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Making Healthy Choices: Milk

There are many varieties of this refrigerator staple, each with their own benefits to consider
Written by 
Rachel Meltzer Warren, M.S., R.D.N.

There was a time when if someone asked what type of milk you take in your coffee, they were probably wondering if you wanted whole or skim. These days, the options are more plentiful. In addition to the wide variety of cow’s milk (from nonfat to lowfat to whole), non-dairy milk options like soy, almond and coconut have become downright abundant. Let’s take a look at how the varieties measure up:


Cow’s Milk

Traditional cow’s milk comes from—you got it—cows. It’s usually pasteurized, which means it’s heated at high temperature to kill illness-causing bacteria, and it’s almost always fortified with vitamin D in the United States. Whole milk contains 8 grams of fat per cup while 2% and 1%—also known as lowfat milk—contain about 5 grams and 2 grams of fat respectively. Skim or nonfat milk contains just trace amounts of fat.

Choose it…if you aren’t lactose intolerant or vegan.

Use it…in cereal, coffee, smoothies and poured into hot grains.

Buy it: When possible, favor grass-fed cow’s milk, which has the highest level of beneficial fats that promote heart health and fight cancer. At Canyon Ranch we recommend purchasing organic dairy foods. The cows that produce organic milk are required to have access to graze, so it contains approximately 68 percent more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than conventional milk, according to a three-year British study.


Soy Milk

This nondairy milk is made from pressing ground, cooked soybeans. It’s naturally lower than cow’s milk in vitamins and minerals like calcium and vitamin B12, but it’s often fortified with them so that it’s more nutritionally comparable.

Choose it…if you are avoiding cow’s milk and want a replacement that still packs a good dose of protein. While soy foods are considered safe in moderation (one to three servings per day are OK), you may want to choose an alternative if you’re at high risk for breast cancer—plant compounds called isoflavones in soy act as weak estrogens in the body.

Use it: Anywhere you’d use cow’s milk; soy milk tastes good in cereal and usually blends well in coffee.

Buy it: Look for fortified versions with at least 25% of your recommended daily allowance (RDA) of calcium and vitamin D. Opt for an unsweetened product—flavored and sweetened varieties can contain as many as 6 extra grams of sugar per cup.


Almond Milk

Almond milk is made by blending almonds with water, and then straining out the pulp. It’s low-cal compared to skim milk, but it can be high in added sugar.

Choose it…if you’re looking to shave off some calories—some varieties have as few as 30 calories per cup, versus roughly 90 calories for nonfat cow’s milk. But avoid it if you’re sensitive or allergic to nuts.

Use it…in cold cereal and oatmeal—it tastes great, thanks to its slightly sweet, nutty flavor.

Buy it: Like soy, you’ll want to find a fortified almond milk that is low in added sugar. Some new products on the market have added protein, which almond milks are typically low in.


Rice Milk

This cow’s milk alternative is made from a mixture of ground brown rice and water. One cup of it has 2.5 grams of fat, none of it saturated.

Choose it…if you’re an extremely food-sensitive person. Rice milk is the least allergenic of the alternative milks out there.

Use it…blended in a smoothie or as a base for a pudding—rice milk tends to be thin in texture and has a bland flavor, so it may work best in recipes rather than on its own.

Buy it: Again, look for a fortified product with at least 25% of your RDA for calcium and vitamin D.


Coconut Milk

One of the newest cow’s milk substitutes on the market, this beverage is not the liquid sloshing around inside a coconut—that’s coconut water. Rather, it’s a product of processing the fruit’s meat. Although coconut milk has a reputation for being high in saturated fat, you can now find versions that are comparable to lowfat milk.

Choose it…if you’re looking for a metabolism boost: Foods rich in medium-chain fatty acids, like coconut milk, may increase the calories we burn and improve weight control, according to research from McGill University in Montreal. 

Use it…as you’d use cow’s milk; its creamy texture also works well in curries, soups and baked goods.

Buy it: Look for fortified products in shelf-stable or refrigerated cartons rather than in cans. The canned ones are much higher in saturated fat: A cup of canned coconut milk contains about 40 grams of fat, compared to the roughly 5 grams in non-canned versions. 

Reference(s) 
Breastcancer.org
Journal of Dairy Science (June 2006, October 1999)
The Journal of Nutrition (March 2002, December 2000)
Office of Dietary Supplements
United States Department of Agriculture
About the author 
Rachel Meltzer Warren, M.S., R.D.N., is a New York-based nutrition writer, educator and counselor, and author of the The Smart Girl's Guide to Going Vegetarian (Sourcebooks).