Getty Images/Blend Images
Buying milk at the market used to be an easy proposition: Your choice was whole, low-fat or skim, all of it from cows.
But in the past decade, the dairy case has exploded with a wide range of plant-based milks, among them soy, almond, cashew, coconut, rice, hemp — even a yellow split pea milk, introduced last year. (See how the most popular stack up below.)v
Part of this is due to worries over milk from industrialized dairy farms — the growth hormones and antibiotics often given to cows, reports of animal mistreatment, environmental pollution from manure runoff — as well as a growing interest in the health benefits of a plant-based diet. Some people also have dairy allergies or have trouble digesting lactose, a type of natural sugar in milk.
Americans are also rethinking the dairy they do consume, thanks to recent research. The latest government reports find Americans drinking more full-fat whole milk and less no-fat skim in light of studies showing that full-fat dairy products don't raise the risk of heart disease or stroke and may protect us against diabetes.
So just what is the difference in nutrients between cow's milk and plant-based milk?
Here are seven things you should keep in mind:
Nut milks don't provide the same nutrition as eating nuts.
A handful of nuts may provide you with lots of protein, vitamins and other nutrients, but that doesn't mean a glass of nut-based milk — like almond milk or cashew milk — does the same.
Almond milk, for example, has this "health halo" because almonds are such a superfood, but check the label, says St. Louis dietitian Jennifer McDaniel, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. While almonds are naturally high in protein, a serving of almond milk contains barely any protein — 1 gram compared with dairy milk's 8 grams — because it's mostly water. In fact, a 2015 class-action suit against Blue Diamond, the maker of Almond Breeze, contends that almond milk contains only 2 percent almonds. On the plus side, almond milk is low in calories and saturated fat, says McDaniel, although flavored versions can have added sugar that can up the calorie count.
Shake nondairy milk before drinking.
One thing all nondairy milks have in common: very little natural calcium. Meaning they need to be fortified with added calcium, which can settle to the bottom unless you shake it up. If you're not doing that before drinking, you may not be getting a full dose of nutrients. So heed the advice on the container and give that milk a shake.
Check nondairy milk labels for added sweeteners and thickeners.
To enhance the flavor and consistency of nondairy milks, they're often beefed up with thickeners, stabilizers, gums and sweeteners. Carrageenan, a seaweed-derived additive used to keep beverages from separating, has been controversial for its possible link to digestive problems and inflammation, and some plant milk producers have stopped using it. Check the label if you're concerned.
Grass-fed milk? Organic milk? I'm udderly confused.
It's more expensive, but you might want to consider the nutritional benefits of organic or grass-fed milk. Studies have found that cows grazed on grass rather than fed processed grain produce milk with higher levels of two types of essential fatty acids helpful in reducing heart disease risk — omega-3 and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). A recent Harvard study found that people with a higher concentration of CLA in their blood had a 36 percent lower risk of heart attack. A 2016 international study found that organic milk, required to be from cows allowed to graze on grass, had 50 percent more omega-3. Milk that is labeled organic also must come from cows that have not been treated with bovine growth hormone to increase milk production or given antibiotics.
What about whole versus 2 percent versus skim milk?
All cow's milk is naturally rich in protein, calcium and amino acids, important for building muscles and bones. But skim milk contains barely any dairy fat, and recent studies suggest that, in moderation, fat can be our friend. The fat in whole or reduced-fat milk can help the body better absorb oil-soluble vitamins, and some recent studies show it may protect against diabetes and help with weight loss. Dairy fat keeps you feeling fuller longer, McDaniel says. So what does she recommend? "It depends on the individual. If someone can afford the extra calories from whole milk and has an overall diet low in saturated fat, moderate servings of whole milk can be a food that fits."
Soy milk is dairy milk's closest cousin.
"Soy milk is the only plant-based milk that contains complete protein and has the most protein of all the plant-based milks," says McDaniel. It's also the only nondairy milk that contains as much potassium (important for blood pressure regulation) as regular milk. There have been some worries about soy's estrogen-like effects in the body, but the American Cancer Society says soy supplements are more worrisome than soy milk. "Moderate consumption of soy foods appears safe for both breast cancer survivors and the general population, ," the association says. On the other hand, a whopping 94 percent of U.S. soybeans are genetically modified; you may have to study labels if you want non-GMO and organic (pesticide-free) brands of soy milk.
Coconut milk: big on fat and flavor, not protein.
Coconut milk — we're talking the refrigerated containers in the dairy case, not the cans in the international aisle — is made from grated coconut meat diluted to a thin, drinkable consistency with lots of water. The canned variety, by comparison, is extremely thick and used mainly for cooking. Unlike other plant milks, coconut milk contains saturated fat, about the same amount as whole milk. It also has very little protein and, unless it's been fortified, no calcium. The big thing it has going for it, other than being lactose free and vegan, is its flavor, which is mildly sweet and creamy, making it a favorite over cereal and in coffee.