With all the different types of milk available today, it can take twice as long to make your choice as you walk down the dairy aisle.1
In recent years, more and more people have started making the shift to different varieties of milk for health or ethical reasons. There is increased consciousness about where food comes from and how sustainably or responsibly it’s produced and transported. Also, many people are finding dairy to be incompatible with their diets due to certain health conditions or lifestyle factors.2
Luckily, the rise of plant-based milks has provided people with many different options. But if you’re exploring alternative kinds of milk for the first time, it can get a little overwhelming. Here’s a simple guide to dairy milk and milk alternatives, along with a nutritional profile, to help make your dairy decision-making a little easier.
Different Types Of Milk, Explained
While there are various kinds, each type of milk still offers essential nutritional content. Some contain more calcium, while others boast being a complete source of protein. At the end of the day, it’s about choosing the milk that suits your dietary needs and lifestyle the most.
Cow’s Milk Or Dairy Milk
Dairy farmers derive fresh milk from cows. When sold and consumed completely unprocessed directly from the source, this is called raw milk. As the demand for milk grew, advancements in dairy farming allowed producers to perfect ways of processing and pasteurizing milk. This helped create all the common sub-varieties on the shelves today.
- Whole Milk: Contains 3.25% milkfat. Each 8-ounce glass is at 150 calories, with 8 grams of fat. This is considered the creamiest and richest of all milk.
- 2% Milk: As the name suggests, this type of milk offers reduced 2% milkfat. Because of the reduced fat content, each glass only contains 5 grams of fat, but it still has all the essential nutrients provided by whole milk.
- Low-Fat Milk and Fat-Free Milk: Often also marketed as skim milk, this has reduced fat and calorie content (often around 2.5 grams of fat and 100 calories per glass), but it also offers the same nutritional content (including calcium and protein).
- Lactose-Free Milk: Lactose is the natural sugar occurring in cow’s milk. It’s often pinpointed as the trigger for dairy intolerances. This type of milk breaks down or removes the lactose present while retaining the same nutrients.3,4
Speaking of lactose, it bears mentioning that dairy milk has also been known to have the highest sugar content compared to all other milk types. In fact, a glass of sweetened or flavored milk can already exceed your daily recommended sugar intake. A typical glass of regular, 2%, and even skim milk can pack as much as 12 grams of sugar.5
Sugar is also not the only added ingredient in many kinds or brands of cow’s milk. There is much debate surrounding additives, chemicals, or hormones added to milk due to the conventional dairy farming process taking transport, shelf life, or even nutrient fortification into consideration — something the more health-conscious are often concerned about.
Non-Dairy Milk Or Plant-Based Milk Alternatives
Typically, non-dairy milk alternatives are a healthier and more sustainable option. Aside from a novel taste and texture that may suit morning coffee or gourmet recipes better, plant milk also offers a viable alternative to those who might be sensitive to traditional milk products.6
Generally, most plant-based milks are lower in calories compared to whole milk. Some also contain more calcium, while others are lower in protein. Most are also lower in sugar, or unsweetened altogether.7
Read on for more information on the more popular types of non-dairy milks.
An early forerunner in the lactose-free, plant-based milk category, soy milk is produced by grinding or blending soy beans soaked in water. It is a popular source of protein and calcium. Research shows it contains one of the highest concentrations of essential vitamins and minerals, making it a nutritious non-dairy milk alternative.8
Almond milk is produced by grinding toasted or roasted almonds in water, resulting in a rich, creamy, and nutty milk. Despite its naturally sweet flavor, almond milk is low in sugar (and can also be bought unsweetened). It has a good concentration of healthy fats, potassium, calcium, and even vitamin E and fiber.9
Oats and water are blended together, and excess liquid is strained out, to make oat milk. It has a similar nutritional profile (and therefore offers many of the same potential health benefits) to oatmeal. It’s high in beta-glucan fiber, B vitamins, and minerals, like iron, magnesium, and calcium. While generally accepted as healthy, one thing to look out for when purchasing and consuming oat milk is its calorie content. Flavored or fortified oat milks may have just as many calories as regular milk, along with added sugar. Make sure to choose one labeled ‘unsweetened.’10
Grated coconut flesh is soaked in hot water, effectively separating the thicker cream. The leftover soaked coconut is strained or squeezed through a cheesecloth to produce the thinner, but still creamy, coconut milk. Similar to its plant-based counterparts, coconut milk contains many of the same vitamins, minerals, and fiber that make it good for consumption.11
Making Your Own Dairy Decisions
There’s a wide world of newer nut milks and plant-based alternatives to widen both your dietary and culinary repertoire. Mixing oat or almond milk into your coffee or smoothie might offer a richer flavor. And coconut milk may lend a deeper flavor to recipes, particularly when experimenting with Asian cuisine.
There’s even rice milk, cashew milk, and hemp milk to try — you might be surprised how much easier it becomes to round out your diet with essential nutrients with the addition of these healthy milk alternatives.
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