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Which Type of Milk Is Healthiest?

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 12/8/2017 Ruben Castaneda

milk: How do soy, almond, rice, coconut and cashew milks stack up against regular old cow's milk? © (Getty Images) How do soy, almond, rice, coconut and cashew milks stack up against regular old cow's milk? Milk does a body good, according to the 1980’s marketing campaign. The message was simple, but the reality is more complex. Certainly, there are lots of vitamins in this beverage. But today there is a wide array of different types of milk with varied health benefits.

“All 'milks' are not created equal,” says Lise Gloede, a registered dietitian based in Arlington, Virginia. “Nutritional differences are vast. Consider using a plant-based milk [like soy milk] if you have allergies [or a lactose intolerance], but keep in mind that your intake of potassium, protein, riboflavin will be less. These are important nutrients.” 

What is whole milk?

Whole milk from a cow is comprised of about 88 percent water, 5 percent lactose (carbohydrates), 3 percent fat, 3 percent protein and less than 1 percent minerals. The composition of milk depends on the breed of cow (like if it's a Holstein or Jersey cow), the animal's diet and its stage of lactation, according to milkfacts.info. Cow's milk contains nutrients such as vitamin B1, vitamin C, vitamin D, niacin and folate. It also contains minerals that boost the body's bone formation and enzyme functions. Goat's milk and milk from sheep are also available at some outlets and online.

“Regular cow’s milk used to be the gold standard for health, providing a necessary blend of calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, phosphorus and riboflavin and niacin,” says Jenna Bell, a registered dietitian based in St. Petersburg, Florida. "Milk used to have no competition because alternatives were nutritionally inferior. But as research and the quality of milk alternatives has improved with new types and fortifications, other 'milks' have entered the health scene and are making their way into the American diet."

How much calcium is in milk?

Everyone needs calcium for bone health, according to the Mayo Clinic. Calcium helps build and maintain strong bones and also helps your heart, muscles and nerves function optimally. Too little calcium carries health risks. Kids who don't get enough calcium may not reach their full adult height, and adults may have low bone mass, which is a risk factor for osteoporosis, the Mayo Clinic says.

The recommended daily allowance of calcium varies by age and gender. From ages 19 to 70, men should get 1,000 milligrams of calcium, and 1,200 milligrams if they are 71 and older. Women between the ages of 19 and 50 should get 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day, and 1,200 if they are 51 and older. Children need varying amounts of calcium depending on their age; infants less than 6 months old should get 200 milligrams daily, according to the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development within the National Institutes of Health. The amount rises with age, ranging from 700 milligrams daily for kids between 1 and 3 to 1,300 milligrams a day for adolescents between 14 and 18.

Different types of milk contain varying levels of calcium. An 8-ounce cup of whole milk has 276 milligrams of calcium, while skim milk has 299 milligrams, says Michelle Dudash, a registered dietitian based in Carmel, Indiana, and the author of "Clean Eating for Busy Families." The same amount of unfortified soy milk has 61 milligrams of calcium, while one type of almond milk contains about the same amount. Most plant-based milks are fortified with calcium and contain 25 to 50 percent of the recommended daily allowance of calcium for adults, Dudash says. Some plant-based milks aren't as high in calcium, though. For example, calcium in unfortified cashew milk has only about 2 percent of the recommended daily value of the nutrient, she says.

What vitamins are in milk?

Here’s a breakdown of nutrients in the most popular milk choices, per 8-ounce serving:

TypeCaloriesTotal Fat

Saturated Fat

ProteinSugar% Calcium% Vitamin D
Whole Milk150858123025
Nonfat Milk90008123025
Original Soy1104.50.5864530
Unsweetened Soy8040.5713030
Original Almond602.50174525
Unsweetened Almond302.50104525
Original Rice1202.501103025
Unsweetened Rice902.503025
Original Coconut704.54071030
Unsweetened Coconut454.54001030
Original Cashew602.5074525
Unsweetened Cashew252004525

Here's a rundown of different types of milk alternatives:

Cow’s milk. Regular cow’s milk provides an array of healthy vitamins and nutrients, such as vitamin D, calcium, potassium, niacin and protein, Bell says. It also contains saturated fat. The American Heart Association and many other nutrition experts advise consuming nonfat milk rather than full-fat dairy milk. However, there’s ongoing research examining the health effects of the saturated fat in whole-fat dairy products. In 2017, a meta-analysis of 29 studies published in the European Journal of Epidemiology found that saturated fat from dairy fat consumption had a neutral effect on cardiovascular disease risk, Bell notes.

Milk free of A-1 beta casein protein. Typical cow's milk contains both A1 and A2 beta casein protein, major casein proteins. Casein makes up about 80 percent of total protein in cow's milk. But emerging research suggests that A-1 beta casein may be undesirable – it could be an inflammatory agent that contributes to gastrointestinal distress. An Australian company, a2Milk, sources milk from cows whose milk only contains the A2 beta casein protein, Bell says. While more research is needed, people who have had issues with milk may find relief by drinking milk with the A2 protein only, she says.

Cashew milk. Dudash says she loves cashew milk's creamy taste. One particular brand of the beverage contains four times the nuts – the equivalent of 11 cashews in each glass – compared to most nut-based milks, she says. Cashew milk naturally contains 4 grams of protein per serving and 8 percent of the daily value for iron. However, be aware that it contains a half-teaspoon of cane sugar per serving, Dudash warns. People who are watching their sugar intake may want to consider other options. "It's not easy to find the perfect plant-based drink!" she says. 

Soy milk. This was the first cow’s milk alternative to show up on the market, says David Friedman, a clinical nutritionist, board-certified alternative medical practitioner and author of “Food Sanity – How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction.” “It provides an option for those who are allergic to dairy, are lactose intolerant or just aren’t crazy about the taste of dairy milk," says Friedman, who's based in Wilmington, North Carolina. “Soy is low in fat, rich in protein and offers healthy B-complex vitamins.” It’s low in saturated fat, but keep in mind the sugar in sweetened and original varieties is added sugar. If you’re trying to keep your sugar consumption down, reach for unsweetened soy milk.

Almond milk. Like soy milk, original and sweetened types of almond milk contain added sugar, from cane sugar, so it’s best to get unsweetened or “light" varieties, Friedman says. Almond milk has a sweet and nutty taste and a silky texture. It’s low in calories and chock full of vitamins and minerals, such as vitamins D, E and A, calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc, iron and phosphorous, Friedman says. The fat in almond milk is heart-healthy because it contains monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which research suggests can protect against coronary heart disease, he says. Almond milk can be made with dried almonds and fresh water, though you can add other ingredients, such as a pinch of sea salt or a half-teaspoon of vanilla. One recipe, in www.thekitchn.com, calls for soaking almonds in water overnight for as many as two days, then draining and rinsing them and grinding the beans in fresh water.

Coconut milk. This kind of milk packs more saturated fats than the other milk alternatives. "Coconut milk has a nice creamy consistency and a pleasant [coconut-flavored] taste, but doesn't stack up nutritionally to cow milk and soy milk," Dudash says. Coconut milk contains coconut cream, made from coconut meat, water, salt, a thickener such as locust bean gum, an emulsifier like sunflower lecithin and whatever vitamins and minerals – such as calcium and vitamin D – the manufacturer adds, Dudash says.

Hemp milk. This type of milk is made from the seeds of the hemp plant, which also produces cannabis, or marijuana. However, hemp products, such as hemp milk, hemp flour, hemp dietary fiber and hemp baking additive, are derived from a different part of the same plant, according to www.medicaljane.com. Hemp contains only trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the compound in marijuana that produces a "high." For a dairy alternative that’s high in bone-building calcium, hemp milk is a great choice, Friedman says. “One 8-ounce glass of hemp milk gives you a whopping 45 percent of your recommended daily amount of calcium,” Friedman says. It’s also rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Research suggests that including omega-3 fatty acids in your diet can help keep your cholesterol and blood pressure in check.

Copyright 2017 U.S. News & World Report

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