When I was a kid, either you drank whole milk or skim milk. I came from a whole milk house and can remember my horror when friends would suggest I put that white-ish, semi-translucent liquid, masquerading as milk, on my cereal. I also remember their disdain when I told them what I drank: “that’s like, straight from the udder?”
Now you can get milk with almost any quantity of fat, from almost any animal, and several non-animals.
But as our options have increased, so has our confusion.
Is plant milk better than animal milk? Should I avoid dairy if I’m not lactose intolerant? I thought soy was good…now it’s bad?! In our on-going quest to help simplify health, here’s a breakdown of your milk options, and which ones we like the best.
Skim, 1%, 2%, Whole
As you might already know, these terms refer to how much fat is in your milk by weight. But the name “whole” can be misleading. “Whole” doesn’t mean the milk is wholly fat. Whole milk is 3.5% milk fat. Back in the heyday of the low-fat movement, many people switched to drinking skim milk because dietary fat was believed to increase body fat, and promote heart disease and high blood pressure. We now know that fat is an essential part of a healthy diet. Our bodies need fat in order to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Dairy milk is an excellent source of vitamin D, and contains some vitamin A. When buying milk, make sure it has at least a little fat, so your body can absorb these nutrients.
The word “organic” doesn’t refer to the milk itself, but to the farming practices that produce the milk. Organic dairy farmers can only feed their cows organic feed. These cows must also be allowed to graze on grass for some part of the year, and they cannot be treated with synthetic hormones or given antibiotics. Since organic cows are allowed to graze on grass, organic milk can have more of the anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids. But this depends on how much grass the cows eat, the time of year, and other factors.
This milk comes from cows that are able to graze on grass all year round. Some research shows that grass-fed milk can be richer in omega-3 fats, vitamin E, beta-carotene, calcium, and conjugated linoleic acid. Due to some hazy labeling laws, sometimes grass-fed doesn’t mean only grass-fed. To be sure you’re getting what you pay for, look for 100% grass-fed or the term Grassmilk™. This registered trademark means the cows only eat fresh and dried grasses, and they are never fed supplemental grains or soybeans.
Like “organic” and “grass-fed”, “rBST-free” is a term that sounds good, but what does it really mean?
rBST is a synthetic version of the hormone BST (bovine somatotropin), developed by Monsanto using genetically engineered E. coli bacteria. Some dairy farmers give their cows rBST to help increase milk production, but they aren’t legally required to tell you this on their label.
According to the FDA, World Health Organization, American Medical Association, and National Institute of Health, milk from rBST-supplemented cows is safe for human consumption. However, rBST is currently banned in Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and in the 27 countries of the European Union. Although some research claims that pasteurization destroys 90% of BST and rBST in milk, if you’re worried about added hormones, go for milks labeled “organic” or “rBST-free”.
Non-homogenized milk will separate if left to settle, and the cream will rise to the top. Homogenization is a mechanical process that breaks apart milk fat molecules under high pressure so that they remain suspended evenly in the milk, producing a uniform (or homogeneous) consistency.
Some believe that homogenization can promote inflammatory processes in the body by boosting the absorbability of an enzyme called xanthine oxidase (XOD). According to the University of California Berkeley, these claims are not well founded.
Others prefer non-homogenized milk simply because it’s less processed, and the only real purpose of homogenization is to make milk look pretty.
More than red meat, saturated fat, or even gluten, raw milk just might hold the title of World’s Most Controversial Food. Haterz believe it is a dangerous public health hazard, while some passionate enthusiasts claim it can protect against allergies, boost the immune system, and maybe even bring about world peace (jk).
Raw milk is milk that has not been homogenized or pasteurized. Pasteurization is the process of heating milk up and then quickly cooling it down to eliminate certain bacteria. This process does not kill all microorganisms in milk, but it’s supposed to kill some bacteria and make some enzymes inactive.
Is it healthier? Raw milk activists claim that pasteurization reduces vitamins like Vitamin C and destroys enzymes necessary for digestion – which is why many people cannot tolerate conventional milk. The Center for Disease Control acknowledges that pasteurization does inactivate certain enzymes and reduces Vitamin C, but both the FDA and the CDC state: “pasteurization does not reduce milk’s nutritional value.”
Is it dangerous? Depends on who you ask. According to some research, the chance of illness from raw milk is about 1 in 6 million, or less than 0.001%. According to the FDA and the CDC, drinking raw milk can pose severe health risks.
Should you drink it? We’ll let you be the judge of that.
Lactose is a type of sugar found in milk products. To digest lactose, our body needs to produce the enzyme lactase. Many people don’t make enough of this enzyme, which results in symptoms such as bloating, gas, cramps, diarrhea, and nausea. Lactose-free milk is milk with added lactase, which helps break down the lactose, so your digestive system doesn’t have to.
Some people find they have less digestive issues with goat milk and other kinds of non-cow milks. This could be because these milks contain different proteins – which are the root cause of allergic reactions. All these milks still contain lactose, however, so if you’re lactose intolerant, you could have just as much trouble. That said, goat’s milk does contain a little less lactose – about nine grams per cup compared to 12 grams in cow’s milk – so you could give it a try. In terms of nutritional value, goat milk is nearly identical to whole cow’s milk.
Guernsey, Jersey & A2
Most milk you see in American grocery stores is from Holstein cows. This milk is also sometimes called A1 milk, which refers to the A1 protein that is found in the milk. Milk from the British Channel Islands Jersey and Guernsey contains mostly A2 protein. Some people claim A2 milk is more easily digested because of the different protein. However, a 2009 review by the European Food Safety Authority found no link between A1 milk and health and digestive problems. If you want to give A2 a try, but don’t’ know where to find it, check out this website.
Soymilk takes a close second to raw as this list’s most controversial milk. Back in the 90’s and early 00’s it was the beverage du jour, as it offered a (relatively) tasty way to enjoy your breakfast without the digestive drawbacks of diary. But recently soymilk has become the object of a lot of nutritional hostility. One of the main arguments against soy is that over 90% of soy produced in the U.S. is genetically modified, and much of the crops are sprayed with chemicals that have been associated with adverse health effects. Another potential cause for concern is that eating soy in large amounts has been linked to hormone disruption, especially in women and young children. Just to be on the safe side, if you’re dairy intolerant, you might want to switch to another milk substitute.
If you suffer from lactose intolerance or any kind of nut allergy, then rice milk could be your jam. It’s typically made from boiled rice, brown rice syrup, and brown rice starch. Unfortunately, rice is a far cry from milk, so to make it taste more like the sweet, creamy dairy we all dream about, manufacturers often add thickening agents, flavorings, and sweeteners. Two common additives to watch out for are guar gum and carrageenan.
Guar gum has been shown to cause some people digestive trouble. Carrageenan, on the other hand, is a hotly debated additive. It has been associated with several serious health conditions, but much of the research is limited to animal studies or is inconclusive. If rice milk is your only option, don’t stress. Just look for a brand without these additives. One great option is Rice Dream – organic, classic original. You can also make your own rice milk at home if you’re the kind of person who keeps cheesecloth on hand.
There are many different kinds of coconut milk, but you’re probably either going to be buying it out of a can or a box.
Coconut milk in a can is going to be either full fat or reduced fat. Reduced fat has more water, but can sometimes have added sugar or additives. The nutritional benefit of canned coconut milk is going to be the higher fat content. Coconut fat is mostly saturated, which means it’s great for cooking at high heats. It’s also mostly medium-chain triglycerides, which are not easily stored by the body. Medium-chain triglycerides are used more like a carbohydrate, as a quick energy source. I.e. medium-chain fat will not make you fat.
Boxed coconut milk typically has much less fat than the canned variety, and many commercial brands have more additives. Since coconut is not a significant source of vitamins or minerals, many boxed coconut milks are fortified with additional nutrients.
If you decide to go with coconut milk as your non-dairy beverage, check the ingredient label and look for as few extras as possible. If buying canned coconut milk, make sure to look for a brand that is BPA-free. You can also make your own coconut milk easily, with coconut flakes, water, a blender, and, of course, your trusty cheesecloth.
If you were born before 1986, hemp is something you might associate with tie dye, hacky sacks, and Sublime. But it’s also a nutrient-packed alternative to dairy milk. Hemp milk is made from hemp seeds and water, and it boasts a pretty substantial list of health benefits. In addition to being suitable for vegans and those with nut and dairy allergies, an 8-oz glass of hemp milk contains 900mg of the anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acid ALA, all 10 essential amino acids, 4g of protein, 8g of fat (yay!), vitamins A, E, B12, D, and minerals including magnesium, iron, zinc, and potassium.
Hemp milk is made from the seeds of the cannabis plant – as in marijuana. But when you eat (or drink) hemp, you’re not getting the “drug” part of the plant, otherwise known as THC. The only drawback to hemp milk is that a majority of the hemp seeds must be imported since it is currently illegal to grow the hemp plant in the US. As with the other non-dairy beverages on this list, when shopping for hemp milk, just make sure to check the ingredients and look for brands with the fewest additives. We like Living Harvest.
Almond milk is made with mostly water and blended almonds. Like soy, rice, and most boxed coconut milks, almond milk contains much less fat and protein than regular dairy milk. The high level of nutrients like vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin E advertised by some brands are usually added to the milk, since there’s not a huge amount of almonds used to make the drink.
You might not think of sustainability when it comes to what you put on your granola, but it takes over one gallon of water to grow a single almond.
This is spurring many environmentally-minded drinkers to ditch the nuts, since California – where a large majority of almonds come from – is in the midst of one of the worst droughts on record.
Other nut milks
There’s pretty much a milk for every kind of nut under the sun, since you just need nuts and water to make a nut milk. But like all the other non-dairy beverages bought in stores, commercial nut milks can often contain additives, shelf-stabilizers, and sweeteners to make them taste more like regular milk. These are perfectly safe, but if you’re drinking a store-bought milk substitute from sun up to sun down, you want to look for a brand with the least amount of strange ingredients, or get a cheesecloth and make your own.
Last, but certainly not least, camel milk. Seriously. This is a thing. In fact, it’s been a thing for centuries. Nomadic people were big fans of camel milk, as it is the closest milk to human mother’s milk. Camel milk is a rich source of protein, and it contains 10 times more iron and three times more vitamin C than cow’s milk. It is so nutritious, entire tribes have been able to survive on nothing else for extended periods of time.
Some claim the benefits of this unconventional milk extend beyond macro and micronutrient content to include antibacterial, probiotic, and even wound-healing properties. But this elixir doesn’t come cheap – it averages more than $1 per ounce. And you’re probably not going to find it at your local grocers. Still, if you fancy yourself a milk connoisseur, and you want to give camel a try, Dessert Farms is one US manufacturer. You can also check out the Camel Milk Association.
Which one is best?
Although we’re certainly intrigued by A2, non-homogenized, and camel milk, they’re not exactly filling the refrigerators at 7-Eleven. Or even Whole Foods for that matter. But if you’re up for the challenge, more power to you. If you do happen get your hands on some, please report back – we’d love to hear what you think!
For the more practical purchaser, it’s important to make sure any milk you choose contains some fat, so you can absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A and D. If you can tolerate dairy, our first choice is whole or 2% milk that’s grass-fed and organic. If you can’t get grass-fed, the next best option is organic, followed by rBST-free.
If you don’t do dairy, we recommend either a hemp milk or a coconut milk that has as few additives and extra ingredients as possible. A great option is Natural Value coconut milk. If the consistency is too thick, or you want to reduce the fat, blend it with filtered water. This will also stretch your dollar by giving your more out of one can. Nutrition and savings – doesn’t get any better than that!
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