There was once a time when you only needed to know two things about milk: It went great poured over cereal, and an ice-cold glass was the perfect beverage pairing with a slice of chocolate cake. Choosing which kind to drink consisted of opening the fridge to see what mom and dad brought home from the grocery store.
Nowadays there are more choices—almost too many of them. There’s still the familiar whole or skim, and you can also find lactose-free, or even milk that contains a particular type of protein structure. While cow’s milk is the most typical dairy option, it’s increasingly common to find goat’s milk, as well as a growing variety of non-dairy choices. Many of these products claim a variety of health benefits. But which is the best?
The skinny on milkfat
If you’re sticking with dairy milk, the most basic distinction comes down to milkfat, also known as butterfat. You’re probably familiar with 2% and 1% varieties. Whole milk is typically 3.25% fat, and skim milk is close to 0. What do those numbers mean, exactly?
Consider an 8-ounce glass of whole milk. That one cup will contain 150 calories and 8 grams of fat. The same size glass of 2% milk will contain 5 grams of fat. When it comes to skim, you’ll have reduced those numbers to 80 calories and 0 grams of fat, while retaining the same type of nutrients and 8 grams of protein that whole milk has.
What’s the trade-off? It can be hard to beat the flavor of whole milk, and when it comes to using milk as an ingredient for cooking, skim is not ideal. While it’s recommended to limit saturated fat intake, fat isn’t inherently unhealthy, and consuming the right amount of fat can aid in satiety. For reference, butter contains at least 80% milkfat, and the French seem to be doing all right.
If you’re wary but love cow dairy
If dairy milk is a no-go because of lactose intolerance, you’re in good company—the estimated global incidence is 65–70%.
If you suffer from the hallmark symptoms when you indulge in dairy, you’ll also benefit from the emergence of more grocery options by finding lactose-free milk at your supermarket. This product typically contains lactase, an enzyme that breaks down lactose, and has a similar taste and texture to regular cow’s milk. Science!
An additional emerging option is the cryptically-named A2 milk.
What is A2 milk?
Milk contains beta-casein proteins that can be categorized as A1 (no relation to steak sauce) and A2. Cow’s milk will typically contain both proteins. But recently, a New Zealand scientist found a way to genetically test which protein a cow will produce, and this allowed for the production of milk without the A1 protein.
Why does this matter? The A1 protein can cause digestive irritation that produces symptoms similar to those caused by lactose intolerance. A research study showed that drinkers of A2 milk had lower concentrations of inflammation-related biomarkers, or in other words, fewer tummy troubles. If you’ve previously given up cow’s milk due to the digestive distress it causes, A2 milk may yet be a more stomach-friendly option.
Is goat milk the GOAT?
That’s greatest of all time, for those not currently parenting meme-loving teenagers. Cow’s milk remains the most common dairy option, but milk from other animals is becoming easier to find. Is there any benefit to moving away from moo juice?
Goat’s milk has been consumed by people worldwide for millennia, and it’s getting more popular in America too, with goat herds increasing more than any other livestock in the past decade. Why?
It may be because goat’s milk is said to be easier to digest, with a softer curd and smaller fat globules than cow’s milk. Others tout it for its lower allergenic properties and as superior to cow’s milk for remaining low-carb and in ketosis.
Other studies, however, have shown that goat’s milk has no nutritional advantage over cow’s, nor is it less allergenic. The bottom line is that while some may find it easier to digest, its overall benefits are quite similar to plain ol’ cow’s milk. Ultimately, goat’s milk is a strong option whether you’re simply looking for another choice or if you’ve ruled out dairy from cows.
What else can you milk?
A pretty wide array of land mammals (bison, buffalo, camels, and for the brave and quick-footed, pigs) and some plants, sort of.
Types of non-dairy milk
Although the European Court of Justice ruled in 2017 that if a substance didn’t come from an animal, it can’t be called milk, the term plant milk remains a helpful catch-all to describe the variety of milk alternatives on the market, and at any rate is easier to translate than “non-dairy beverage” when trying to order an oat milk latte abroad.
Whether your reasons for seeking out these alternatives are due to lactose intolerance, allergy, dietary restrictions, health concerns, or if you’re simply looking for ways to live a more plant-based lifestyle, there are more products to consider than ever before.
What’s the story with all these new milks? All plant milk is made by soaking, crushing, cooking, and filtering a crop, and then including additives to make for a more milk-like beverage. A huge variety of plants make for great milk, and some of the most common types are made from:
Grains: barley, oat, rice
Legumes: pea, soy
Nuts: almond, cashew, macadamia
Seeds: chia, flaxseed, hemp
Vegetables and Fruits: coconut, potato
With so many available products it can be hard to know which to choose, but you can narrow your selection by considering dietary restrictions, desired nutrients, as well as the classic benchmark—taste.
Soy, almond, oat: the most popular plant milks
Soy milk was one of the first dairy alternatives, having been commercially available in America since the 1950s. Soy is both high in protein and contains healthy fats, but it has recently been scrutinized for its phytoestrogen content. Phytoestrogen’s feminizing effects have thus far shown to be subtle. Research continues as soy finds its way into more consumer products, but for now the data suggests that alarm over soy products is likely unnecessary.
To play it safe, opt for moderate intake of organic, non-GMO soymilk—about 1 cup a day.
Almond milk is made from ground almonds that are then diluted with water. It’s a non-dairy go-to for people with soy allergies, and it has other advantages too. Its nutritional profile is low in calories (about 40 per cup), although this is only true with unsweetened product. It lacks the protein and calcium of cow’s milk, but some brands do offer a comparable amount of vitamins and minerals through fortification.
Oat milk may be the plant-based alternative to beat, if its up-and-coming popularity is any indication. The beverage is trending to the point that there was a shortage. Why is it suddenly in demand? It may be because oats are a familiar breakfast staple, or perhaps it’s due to some of its strong qualities, such as its similar consistency to 1% milk or 4 grams of protein per cup, which is higher than other alternatives.
But oat milk’s rise is not without controversy. Oat crops have been found to contain residues of glyphosate (herbicide), but at least one oat milk brand specifically addresses this concern in explaining how they source their crops. When in doubt, you can seek out products that are certified organic or glyphosate-free.
Another unwanted addition is carrageenan, a controversial food additive used as a thickener and emulsifier in some plant milks. While FDA-approved, it can trigger adverse biological effects, and in 2014 The Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives recommended it be excluded from infant formula. While some say the risk is overblown, you may still want to seek brands that nix this common additive. Or if you want to avoid a commercially produced product altogether, you can take matters into your own kitchen.
Make your own plant-based milk at home
Ready to fully embrace the alt-dairy lifestyle? Making your own plant-based milk can be surprisingly easy, fun, demystifying, as well as a great way to control your base ingredients and what additives to use. You typically won’t need any specialized equipment beyond cheesecloth and a blender.
Then, look up a recipe that’s specific to the plant you’re using. Some plants have a more involved process: making soy milk, for example, involves soaking the beans overnight, and then blending and boiling the mixture until it’s safe to drink. Other milks can be made in minutes.
Simple oat milk
1 cup oats
4 cups water (or less for thicker milk)
1 pinch salt
1 whole date, pitted (for sweetness, optional)
add all ingredients to a blender and blend at high speed for 30–60 seconds
strain into a bottle and refrigerate
Not ready to go full DIY foodie? You can reap the same benefits of knowing exactly what goes into your food by carefully scrutinizing the labels and ingredient lists of whichever choice you make at the grocery store, whether it’s milk, milk, or mylk.
And the verdict is…
So which is it? Among the dozens of options in the dairy aisle, which milk reigns supreme? Answering that question is a bit like answering which exercise is best. Recommendations will vary. Like the pursuit of fitness, there are many roads to balanced nutrition.
The best way to whittle down the myriad of options is to ask yourself what’s not working and to work from there.
For many, cow’s milk remains ideal for its well-rounded nutritional profile, availability, affordability, and familiarity. Choose a milkfat level that suits your nutritional needs and desire for satiety.
If cow’s milk causes digestive issues, try lactose-free or A2 milk.
Or, switch to goat’s milk, which many claim is easier to digest.
If you’re avoiding animal products, soy milk is the plant-based alternative that is closest in protein content to traditional milk.
Concerns about soy? Try a cool glass of almond milk.
Whether you have a nut allergy or you’re interested in the latest trends, oat milk may be for you.
Not impressed with soy, almond, or oat? Other options abound, and your ultimate preference may come down to a matter of taste.
A final consideration is whether or not you need to incorporate milk into your diet at all. USDA guidelines have changed multiple times over the years. Current recommendations are for a daily serving of dairy, but this is largely a consideration of calcium. You can also get the recommended value via a supplement, or through a variety of other calcium-rich foods, although it will never be quite as appealing to pour a collard green smoothie over your morning cereal.
So drink up… or not! As always, it remains most important to consider your overall nutrition and health. There may not be a single best option at the store. But somewhere in the aisles are the choices that are best for your body.