Dairy gets put in the spotlight and hot seat every other month it seems. One good thing to come from all the attention, though, is companies have scrambled to come up with dairy milk alternatives that meet consumers demands, whether it's "milk" that's lower in calories, free of lactose, void of stomach-curdling proteins, or something else altogether. One bad thing? Picking milk up from the grocery is no longer a simple, thoughtless task.
Regular old cow's milk has competition from nut and grain-based alternatives touting a variety of fat and flavor profiles. But that doesn't mean a cow's milk variety isn't the best choice for you. It very well may be which is why we've included them in this roundup.
We consulted with Hillary Wright, MEd, RD, author of The Prediabetes Diet Plan, to highlight the unique health benefits of over 15 different milk options. Take your pick and have your fill (in moderation, of course). But before we delve into all that, we want to leave you with some tips from Wright:
1. First and foremost, always read labels. Calories, carbs, protein, calcium, and more differ depending on processing and fortification. For example, in nut milks, “Original” varieties typically have sugar added back into them—so, vanilla-flavored cashew milk has as much as 12g sugar per cup compared to unsweetened cashew milk, which has none. When you can, opt for unsweetened or no-sugar-added options. 2. Raw, unpasteurized milk, especially cow’s milk, may seem super healthy if you're on an all-natural health kick, but it's a potential source of listeria, a form of food poisoning. So, we kept it off this list since it's better safe than sorry. 3. Don’t assume you’re lactose intolerant if your stomach gets a little bloated after drinking animal dairy. The majority of people who think they’re intolerant are really misdiagnosing themselves. (More on this on the next slide.)
The a2 Milk Company™ might be new to you. If it is, let us familiarize you because it's about to become your favorite milk variety if you experience stomach discomfort from traditional dairy, but don't want to nix it from your diet (and aren't truly intolerant). The reason you experience gas, bloating, and stomach discomfort after drinking cow's milk is likely because of the A1 protein variant, a mutation really, that's present in all animal milks (even organic). It doesn't mean you're lactose intolerant, though. Fun fact: Less than 7 percent of the U.S. population is clinically diagnosed as being lactose intolerant; people just self-diagnose and stray from the stuff, opting for varieties like Lactaid and Fairlife. But here's the problem: These brands are formulated so the lactose is already broken down into sugar. They're not made to stop the inflammatory response and discomfort from A1 protein, which 25 percent of the overall population reports having. That's where a2 shines.
a2 milk only contains the A2 protein, which research shows is easier to digest. Not only is this milk free from inflammatory-causing A1 protein, it also contains about 6x the amount of calcium as soy milk, 8x the protein of almond milk, and approximately 6x the potassium of rice milk.
You can buy a2 whole milk, reduced fat 2%, low fat 1% and fat-free, nationally at Sprouts, The Fresh Market, Whole Foods Mid-Atlantic, and throughout California in Whole Foods, Ralph's Sprouts, Gelson's, and more.
Macros in one cup of a2 whole milk: 162 calories, 9g fat, 12.5g sugar, 7.7g protein
"Cashew milk is a good source of vitamin A and calcium, has no saturated fat, and contains minimal carbohydrates so it won’t spike your blood sugar unless you buy a flavored variety with added sugars," Wright says. Commercial cashew milk brands contain barely any protein, but if you make your own it can yield upwards of 6g. Cashew milk is cholesterol-free and high in unsaturated fatty acids (oleic acid) that do wonders for your heart. It's great for vegans or anyone with lactose sensitivity or intolerance.
Making your own cashew milk (or any nut milk) is pretty simple; recipes differ depending on sweetness preference, texture, and amount, but essentially you place raw cashews in a bowl, cover with cold water, and soak for one hour to overnight. Drain and rinse. Then, toss soaked cashews and, gradually, a few cups of filtered water in a blender (the creamier the texture, the less water you add). Blend on low then high for 1-2 minutes. Strain the milk through a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth. Note homemade cashew milk has vastly different macros, reflecting that of 1/4 of cashews: One cup of homemade cashew milk has about 190 calories, 10g of carbs, and 15g of fat per serving. This goes for other homemade nut milks, too.
"Almond milk is a low-calorie milk alternative fortified with calcium and vitamin D," Wright says. "Like most milk alternatives, it contains very little protein, but is a good source of vitamin E," she adds. Aside from being a great option for people allergic to lactose and soy, almond milk is helpful if you're trying to drop some pounds or manage your weight because it's low in fat. Almond milk also packs antioxidant-rich vitamin A, which elevates your immune system, and vitamin D, known for maintaining strong bones and teeth. Almond milk also contains 30 percent of you daily recommended value of calcium.
Hazelnut milk isn't nearly as popular as almond, or even cashew, but like the rest, it's naturally gluten-, lactose-, and soy-free, is low in calories, and has no cholesterol or saturated fat. Its nutrient profile is what sets it apart. Packed with B vitamins, essential to mental health, antioxidant-rich vitamin E, folic acid, which helps produce red blood cells and transport oxygen through your body (preventing anemia, heart disease, even cancer), and omega-3 fatty acids that can keep your blood pressure in check. Wright suggests adding hazelnut milk to your coffee as a low-calorie add-in because it has a stronger, nuttier flavor than almond and dairy milk; it's also great in smoothies, in overnight oats, and cereals.
"Of all the milk alternatives, soy milk comes closest in protein to cow’s milk," Wright says. "It’s low in carbohydrates—unless flavored, in which case its carb-content may be similar or higher than cow’s milk—and it's generally fortified with calcium and vitamin D," she adds. So long as you don't have any allergic tendencies toward soy, soy milk can sub in for dairy since it has lower sugar and calorie content than regular cow's milk. Plus, it has monounsaturated fatty acids, which can aid in weight loss by hindering the absorption of fat through your intestines.
Let's clear the air: "Cow’s milk is a product of lactation, so there’s no such thing as hormone-free milk," Wright says. "You can, however, get your guarantee of no added hormones by buying organic, which requires producers to avoid treating their cows with hormones (like rbST) to boost production," she explains. Plus, a large meta-analysis from Newcastle University in England found organic milk has about 50 percent more omega-3 fatty acids, which can fight heart disease, boost brain function, and fortify your immune system—than nonorganic varieties. So the answer is yes, the higher price tag is worth it.
"Many love the delicious richness of full-fat cow’s milk, which is also a great source of protein, calcium, and vitamin D," Wright says. "Cow’s milk contains a modest amount of carbohydrate (as long as it’s not flavored with added sweeteners); just be sure to factor the extra calories and saturated fat when incorporating whole milk into your daily diet," she adds. A recent study published in the journal Circulation found consuming full-fat dairy products can reduce your risk of diabetes. If you jumped on the bandwagon and shunned whole milk years ago, bring it back for your muscles' sake; a protein shake or Greek yogurt post-workout can replenish muscles. (Probably a good idea to skip it pre-workout, though, to minimize discomfort.) Full-fat milk also digests slowly, so it keeps you feeling full and satisfied better than low-fat versions.
"The thin texture of skim milk isn't for everyone, but it does provide the protein, calcium, vitamin D, and other nutrients found in cow’s milk in fewer calories—about 80 calories per cup," Wright says. And if consistency is a hard selling point for you, there are some varieties that are “thickened” with milk solids, giving them a fuller texture without the extra saturated fat found in full-fat milk, Wright adds.
"Whole milk is only about 3¼ percent milk fat so 2% is close, which is why people often prefer it to skim or 1% milk," Wright says. The milk is processed to remove extra fat that comes from the cream. While it’s slightly lower in calories and saturated fat, it's still not considered a low-fat food.
"1% milk meets the labeling criteria for a “low-fat” food at 3g of fat or less per serving," Wright says. "Many looking to cut their fat intake without sacrificing too much flavor prefer this to skim," Wright adds.
"Goat milk is similar in nutrients to cow’s milk, but a bit lower in lactose so it may be an option for people with lactose intolerance," Wright says. Goats aren't exposed to the same growth hormones, antibiotics, and conditions cows are, the fat molecules in their milk are smaller, so they're easier to digest, and the milk is chemically closer to human milk than cow’s milk, making it that much easier for your body to break down. Goat's milk ia also rich in calcium and tryptophan, an amino acid you've probably heard about when it comes to turkey.
"Like nut milks, rice milk has only 1g of protein per serving (compared to 8g in a cup of cow’s milk), but is fortified with calcium and vitamin D and low in calories," Wright says. Rice milk is a good source of B vitamins, magnesium, phosphorus, and manganese. It's great for lactose intolerants, vegetarians and vegans allergic to soy, and even some people with irritable bowel syndrome; but it has twice as many carbohydrates (25g!) as cow's milk, so keep that in mind.
"At 5g of protein per cup, hemp milk is higher in protein than nut, rice, and coconut milk, and contains the plant-based omega 3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)," Wright says. How's that for a tiny, underrated plant? The benefits don't end there. Hemp milk has all 10 essential amino acids, 46 percent of your recommended daily amount of calcium, and plenty of folic acid, vitamin A, and vitamin B12.
Get ready—this is a mouthful: Ripple milk is 100% vegan, lactose-free, nut-free, soy-free, GMO-free, and gluten-free. Made from yellow split peas, the plant-based milk is sustainable—there's a large supply, currently from France—and the extraction process works really well on this variety. Nutritionally-speaking, the dairy alternative is high in protein (in fact, it has just as much protein as cow's milk and 8x the amount of almond milk) and calcium (boasting 50 percent more than cow's milk!), as well as a good source of omega-3s, vitamin D, and iron. Its unsweetened variety has no sugar, while its “original” variety has half the sugar of milk. It also has a creamy texture, which most consumers crave.
Even though coconut milk doesn't have protein and its saturated fat is similar to whole milk, it has the kind of fat that can help lower your cholesterol, improve blood pressure, and prevent heart attacks and stroke. Coconut milk is naturally packed with fiber, vitamins C, E, B1, B3, B5, and B6, and minerals like iron, selenium, and phosphorous. It's also fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Opt for unsweetened varieties to keep calories down; or opt for "original" coconut milks that are sweeter for overnight oats, cereals, smoothies, and more.
Lactaid is an option for those with lactose intolerance; it's cow’s milk "pre-treated with the lactase enzyme so the lactose is already broken down into its two basic sugars, glucose and galactose," Wright says. Because of this, Lactaid tastes a little sweeter than regular milk, she adds. Choose from fat-free, low-fat 1%, reduced-fat 2%, and whole, calcium-enriched, and more.