.
Rice milk is an option for those who can’t have dairy or nut milks. People on low-carbohydrate diets, such as those with diabetes, should avoid it because it’s higher in carbohydrates and low in protein. It has a watery consistency, and there is some controversy about arsenic levels in rice products, Falbo says.
Coconut milk (the refrigerated version, not the canned “cream” version) is similar to almond milk nutritionally, including low protein. It’s high in saturated fats and also has added sugars, Crandall says.
Hemp milk has more protein than nut milks, but less than soy and dairy. It is higher in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids than other alternative milks. It has a “grassy” taste and is thick, Crandall says.
Cashew milk has a similar nutrition profile to almond milk with a less nutty but creamy taste.
Quinoa milk, oat milk, and other grain milks are dairy-free and nut-free options; they’re generally higher in carbohydrates, low in protein, and have added sugars. Diabetics should minimize these.
Cow Milk vs. Alternative (Unsweetened) Milk Comparison: 8 ounces (1 cup)
|Calories||Saturated Fat||Protein||Carbo-hydrates||Calcium – daily value*||Vitamin D –
|Cow, nonfat||90||0 g||9 g||13 g||30% (natural)||25% (added)|
|Almond||30||2.5 g||1 g||<1 g||45% (added)||25% (added)|
|Soy||80||4 g||7 g||4 g||45% (added)||25% (added)|
|Rice||70||2.5 g||0 g||11 g||25 % (added)||25% (added)|
|Coconut||45||4.5 g||0 g||<1 g||45% (added)||25% (added)|
|Hemp||70||5 g||3 g||1 g||30% (added)||30% (added)|
|Quinoa||70||1 g||2 g||12 g||30% (added)||25% (added)|
*Milks have similar vitamin D and calcium contents because they are fortified. Diagram source: Jessica Crandall, registered dietician and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
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