Which Type of Milk (or Nondairy Milk) Is Best? The PROs and CONs of 9 Different Kinds
Last Updated: Jun 25, 2014
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It seems like every week there’s a new type of milk popping up on supermarket shelves. People who are lactose intolerant have more choices than ever before. Milk and nondairy alternatives are good to include in your diet because they're versatile sources of essential nutrients like calcium and vitamin D. Not all milks are ideal for everyone’s dietary lifestyle, so before you buy, read on to learn about the benefits of several different types of milk and milk alternatives — some of which you can make at home!
Cashew milk is a great alternative for anyone avoiding dairy or soy. The nutritional profile of store-bought cashew milk similar to that of almond milk. It contains about 40 calories per cup and 3.5 grams of fat per serving and is lower in protein compared to one cup of soy or cow’s milk. Store-bought cashew milk is also likely be fortified with vitamins D, B12, A and calcium. You can make your own cashew milk by blending one cup soaked cashews to three cups water. Start the blender on low and move up slowly to the highest gear until you reach the desired consistency. If the texture is too grainy, you can use a cheesecloth, filtration bag or sieve that will allow only the liquid to filter through. Add stevia or raw honey for sweetness and vanilla extract or spices like cinnamon for additional flavor. Note: Making cashew milk at home does increase the calorie count to about 250 calories per cup.
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If you follow the Paleo diet or just want to include more natural plant foods in your diet, coconut milk is a good option. Coconut milk is expressed from coconut meat, and while it adds creaminess to dishes like curries and soups, you won’t want to gulp it down by the glass. Diluted store-bought coconut milk drinks contain 45-75 calories, about 4.5 grams of fat, and zero protein. Undiluted coconut milk contains 445 calories per cup and 48 grams of fat. In its natural state, coconut milk is also lower in protein compared to cow’s milk and lacks adequate amounts of calcium and vitamin D, though typical store brands tend to fortify it. To ensure pureness, check the ingredients list to be certain it doesn’t contain sweeteners or other additives such as carrageenan. To avoid additives, registered dietitian and Paleo enthusiast Sarah Louise Ware makes coconut milk by adding hot water to creamed coconut. You can also mix pure coconut milk with water or tea for a light, creamy drink. Look for the unsweetened version to cut down on added sugars.
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Because goat’s milk contains nine grams of lactose per serving (compared to 12 grams in cow’s milk) and has a different protein structure, some people with lactose intolerance find it easier to digest. One cup of goat’s milk contains about 170 calories, 8.5 grams of protein and valuable amounts of calcium, phosphorous and potassium. It’s also significantly higher in saturated fat -- goat’s milk has a profile that’s closer to whole milk, providing 6.5 grams of saturated fat per cup. Goat’s milk does beat out cow’s milk when it comes to offering more magnesium, potassium and vitamins A and C. For the best calcium absorption, choose goat’s milk fortified with vitamin D.
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Made from hemp seeds, this nondairy alternative can be a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. These essential fats promote heart health and normal brain function, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center, and many American diets lack them. Omega-3s are particularly important if you’re vegan or vegetarian because fish is one of the leading sources of these fats. While it’s lower in protein compared to soy or cow’s milk, hemp milk provides more iron. As with other milk alternatives, look for kinds that have been fortified with calcium and vitamin D and are unsweetened. For a breakfast rich in fiber, protein and omega-3s, prepare oatmeal -- a good source of protein and fiber -- with hemp milk.
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With a light, nutty flavor and plenty of nutrients, almond milk is another healthy dairy alternative. While not the best choice for increasing your protein intake (it contains only one gram of protein per cup), almond milk has significantly more vitamin E and calcium than cow’s milk. You can also find varieties that are lower in calories than other milks. One cup of unsweetened almond milk provides a mere 30 calories and nearly double the amount of calcium in cow’s milk. For a nutritious, protein-rich breakfast, serve almond milk with scrambled eggs or quinoa with veggies. Like cashew milk, you can also make your own almond milk by blending one part raw soaked almonds to three parts water. Start the blender on low and slowly move up to the highest gear until you reach the desired consistency. It's recommended to always filter out the remaining almond bits after blending using a cheesecloth or filtration bag.
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ORGANIC COW’S MILK
Cow’s milk is rich in protein, calcium, vitamin D and phosphorus. Organic milk comes from cows that have been raised on organic feed and spend at least 120 days on pasture where they graze on pesticide-free grass. The cows are also free of synthetic growth hormones and antibiotics, which are given to increase milk yield and prevent illness, respectively. “They enjoy access to sunshine and pasture grazing in summer, and in winter they feast on nutritious hay or silage,” says Dr. Deborah Gordon. Research has shown that organic milk contains more protein and omega-3s than conventional cow’s milk.
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WHOLE MILK VS. NONFAT MILK
Current dietary guidelines recommend three cups of fat-free or low-fat milk dairy per day. The long-held notion behind the reduced fat recommendations is to keep calorie intake down and to limit the amount of saturated fat in the diet. Recent studies however are beginning to show less of an association between milk fat intake and heart disease, although more research needs to be done. Additionally, in a 2013 meta-analysis of 16 studies published in the European Journal of Nutrition found that in most of the studies, high-fat dairy was associated with a lower risk of obesity or there was no association at all. It’s hypothesized that individuals are naturally more full from a higher fat intake, which reduces overall calorie intake throughout the day. Another thought is that the milk fat is metabolized differently by the body. A cup of skim milk provides about 85 calories, eight grams of protein and virtually no fat. Whole milk contains about 150 calories, eight grams of protein and eight grams of fat per cup.
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An estimated 25 percent of U.S. adults have some level of lactose intolerance (the inability to digest the natural sugar found in dairy products). If you’re lactose intolerant, allergic to cow’s milk or simply avoid animal products, soy milk provides a nutritious alternative. “Most brands are fortified with calcium and vitamins A, D and B12,” says Alissa Rumsey, a registered dietitian in New York City, “so the nutritional content is similar to cow’s milk.” It’s also naturally low in fat, cholesterol-free and higher in protein than other plant-derived milks. One cup of soy milk provides seven grams of protein, for instance, while almond milk provides only one gram per cup. Rumsey recommends choosing unsweetened soy milk to limit your added sugar intake. When shopping for soy milk, choose organic or non-GMO varieties to avoid genetically modified soybeans.
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No one milk is ideal for everyone. Trying different types that fit your lifestyle and figuring out which one you enjoy the best is a good first step. Keep in mind that while most milk and milk alternatives are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, there are exceptions. Unless you’re sure you are meeting these nutrient needs through other means, check product packaging to ensure it provides both.
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WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Do you consume milk or nondairy milk alternatives? Which type of milk do you prefer and why? Are you a fan of whole milk or skim milk? What’s your favorite way to consume it? Are there any on the list you haven’t tried yet? Let us know by posting a comment below.
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