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Healthy Balance

Got Milk? What Kind? Milk and Milk Alternatives

looking at milk & milk alternatives at the grocery store
It can be hard to choose between milk and the many milk alternatives.

Milk used to be simple. It came from a cow and whether you loved it or hated it, it was probably a key part of your childhood. Maybe you’re still a devoted milk fan, or can’t stand the stuff.

Either way, “milk” means a lot more than it used to. Maybe I just haven’t been paying close attention when I’m shopping, but non-dairy types of “milk” seem to be taking over the milk section in the grocery store. Curious to know more about these milk alternatives, I started investigating, talking to experts at UVA and learning more about milk.

Here’s what I found out.

Cow’s Milk

Growing up, I was always told to drink at least one glass of milk a day. Typically, the only way to get me to do this was to add chocolate or cereal to it.  Now, I wasn’t like every child, but my mom struggled with my brothers in the same way. We just never really liked milk.

What are the Benefits?

Milk is a great source of calcium!

According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s Milk Matters Campaign, 8 ounces of nonfat milk contains approximately 306 milligrams of calcium, about one-fourth of what is recommended for kids and teenagers and one-third of what adults need.

All the Other Nutritional Perks

According to the National Dairy Council, dairy products, including milk, are a great source of other nutrients as well. The dairy group calls milk an “excellent source” of magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, protein and vitamin D. With a large amount of protein and carbohydrates, milk is also promoted as a great drink after working out.

How Do All Those Nutrients Get in There?

Some of the nutrients in milk occur naturally, while others are added in through a process called fortification. There are often certain federal mandates around fortification. For instance, liquid milk in the United States is supposed to be fortified with both vitamins A and D. Some dairies will fortify their milk with more: Vitamins C and D and calcium as well. Other types of milk and food are also fortified in order to provide certain basic and necessary nutrients

Milk Alternatives: Soy, Almond, Coconut and So Much More

Many argue that cow’s milk is not a dietary necessity and that you can get the same benefits that dairy gives you from other foods, or even other types of milk. This idea led me to taste test and investigate other types of milk to see what was out there.

Turns out manufacturers are making “milk” out of a lot of different plants, nuts and grains. I chatted with Carole Havrila, a registered dietitian with the UVA Cancer Center, to find out some more details and tried to figure out what tastes the best to me. Meagan Bridges, a registered dietitian and UVA nutrition support specialist, also weighed in in a recent Daily Mail story.

Soy Milk

One of Havrila’s favorite types of non-dairy milks, she explained to me that it contains almost as much protein per serving as cow’s milk and has high-quality and complete proteins. It’s a nutritional powerhouse. Soy milk contains no added hormones, helps combat bad cholesterol and assists with bone density. It also comes in a number of different flavors.

What about the possible link between soy, estrogen and cancer? Bridges also told the Daily Mail that research is inconclusive.

Almond Milk

Unsweetened almond milk came out as one of my favorites in my taste test. Havrila explains that there’s less protein in almond milk than cow’s milk, but it’s a good source of magnesium and vitamin D.

Because the processing removes the actual meat of the almond, most of the nutrients also get removed, Bridges told the Daily Mail. “You’re basically drinking glorified water with some almond flavor.”

Cane sugar is often added to sweeten almond milk, so you have to be mindful of the sugar content. That’s another reason why I go for the unsweetened version.

Flaxseed Milk

This was my favorite of the taste test. However, I tend to like my milk fairly plain and not so sweet (unless it’s for dessert!). There’s about the same amount of calcium per serving in flaxseed milk as cow milk. Flaxseed milk is relatively low in protein but is a low-calorie drink that has a good amount of omega-3 fatty acids, which may be beneficial to your health. Havrila mentioned that this would be a good drink to try if you are looking for more omega-3s in your diet and don’t like fish or fish oil pills.

Rice Milk

This was my least favorite. The consistency reminded me a lot of water, and it has little in the way of calcium or protein.

Coconut Milk

I love cooking with coconut milk, especially if I’m making Asian cuisine. However, Havrila warned that a cup of coconut milk has more calories and fat than a cup of non-fat or 1% milk. It’s fortified with calcium, a good source of potassium and overall has a fairly healthy nutritional profile.

Pea Milk

This newer milk has protein and calcium but no nuts or soy. Bridges told the Daily Mail that the nutritional value is comparable to cow’s milk, and, from her test, “tastes really good and if you like the taste and texture of milk, it’s the closest.”

Personalized Nutrition Counseling

Not sure how to eat well? Make an appointment at UVA’s Nutrition Counseling Center.

What Milk is Best for Me?

Taste tests aside, the most important thing when choosing a milk is to know your options. Havrila says: “You have to be an educated consumer. What is your goal with milk; what are you looking for out of it?” Read the label on your milk, figure out what your goal is as far as the role of milk in your diet, talk to your doctor to assess any allergies or nutritional deficiencies and together decide what best suits you and your lifestyle.

We originally published this blog post in 2012 and updated it in September 2018. 

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