Making Sense of Many Milk Choices

June 8, 2021

Making Sense of Many Milk Choices

glasses of different milk

Milk and its growing number of alternatives is a popular nutrition topic. Unfortunately, like many other popular nutrition topics, there’s no good generalized recommendation. Each type of milk has advantages and disadvantages.

When you’re considering trying these products, in the ever-growing dairy case, remember these ideas and you’ll do better by your health

How Much Calcium and Vitamin D Do I Need?

We can fortify just about any food with just about any nutrient these days, but as a dietitian, my motto is: “seek a natural source when possible.” Calcium and vitamin D are nutrients we often associate with the dairy case.

Calcium is found naturally in many green vegetables, like collard greens, kale, spinach, okra, and broccoli. You can get it from several types of fish, as well as dairy milk. If you are not big on leafy greens or fish, I would stick with dairy milk or a product that has added calcium.

Ideally our natural source of vitamin D would be the sun; however, that is not as easy as it seems. Living in the northern part of the United States, we make little to no vitamin D in the fall or winter months. Age, skin color, time of day, cloud cover, pollution and sunscreen are all factors that can affect your body’s ability to produce the necessary vitamin D.

With almost 50% of adults in our region being vitamin D deficient, I would encourage a vitamin D fortified product.

Where Are the Calories Coming From?

The calories in the food we eat come from protein, fat and carbohydrates.

Dairy milk: An 8-ounce glass of 2% dairy milk provides 122 calories; 33 calories from protein, 41 calories from fat, and 48 calories from carbohydrate. An 8-ounce glass of skim dairy milk provides only 81 calories because the 41 calories from fat have been removed.

Soy milk: Nutritionally, soy milk is the most similar to dairy milk. An 8-ounce glass of Silk® brand original soymilk provides 110 calories. Of those calories, 32 come from protein, 41 come from fat and 37 calories are carbohydrate-based. So if you have specific dietary needs or preferences, an alternative to dairy milk might prove to be a better fit for you.

Almond or cashew milk: If you are trying to cut calories, but need a creamy option for coffee or smoothies you might try unsweetened or unflavored nut milks. They’re generally the lowest calorie option, and a cup of plain cashew or almond milk has about 25-30 calories, with 4 calories from protein, 20 calories from fat and about 4 calories from carbohydrates.

Coconut milk: If you are following the KETO trend and need to cut carbohydrates and add fat, coconut milk would be one of the better options. An 8-ounce glass of coconut milk has about 45 calories; 41 calories from fat, and 4 calories from carbohydrates. None of its calories come from protein.

Rice or oat milk: Grain-based milks, such as rice or oat milk, also are popular. A good option for those with allergies, these milks provide about 80 calories in an 8-ounce serving. Nine of the calories come from protein, 27 from fat and 44 from carbohydrates. Rice milk has the highest carbohydrate content, with an 8-ounce glass providing 120 calories; 4 calories from protein, 24 calories from fat, and 92 calories from carbohydrate. For people with blood-sugar issues, these milks would not be an ideal choice.

Not all fat calories are created equal. The fat from dairy milk is mostly saturated which can be harder on the heart, while the unsaturated fats in nut milks are considered healthier. If you choose a sweetened or flavored version of a milk-alternative, you are almost always adding calories, usually from carbohydrates.

Am I Drinking Something Sustainable?

Many people are making milk changes for sustainability reasons, as generally dairy milk is considered to have the greatest environmental impact. Yet each option has drawbacks.

It takes a tremendous amount of water to grow almonds and rice. In addition, rice paddies can develop methane-producing bacteria that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Increased coconut cultivation may lead to destruction of wildlife habitats.

Growing soy and oats takes a lot of land, and monoculture cultivation of any plant can negatively impact soil health. It is also important to consider where your product is coming from and the turnover rate, as these factors can significantly impact sustainability. Because each “milk” product is created so differently, it is hard to accurately compare their environmental impacts.

In short: there’s probably isn’t one “milk” choice that is most sustainable.

Are There Any Risks?

Certainly things like lactose intolerance, as well as soy and nut allergies make some of options inappropriate. In addition, there are some lesser-known risks.

Almond and coconut milk can contain carrageenan, which is used to gel or thicken foods. It also can cause digestive issues. Avoid milk alternatives with carrageenan listed in the ingredients.

Rice has been shown to have higher levels of inorganic arsenic, and therefore the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not recommend relying solely on rice milk as a dairy alternative.

Take time and consideration as you find the right milk or milk alternative for you and your family. The more you know, the better choice you can make.

Lauren Cornay, RD, LN, is a registered dietitian at Avera Heart Hospital. Learn more about nutrition programs this team offers.