As a kid, drinking milk was simple.
We’d enjoy a splash in our cereal, or a glass with dinner, and we’d make our mums happy, as these were convinced that milk was the magical elixir that would keep us strong, growing, and healthy.
But nowadays, grocery aisles present dozens of different milk options, and suddenly everyone is saying that dairy may not be as healthy as we thought.
Choosing the right milk can seem daunting, which is why we spoke to Lara Felton, a registered nutritionist and head of the dietary team at nutrition app ShopWell to better understand cow’s milk, three of its non-dairy alternatives, and who should be drinking what.
Felton refers to cow’s milk as the “gold standard” of milk. One glass will give you eight grams of protein, as well as plenty of naturally occurring calcium and vitamin D. Thanks to the lactose in it, cow’s milk also contains carbohydrates. If you’re healthy, and don’t have any dietary restrictions, like allergies, Felton recommends drinking cow’s milk.
If you’re wondering what kind of cow’s milk to drink — skim or whole — Felton suggests going by personal health needs and taste. For those with medical issues such as heart disease or type two diabetes, skim is the better choice because the fat that occurs in dairy is higher in saturated fat, which can lead to cardiovascular disease. But if you’re healthy, and enjoy the taste and feeling of satiety that comes from drinking whole milk, Felton says go for it.
In terms of nutrition, Felton says that soy milk is the closest equivalent to cow’s milk of any of the non-dairy alternatives. Soy milk generally has seven to eight grams of protein per glass (cow’s milk has eight). The soy beans used to make this kind of milk provide it with multiple healthy fats, and most of the soy milk you’ll find in the grocery store is fortified with calcium.
Felton recommends soy milk for vegetarians, vegans, and those who are lactose intolerant. She cautions against drinking flavored soy milk though, since flavored milks usually have lots of added sugars.
Almond milk has become more popular in recent years due to paleo and Whole 30 diets, which forbid dairy. While it’s a source of polyunsaturated fats (healthy fats), Felton warns that almond milk is very low in protein. So if you’re looking for a non-dairy milk substitute that provides just as much nutritional value as cow’s milk, almond milk might not be the best choice.
However, if you’re only concerned with calcium, most almond milk sold at the grocery store is fortified with this nutrient. Felton suggests almond milk as an ideal choice for those who can’t have dairy and are allergic to soy. But just as with soy milk, Felton advises choosing almond milk that’s unflavored.
According to Felton, rice milk ranks lowest among the non-dairy alternatives mainly because it has virtually no protein. Otherwise it’s fairly similar to soy and almond milk in that it contains healthy fats and is usually fortified with 30-40% of one’s daily value of calcium.
Unless you’re someone with serious food allergies — you can’t eat dairy, soy, or nuts — Felton generally doesn’t suggest drinking rice milk. “If somebody who has a food allergy is just looking for something to put on their cereal besides [regular] milk, rice milk is a perfect alternative for that,” Felton explains. In other words, if you can drink another kind of milk, you should.
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