Walk into just about any supermarket and you'll find a wide range of dairy products available. These include cow's milk, yogurts, cheeses, creams and plant-based dairy product equivalents. Despite the variety of products you can now easily obtain, standard cow's milk continues to be one of the most nutritious and commonly consumed types of dairy.
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Cow’s Milk and Other Dairy
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends consuming about 3 cups of dairy each day. Dairy refers to many milk-based products, including butter, yogurt and milk. Dairy products are considered to be healthy because they supply a wide variety of essential nutrients.
Not all dairy products are equivalent to one another, however. Fat-free and low-fat milk, as well as other types of dairy products made from them, are considered to be healthier alternatives, as they have less fat. Fat-free and low-fat milk also have less sodium compared to most cheeses and less sugar compared to many yogurts.
Fat-Free Milk Nutrition Facts
Cow's milk nutrition is filled with vitamins and minerals. One cup (8 ounces or 244 grams) of non-fat milk (also known as skim milk) contains:
- 23 percent of the daily value (DV) for calcium
- 8 percent of the DV for potassium
- 6 percent of the DV for magnesium
- 20 percent of the DV for phosphorus
- 14 percent of the DV for selenium
- 9 percent of the DV for zinc
- 17 percent of the DV for vitamin A
- 9 percent of the DV for vitamin B1 (thiamin)
- 34 percent of the DV for vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
- 17 percent of the DV for vitamin B5
- 5 percent of the DV for vitamin B6
- 51 percent of the DV for vitamin B12
- 15 percent of the DV for vitamin D
- 7 percent of the DV for choline
Skim Versus Other Cow’s Milks
Fat-free milk isn't too different compared to other commonly consumed types of milk beverages. Other popularly consumed types of cow's milk are called 1 percent, 2 percent and full-fat (which is often also called full-cream milk or whole milk).
As their names imply, fat is the main difference between these milks. There are just 0.2 grams of fat in fat-free milk, 2.4 grams of fat in 1 percent milk, 4.8 grams of fat in 2 percent milk and 7.9 grams of fat in full-cream milk.
Cow's milk nutrition for protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals is otherwise fairly similar. However, the only plant-based equivalent to cow's milk has notably different nutrition compared to these animal products.
Plant-Based Milk Equivalents
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans typically refers to dairy as products made from cow's milk. However, certain fortified soy-based beverages are also considered to be dairy. The fortification process that some soy beverages undergo enriches their amounts of calcium, vitamin A and vitamin D. This gives soy beverages a similar nutritional profile to those made from cow's milk.
You should be aware that not all soy beverages are fortified, however. Other plant-based milks, such as almond milk, hemp milk and coconut milk, are not considered to be equivalent to dairy products, regardless of whether or not they are fortified.
In 1 cup (8 ounces or 243 grams) of fortified, unsweetened soy milk, you'll find:
- 27 percent of the DV for calcium
- 6 percent of the DV for iron
- 7 percent of the DV for potassium
- 9 percent of the DV for magnesium
- 10 percent of the DV for selenium
- 6 percent of the DV for zinc
- 33 percent of the DV for vitamin A
- 39 percent of the DV for vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
- 6 percent of the DV for vitamin B9
- 125 percent of the DV for vitamin B12
- 15 percent of the DV for vitamin D
As you can see, even though fortified soy beverages are considered to be part of the dairy family, there are various nutritional differences. Certain nutrients, like choline and vitamin B6, are not present at all. However, soy milk has twice as much of some other nutrients, such as vitamin A and vitamin B12.
Benefits of Milk Consumption
Dairy products are considered to be highly nutritious, given the wide variety of vitamins and minerals they contain. Dairy intake is also typically associated with improved bone health, particularly in young people, which is usually attributed to its calcium content.
However, the nutritional value of milk goes beyond well-known nutrients like calcium. Milk also contains antioxidants, bioactive peptides and other beneficial, functional ingredients. These components allow milk to help regulate the function of the digestive system, positively impact the gut microbiome and help modulate the immune system. Dairy may also help regulate cholesterol and reduce blood pressure.
Read more: 18 Fat-Rich Foods That Are Good for You
Downsides to Milk Consumption
According to a 2017 study in the Journal of Food Quality Preferences, most people prefer fattier milk products. However, milk products that are rich in fat also tend to be rich in unhealthy fats. More than half of the fat in cow's milk products comes from saturated fat.
Saturated fat is found in most animal products, like meat and dairy. You should consume it in moderation because it can increase your cholesterol and triglyceride levels. This, in turn, can increase your risk of health issues like heart and liver disease.
If you want to obtain the nutritional benefits of milk without consuming any saturated fat, opt for skim milk and skim milk products. Soy beverages are also a good choice. Although they have around 5 grams of fat per cup, less than half a gram comes from saturated fat.
- Diabetes Care: "Saturated Fat Is More Metabolically Harmful for the Human Liver Than Unsaturated Fat or Simple Sugars"
- American Heart Association: "Saturated Fat"
- Food Quality Preferences: "Type of Milk Typically Consumed, and Stated Preference, but Not Health Consciousness Affect Revealed Preferences for Fat in Milk"
- International Journal of Dairy Science: "Milk and Dairy Products as Functional Foods: A Review"
- MyFoodData: "Nutrition Comparison of Silk Plus Omega-3 DHA Soy Milk, Low-Fat Milk 2%, Whole Milk, Low-Fat Milk 1%, and Skim Milk"
- MyFoodData: "Nutrition Comparison of Unsweetened Soy Milk, Low-Fat Milk 2%, Whole Milk, Low-Fat Milk 1%, and Skim Milk"
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020"