Buying a carton of milk used to be a pretty uncomplicated affair, since it was simply a matter of choosing between fat-free, low-fat, and whole. Nowadays, the options seem endless, with everything from grass fed to goat, not to mention the burgeoning category of plant-based milks.  In our house, 1 % organic cow’s milk is the refrigerator staple. I also routinely stock almond milk and have recently discovered milk made from yellow peas (yes, I’m pouring pea milk on my oatmeal). To sort out the best buy for your family, I’ve pulled together this buyer’s guide to navigating the milk aisle.  I’d love to get your two cents on the milk scene (and hear about anything I’ve missed), so feel free to share in the comments section below.

Cow’s Milk

If you think about it, cow’s milk is the least processed of all the options out there, since it comes straight from the source with relatively little added beyond vitamins A and D. Unfortunately, cow’s milk doesn’t go down so well among folks who have a dairy allergy or intolerance (and is verboten for those who are vegan). Lactose-free milk is a solution for some with a dairy intolerance. I’ve also got my ears perked up about A2 Milk, a product being marketed as an option for those who don’t tolerate dairy particularly well  (read more about A2 Milk by heading here).

Goat’s Milk and Other Alternatives

Folks 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 (yes, you heard me, camel’s milk is a thing). 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

A popular choice for decades, soy milk is nearly as good a protein source as cow’s milk. And although not naturally high in calcium, most soy milk is fortified. If concern about GMOs is on your radar, opt for organic soy milk, since the great majority of soy in this country comes from GMO crops. Also, soy milk often has added sweeteners, flavorings, and additives that you may want to skip, so be sure to read the list of ingredients before putting it in your shopping cart.

Almond and other Nut Milks

Sales of almond milk have gone through the roof in the past few years and is among my favorites. Be sure to read the label to look for added sweeteners, since sugar is a common ingredient in nut milk. Most brands are fortified with calcium, but have significantly less protein than cow or soy milk (less than one gram per cup in some cases). So if you’re looking to boost protein at a meal or snack, nut milk may not be the solution. As for coconut milk, be aware of the significant difference in calorie and fat content of canned coconut milk (very high calorie)  versus boxed (more akin to other plant milks). Lastly, if you’re making your own nut milk, know that it doesn’t measure up in terms of calcium relative to store-bought.

Rice and other Grain Milks

Rice milk has historically been a popular option for folks with a lot of food allergies. It is low in calories with a thinner consistency than many other plant milks. Hemp milk is higher in calories than many other plant milks and delivers heart-healthy omega-3 fats. Oat milk is another grain option that has been hot on the scene (hello, Oatly!) though it isn’t was widely available as some of the other options.

Pea Milk

Milk from yellow peas? Doesn’t sound particularly appetizing, but taste wise, it’s  a new favorite. Sold under the brand name Ripple, pea milk has an appealing mouthfeel and flavor.  The big difference of Ripple relative to other plant milks is that it has a high protein level, on par with cow’s milk. They’ve also worked a decent amount of healthy Omega-3 fats into the milk as well. Be sure to reach for the unsweetened variety, though, since the vanilla and chocolate have somewhere in the neighborhood of four teaspoons of added sugar per serving.

One important last note, be sure to 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.

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buyer's guide to better milk

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