A Dietitian’s Guide to Buying Milk
Buying a carton of milk used to be a pretty uncomplicated affair. Nowadays, the options are endless, with everything from grass fed to goat, cashew to coconut. In our house, 1 % organic cow’s milk was always the refrigerator staple. These days I also stock a plant milk (or two), which changes depending on who is home and what looks interesting on any given day. To help you navigate the line-up of (sometimes) overwhelming options, here is my Dietitian’s Guide to Buying Milk.
Which Milk to Buy?
A whole range of considerations may go into the milk you keep in your fridge or pantry, including:
Allergies & Sensitivities (cow’s milk and nuts are common allergens; lactose intolerance is prevalent)
Environmental Concerns (you can learn the impact of various milks here)
Animal Welfare (a motivating factor for many consumers)
Taste and Texture (it’s nice to drink what you love)
Cow’s Milk: The Classic Choice
You might be surprised to hear that cow’s milk is the most minimally processed of the bunch. It’s naturally rich in both protein and calcium, and the only ingredients typically added are vitamins A and D. What you should know:
- Those with a dairy allergy should look elsewhere when buying milk. If you’re lactose intolerant, look for cow’s milk labeled lactose-free or consider a plant-based alternative. Those who don’t tolerate casein, the protein in standard milk may find that A2 Milk goes down easier (read more about A2 Milk by heading here).
- To keep your level of saturated fat to a minimum, reach for 1% or nonfat milk. The exception is children under two, who need the fat in whole milk for brain development.
- Despite the recent interest in raw milk, I don’t think it’s worth the risk of food-borne pathogens that come along with a glass of unpasteurized milk (most especially for pregnant women, young children, and anyone who is immune-compromised).
- There is evidence linking cow’s milk to acne, as discussed in this piece by the American Academy of Dermatology (it’s worth noting that the same is not true for yogurt and cheese). There is also research suggesting that milk may be a trigger for ezcema and psoriasis among people with a dairy sensitivity.
Goat’s Milk and Other Dairy Alternatives
Those with an allergy or intolerance to cow’s milk can sometimes do goat milk without a problem. Same goes for sheep’s milk, as well as the newest addition to this milk category in this country, camel’s milk. What you should know:
- The biggest challenge here is lack of availability in mainstream markets and price.
- The nutritional profiles of these milks vary somewhat from cow’s milk, but all are sources of protein, calcium, fat, and carbohydrates.
Soy Milk for Plant-Based Protein
A popular choice for decades, soy milk is nearly as good a protein source as cow’s milk. What you should know:
- Although not naturally high in calcium, most soy milk is fortified to levels akin to cow’s milk.
- If concern about GMOs is on your radar, opt for organic.
- Soy milk sometimes has added sweeteners, flavorings, and additives that you may want to skip, so read the list of ingredients before putting it in your shopping cart.
- Despite plenty of chatter to the contrary, the consensus among most nutrition experts is that whole soy foods, such as soy milk, are not linked to cancer in humans and be even be protective against cancer, a stance supported by the American Cancer Society.
Plant Milks: Nut, Seed, Grain, Pea, and More
What’s tricky about the array of plant-based milks at the market is that each variety offers something different from a nutrition standpoint. One may have just nuts and water, another includes flavors and sugars, a third features gums and oils. It’s confusing! What you should know:
- Read the list of ingredients and nutrition facts label, so you know what’s in there.
- If you’re looking for your milk to be an important source of dietary calcium, buy one that is fortified. Plant milks have little in the way of calcium.
- Most nut/seed/grain milks don’t measure up to cow’s milk in terms of protein. The exception is pea milk, such as the brand Ripple, which has 8 grams per cup. Other plant milks are typically 1 to 3 grams per serving.
- Skip products with added sugars and avoid milks made with carrageenan, a type of seaweed that may cause inflammation and GI distress.
- I tend to favor products with the fewest ingredients, such as those with just nuts/seeds/oats and water. The downside to these milks, though, is twofold:
- They tend to be on the thin side, lacking a luxurious texture.
- They don’t have the calcium that you’ll find in cow’s milk or fortified options.
- Be aware that there is a difference between canned coconut milk and the cartons of coconut beverage you’ll find in the dairy aisle. Canned coconut milk is high in saturated fat and calories and typically used as a recipe ingredient rather than for pouring over cereal.
Favorite Brands of Plant Milk
Over the years, I’ve sampled more than my fair share of plant-based milks. Below are a few favorites.
- For Everyday — Elmhurt, Malk, and Califia Organic Almond are solid choices with minimal ingredients to use in my smoothies or to pour over granola (I’m partial to the Elmhurst’s Walnut Milk for the level of protein and Omega-3s). For a real treat, I’ll pick up a bottle of Beber at the farmers’ market or make my own (this is my recipe).
- For a More Nutrient-Rich Everyday –If you want your milk to be a good source of calcium and protein look for soy milk by West Soy Plain with added Calcium or Eden Soy Extra.
- For Coffee –– I like a more luxurious texture for my coffee, so reach for Sown and Rise, both organic oat milks. They have added oils that give them some richness. Another option is Elmhurst Barista.
- For Recipes — For plant-based recipes (such as my Cashew Chocolate Pudding or Almost Vegan Alfredo) I find Oatly delivers a similar richness and mild sweetness you get in cow’s milk.
Be Sure to Shake your Plant-Based Milks
One important last note: Vigorously shake the container before you pour any plant-based milk, since the calcium can settle at the bottom and will never get to your bones.
featured photo credit: pixabay