Roam the aisles of the grocery store and you’re confronted with an array of milk products — some from animals, some from plants. It can be confusing. But by knowing what the healthiest milk choices are, you can save yourself a lot of time and aggravation.
Why Choose a Milk Alternative
Before we get into the healthiest milk options, let’s take a brief look at why you might want to choose an dairy milk alternative. Beyond being a vegetarian or vegan, you could choose a dairy milk alternative if dairy gives you stomach trouble — known as lactose intolerance.
Dairy has a sugar called lactose, and normally, our small intestine produces an enzyme that helps it break down this sugar. However, digestive trouble happens if your small intestine doesn’t make enough of that enzyme to digest lactose, which can cause cramping, bloating, gas and diarrhea.
A milk allergy is another reason you should consider a dairy milk alternative. Most prevalent in children younger than 3, a milk allergy produces symptoms ranging from hives to anaphylaxis.
Dairy Milk Alternatives
A staple in most of our diets since we were children, cow’s milk has nine vitamins and nutrients — vitamins A, D and B12, riboflavin, niacin, calcium, phosphorus, protein and potassium — it’s no wonder it’s called a nutrient powerhouse.
However, consuming cow’s milk can have disadvantages, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. These include:
- Lactose intolerance
- Too many saturated fats
- Many dairy products are high in saturated fat, notes the school, and can lead to an increased risk for heart disease.
Healthiest Milks: Soy Milk
Soy milk and other plant-based milk options are good alternatives for those who cannot digest lactose or prefer not to eat or drink dairy products. It has plenty of heart-healthy protein and is low in saturated fat and has calcium and vitamin D like its animal-produced counterpart.
You may have read that consuming soy-based products could increase your risk for certain cancers because it contains properties similar to estrogen, but this is not true.
“The current research does not support avoiding whole soy foods, even for cancer patients or survivors,” says Clare McKindley, a clinical dietitian in MD Anderson Cancer Prevention Center at the University of Texas.
If you decide to add soy milk to your diet, be mindful of added sugars. Flavored milks and some non-flavored milks contain added cane sugars.
Healthiest Milks: Almond MilkIf it's not the healthiest milk, it's the most popular. Almond milk is high in vitamins A, D and E and it’s also fairly low in calories, and when fortified, is a good source of calcium. However, as with soy milk varieties, be aware of the amount of added sugar in almond milk. Also, many nut milks can contain a thickener called carrageenan, which can be difficult for some people to digest.
Healthiest Milks: Rice MilkUnlike its dairy-free counterparts, rice milk contains more carbohydrates and sugar — about twice as much. Though the sugar is naturally occurring, US News & World Report notes rice milk may not be the healthiest milk on our list because provides less nutrition than other milk options. If you have multiple food allergies, however, rice milk could be a good choice to meet your needs.
Healthiest Milks: Coconut Milk
This sweeter milk alternative is fairly low in calories, but higher in saturated fat. It also has little or no protein and provides little calcium.
If you have questions about which is the healthiest milk for you, talk with your doctor.