By Stephanie Middleberg, MS, RD, CDN
Milk is a tricky subject when it comes to health, and there is a lot of confusion surrounding all the various options. Is milk good for you? Is it better than the non-dairy options? Should I go skim, raw, full fat? What about Carrageenan? Do I need the calcium? The questions and concerns (rightfully so) are many. Below I break down the pros and cons of each type of milk.
Dairy vs. non-dairy debate:
Tolerance really varies from person to person, but roughly 75% of the population is lactose intolerant. This means that you do not have the enzyme, lactase, to break down lactose, the main carbohydrate in milk. This leads to many uncomfortable symptoms like gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, cramps, and various skin issues. If you are lactose intolerant or simply don’t feel well when you consume dairy or milk products, then I recommend consuming the non-dairy alternatives. BUT if you tolerate dairy fine, I recommend choosing the best quality dairy possible, as not all dairy is the same.
PRO: Rich in protein, fatty acids, and is an excellent source of vitamins and minerals including calcium, vitamin B12, and riboflavin. The fuller fat versions also slow down the absorption of sugars and show a lower likelihood of insulin resistance and diabetes. It also helps to absorb fat-soluble vitamins (like A, D, E and K), some of which are important in bone health coupled with calcium.
CON: Linked to increased risk of various cancers, fertility issues, and skin issues due to the presence of hormones found in cows to fatten them up and increase milk production.
Bottom line: Choose full fat milk from organic and grass-fed sources.
PRO: Often labeled as “the other white milk,” goat milk is more similar to human breast milk, and thus tends to be easier to digest for many and can be a better alternative over cow’s milk. Goat’s milk is also rich in fatty acids, calcium, iron, protein, and potassium. Another benefit is that it often is made from small, local farms, which guarantees a certain level of quality control and freshness.
CON: Can have a tangy, bitter taste.
There is huge variety in what is offered in this category. Most of these are lower in protein, and are being fortified with calcium and vitamin D to mimic that of cow’s milk.
Coconut milk comes either in a can, box, or a carton (refrigerated form). Canned and box versions of coconut are used primarily for cooking, where the refrigerated carton forms are used as a milk substitute rather than a cooking ingredient.
PRO: Rich in lauric acid, a heart-healthy saturated fat that has been found to improve your good cholesterol (HDL). Has the richest and creamiest taste and texture of all the non-dairy milks. Coconut cream is thicker than the milk version, but can be diluted with water to modify consistency. Excellent to add to your beverages (I especially love it with coffee).
CON: Is low in protein and contains a lower amount of calcium. Canned products most likely contain BPA, and many of the canned and refrigerated coconut milks on the markets are often filled with sweeteners, guar gum, and carrageenan and not just simply made with coconut and water. Plus refrigerated coconut milk is extremely watered down.
Bottom Line: It’s a great non-dairy choice, especially for those who love the flavor of coconut. Be on the lookout for higher quality brands. There are a few brands of canned coconut milk that don’t have BPA in them, Native Forest and Trader Joe’s Light. And Aroy-D is the premier boxed coconut milk on the market right now.
PRO: Made by simply blending almonds and water. It is a good source of vitamins E, magnesium, and potassium. Has the most versatile flavor and use.
CON: Doesn’t contain much protein or nutrients. While almonds are a good source of fiber and protein, the liquid made from the nuts contains very little amounts of either. It is also naturally low in calcium and vitamin D, but these nutrients have been added to up the amounts per serving. Furthermore, many brands contain carrageenan, a preservative used as a thickening agent and stabilizer. It tends to separate when heated so isn’t the best option to use for your hot coffee. But you can add it to more room temperature coffee or blend it with your coffee for a great tasting latte of sorts.
Bottom Line: Almond milk won’t provide you with much nutrition, but it is a great option for those who are lactose intolerant or who want to take a break from dairy. Purchase unsweetened varieties to keep sugars low, and choose brands made without carrageenan like Whole Foods 365 and my personal favorite OMilk (made in Brooklyn). Or better yet, make your own by soaking almonds in water overnight, then blending with water and straining the liquid with a cheesecloth. Feel free to add in your favorite flavors like vanilla extract, dates, maple syrup, cinnamon, etc.
To find out more about carrageenan, check out this guide from Cornucopia.
Soy milk is by far the most available and also the most debatable of all the non-dairy milks.
PRO: Provides similar amounts of protein as milk. It also has the most similar consistency to cow’s milk.
CON: Instead of milk it should be called soy drink, as this beverage is far from natural. Soy is one of the most common genetically modified crops. It is made with soybeans, water, and a slew of other fillers, and contains high levels of estrogen. Plus many people have undiagnosed soy allergies, and have a tough time digesting soy products and specifically soy milk. I don’t recommend this to my clients.
PRO: Good for those with multiple food allergies including dairy, soy, and nuts.
CON: No real nutrition and is higher in calories, overall carbohydrates, and sugar than other options. Also has a thin and watery texture so preservatives are often added to bulk up its texture. I don’t recommend to my clients unless it is the only choice.
PRO: Naturally rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are an anti-inflammatory and help decrease risk of heart disease as well as various cancers and inflammatory conditions.
CON: The taste isn’t neutral, nor is it for everyone. Plus it is rather thin, second to rice milk in the non-dairy category. Best used in smoothies or added to oatmeal.
The REAL Bottom Line on MILKS:
I am a huge fan of rotation. There are other milk varieties that I am a fan of like cashew milk and Brazil nut milk, both of which is easy to make. Try experimenting at home! As long as you are choosing the healthiest option available in each form of milk, rotate weekly or monthly.
There is really no BEST when is comes to milk or milk alternatives. All of them have their own benefits, and it really comes down to the needs and health effects of the individual.
Stephanie Middleberg, MS, RD, CDN, is the founder of Middleberg Nutrition, a health and wellness practice based in New York City. Stephanie believes nutrition should be a conversation, not a lecture, and takes a pragmatic approach to eating healthy in a busy world. Instead of restricting her clients’ diets, she helps them build better relationships with food that complements their diverse lifestyles. She understands that one diet does not fit all, and she works with her clients to create individualized meal plans they can actually adhere to. Her ability to cultivate an open and engaging environment has led to relationships with thousands of clients, and established her as one of the city’s most sought after health experts.
Stephanie is consistently featured in top tier media including Harper's Bazaar, Elle, Fitness, Glamour, Shape, Self, Cosmopolitan, Women's Health, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, Women's Day, and MSNBC.com, to name a few.
Stephanie is a native New Yorker, and earned her Masters in clinical science and her RD at New York University. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin, where she graduated with distinction.