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Which milk is best?

Growing up, milk always meant cow’s milk — I don’t remember seeing any other type of milk at the grocery store. Now, the shelves are filled with other choices. But what is the healthiest choice? It comes down to your individual needs.

Are you lactose intolerant or worried about allergens? Are you trying to consume more protein and calcium? Do you want to limit the saturated fat in your diet? Are you looking for a low-calorie alternative?

I’ll break down the most popular “milks” on the market and discuss why each one might be a good choice for you.

Dairy milk

This natural source of protein (8 grams per cup), calcium, and vitamin D comes in a variety of fat contents. You can find whole milk (between 3.25 and 4 percent fat), reduced-fat milk (2 or 1 percent fat), and skim milk. The lower-fat choices are lower in calories (8 ounces of whole milk has 150 calories; 8 ounces of skim has 90), but provide the same amount of other nutrients. Some brands also offer “super skim” or “ultra skim,” which uses a thickening agent to mimic the taste of whole milk without the fat. Only people with lactose intolerance or a milk allergy should avoid dairy milk. Flavored dairy milks (like chocolate or strawberry) have added sugars, but the “sugar” listed on a plain milk label refers to the natural sugar, lactose.

Soy milk

This widely available milk alternative comes closest to dairy milk in terms of protein content, typically containing 7-10 grams per cup. Soy is a common allergen, so some people may have to avoid it. Because it is plant-based, soy contains no cholesterol and no saturated fat. On the downside, it also lacks calcium and vitamin D. Most soy milks are fortified to mimic the vitamin and mineral content of dairy milk. Check the ingredient statement to choose one with little to no added sugar. Flavored and sweetened soy milks are higher in calories than plain.

Rice milk

Rice milk is often the most acceptable to those with allergies, because rice is non-allergenic. Since rice is a high-carbohydrate food, rice milk is high in carbohydrates but not in protein or calcium. Like soy milk, most commercial brands of rice milk are fortified to mimic the calcium and vitamin D in cow’s milk. It is cholesterol free. Check labels to avoid added sugars.

Almond milk

Almond milk is a low-calorie milk alternative — at least, in its unsweetened form (one cup contains 30 to 40 calories and 2.5 to 3 grams of fat). The fat in almond milk is high in omega-3 content. It contains about 1 gram of protein and fiber per cup, and is cholesterol free. Almond milk is easy to make at home: just soak the almonds in water, then blend and strain out the solids. If you choose to buy almond milk, beware of flavored and sweetened varieties that can be just as high in calories as whole milk.  People with tree nut allergies should avoid almond milk. It can curdle when heated or added to hot foods, but works well in most baked goods (like this peach cobbler) and smoothies.

Other milk alternatives

Hemp seed milk, flax milk, oat milk — the market is continuing to expand, and new products are constantly becoming available. Remember what you’re looking for in your milk: Is it high in protein and calcium? Low in calories and fat? Does it have added sugars and flavors? Use the nutrition facts label and ingredients statement to make a wise decision.