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Udderly confused: Which “milk” is best?

If you took a peek inside the average American refrigerator, chances are you’d come across some type of milk. Milk has long been a staple in many households. For people with allergies to cow’s milk proteins, plant-based milks made from nuts, seeds or grains are a useful alternative.

Let’s look at our options from a nutritional standpoint — are these “milks” just as good? Is one type of milk superior to the rest?

But recently, with the rise of plant-based diets, these non-dairy milk substitutes have gained popularity with the rest of us.

Let’s look at our options from a nutritional standpoint — are these “milks” just as good? Is one type of milk superior to the rest?

Comparing the Nutrient Profiles of Milk Alternatives

Most of us know that traditional dairy milk is a good source of several important nutrients. But how well do some of the most common alternative “milks” measure up to the real thing?

Cow’s milk: The gold standard

Cow’s milk, the traditional first choice, is typically available in several varieties: skim or fat-free, low-fat and whole. Lactose-free milk is also available for individuals who cannot digest the lactose in milk. Recently, ultra-filtered milk, which is lower in carbohydrates and higher in protein, is also gaining popularity.

However, no matter which variety of cow’s milk you buy, it remains a high source of calcium, and vitamins D and B12. Milk is also a good source of protein, potassium and vitamin A.

Soy milk: The high-protein option

Nutritionally, soy milk is traditional milk’s closest cousin and is also available in low-fat and full-fat varieties. Soy milk has a similar amount of protein to cow’s milk and is a good source of calcium, vitamins B12 and D, and potassium.

Some studies have linked soy consumption to an increased risk of breast cancer, but other studies indicate it could actually lower your risk. Talk to your doctor if you are at all concerned about your risk of breast cancer.

Almond milk: The low-calorie choice

almond milk

Almond milk is currently America’s most popular plant-based milk alternative. However, almond milk contains much more water than it does almonds, and very little of the nutrients you would get from eating whole almonds. Many almond milks are now fortified with calcium, potassium and vitamins E, D and A. Yet, they still provide you with very little of the other beneficial nutrients found in cow’s milk or soy milk, such as protein.

However, almond milk can be a very low-calorie substitute in place of dairy or other alternative milks. This can be helpful if you’re trying to watch your waistline, but keep in mind that almond milk is not a perfect milk substitute.

Coconut milk: The high-fat alternative

coconut milk

Coconut milk is also a popular choice, as it is similar in texture to traditional milk and often works well in frozen treats like ice cream and baked goods. However, like with almond milk, unfortified coconut milk is not a good source of protein or the other vitamins and minerals that you get from dairy milk. Some coconut milk products can also be high in saturated fats, which are linked to higher risk of heart disease. In 2017, the American Heart Association released an advisory recommending we limit coconut fats in our diets.

How to Shop for Plant-Based Milk Drinks

While cow’s milk remains the most nutrient-rich milk choice, plant-based alternative milks can still be a good choice for people with food restrictions, allergies or intolerances.

While cow’s milk remains the most nutrient-rich milk choice, plant-based alternative milks can still be a good choice for people with food restrictions, allergies or intolerances.

Anyone interested in replacing traditional milk with substitute milk should look for ways to replace the protein and other nutrients they will be losing. Many milk alternatives are now fortified with some of the missing vitamins and minerals. However, it is important to shake these products well before drinking, as added nutrients can settle to the bottom between uses.

Also, look for unsweetened varieties of non-dairy milks to avoid taking in any extra added sugar from syrups to make vanilla or chocolate milk products.

Here’s the bottom line: Cow’s milk is a healthy choice for most people, but plant-based milks can be, too. Just be sure you’re getting the nutrients you need and talk to your doctor about any dietary changes you decide to make.

Don’t have a doctor? Find one near you.

About the author

Jessica Chen, CDE, RD, MCN
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Jessica Chen is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes instructor on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Clinic – Round Rock. Although she works with a variety of conditions, diabetes is her area of expertise. She sees patients for individualized nutrition counseling and teaches Diabetes Bootcamp classes. She also provides training on insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitors. She enjoys demystifying confusing medical and nutrition information so that her patients are empowered to make meaningful, positive changes to improve their health.

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Udderly confused: Which “milk” is best?