Guide to the Benefits and Nutrition of Different Types of Milk
Kids can grow up so fast. And while there’s certainly debate over whether that’s fast enough, one thing is for certain: at some point children are weaned off of breast milk or formula.
Breast milk or formula is often the first type of milk we are introduced to. Breast milk supplies infants with antibodies and can reduce the risk of many diseases. It also contains many bioactive molecules that protect against infection and inflammation. Breast milk also contributes to immune maturation, organ development, and healthy microbial colonization. However, at some point, we’ll transition to a different diet and source of milk. This is often cow’s milk but could be another type.
Sometimes it seems like there are as many types of milk as there are letters in the alphabet. Here are a few:
- Animal milk (cow’s milk, goat’s milk)
- Coconut milk
- Flax milk
- Hemp milk
- Soy Milk
- Nut milk (almond, cashew)
- Oat milk
- Pea milk
- Rice milk
- Soy Milk
A lot, right? So which do you go with? Don’t worry; we’ll go over the qualities, pros, cons, and things to look out for with the main varieties.
Things to Look Out For
First things first, we need to inform you what to look out for when it comes to milk.
Most of the milk people buy is heavily processed. Processed milk can contain many additives, thickeners, and preservatives, which may actually cause some underlying health issues. This doesn’t only pertain to cow’s milk.
For instance, many milk companies advertise that their nondairy milk contains more calcium than cow’s milk. What many people don’t know is that it's not the same calcium. Calcium carbonate, a chemical compound, is usually what’s used. And one study found that it doesn’t have as good of an effect on bone health as dairy.
According to the Industrial Minerals Association North America, calcium carbonate is commonly found in chalk, limestone, marble, and shells. It is mainly used in blackboard chalk, paper, plastics, paints, coating, and health and food products, as well as in the construction industry.
Calcium carbonate can cause upset stomach, vomiting, constipation, loss of appetite, and other issues. So watch out for it, and avoid it if possible.
Many of the kinds of milk we’ll cover can be made easily at home. You can ensure this milk only contains the ingredients you put in it.
Cow’s milk can contain many essential nutrients like calcium, fat, protein, phosphorus, vitamin A, hormone D, riboflavin, vitamin B-12, potassium, zinc, choline, magnesium, and selenium. Calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, hormone D, and protein are important for bone health. A lot of these nutrients are needed for proper growth and health, but synthetic and isolated forms can have many adverse effects on health.
Too much of certain nutrients can be harmful and cause health problems. For instance, too much calcium can induce constipation, kidney stones, or kidney failure. Overconsumption of nutrients is rare but possible, especially if an individual is taking supplements in addition to eating a nutrient-rich diet. Not that any fan of Balance of Nature would be taking vitamin supplements!
The kind of cow’s milk people usually buy in stores can be heavily processed and contains additives. Be wary of words like “fortified” and “enriched.”
And, while many believe cow’s milk is good for bones, opinions certainly vary. Dr. Michael Greger, founder of NutritionFacts.org, explains that the galactose in commercial milk may be the reason milk consumption is associated with a high risk of hip fractures as well as cancer and premature death.
While greater milk consumption during childhood contributes to peak bone mass, Harvard researchers found that milk consumption in adolescence did not lower risk of hip fracture as expected. Hip fracture rates are actually highest in populations with the greatest milk intake. Bone mineral density does increase with extra calcium, but that’s lost within a few years even if one continues to consume it.
Swedish researchers dove in further, finding that some people can’t detoxify the galactose in milk, which can cause bone loss. They theorized that even if you can detoxify galactose, it might not be good for the bones if consumed every day. In animals, galactose even causes premature aging, oxidative stress, inflammation, brain degeneration, and more. After observing a hundred-thousand people for twenty years, the researchers found that women who drank more cow’s milk had higher rates of death, heart disease, and cancer for each glass of milk.
The nutritional content of milk can vary depending on its source too.
According to Jillian Kubala, MS, RD, grass-fed cows contain more conjugated linoleic acid, omegas-3 fatty acids, and antioxidants that reduce inflammation and oxidative stress than milk that comes from other (non grass-fed) cows.
Whole cow’s milk that is raw and unprocessed is actually the best type of cow’s milk for your health.
Organic Pastures says their raw milk naturally contains raw protein, healthy fats, calcium, vitamin A, iron, cholesterol, and sugars. Raw milk also contains magnesium, zinc, thiamine, and omega-3s. Again, the nutritional content of raw milk varies depending on factors like its fat content and the diet and treatment of the cow it came from. And, even without the added hormone D, raw cow’s milk still benefits bones due to its combination of nutrients. Get it naturally rather than from additives
Raw cow’s milk might also help you maintain a healthy weight. In one study, greater consumption of high-fat dairy products in women was associated with less weight gain. The conjugated linoleic acid contained in raw milk could be a contributing factor.
According to the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, conjugated linoleic acid seems to favorably modify body composition and cardiometabolic risk factors by reducing body fat levels, benefiting the glycemic profile and more.
There is also evidence that raw milk drinkers had lower rates of certain infections and lower risk of developing asthma and allergies. Sources are competing on the validity of these claims, however.
Raw milk does contain greater amounts of bacteria such as Campylobacter, Salmonella, Escherichia coli (E.coli), Cryptosporidium, Yersinia enterocolitica, and Listeria monocytogenes. Refrigeration can help reduce microbial activity. Children and those with weak immune systems may be particularly vulnerable to these.
There are also some other concerns with dairy milk. Medical News Today says dairy is high in saturated fats, which could increase cholesterol levels and risk of heart disease and stroke if too much is consumed.
It was once even thought that milk was linked to cancer, diabetes, ear infections, allergies, colic, and iron deficiency anemia, among other conditions. Many of these have since been disproven or shown to have no clear link. For example, a few studies have not found a distinct correlation between sugars in milk and ovarian cancer. And, if there is any risk of type 1 diabetes, it is the consumption of unmodified cow’s milk in infancy by particularly susceptible people that could be of concern. Dr. Greger explains that this may be because dairy milk is now produced using genetically engineered farm animals and other dairy production practices that the public is generally unaware of. Commercial milk from pregnant cows also increases exposure to estrogen.
For instance, Dr. Greger shares that modern genetically improved dairy cows, such as the Holstein, lactate through the entire pregnancy, increasing the amount of estrogens and progesterone (hormones) in commercial cow’s milk. One study showed that average levels of female sex steroids in children shot up after drinking just two cups of milk, tripling or even quadrupling their baseline hormone levels!
Estrogens play a role in the development of endometrial cancer, and such milk is a source of steroid hormones and growth factors that might affect this. Harvard researchers found that there was higher risk of endometrial cancer in postmenopausal women who consumed more dairy.
In addition, many people suffer from lactose intolerance. This is where the body cannot break down the sugar, or lactose, in milk because it lacks the enzyme lactase. About 65 percent of the population have a reduced ability to digest lactose. Decreased lactase activity occurs in most people during middle childhood and beyond. Consuming lactose when you’re intolerant can cause digestive problems like bloating, flatulence, and diarrhea.
The Food Intolerance Network suggests that humans developed the ability to digest lactose in adulthood around seven-thousand years ago because they had lower vitamin D levels. Vitamin D absorbs calcium, but lactose can do so as well, if needed. Lactose intolerance is most prevalent in upper North America, South America, Africa, and East Asia.
Milk allergy also exists, which is different from intolerance. This is where your body reacts to the proteins rather than the sugars in milk. As with any allergy, someone with an allergy to cow’s milk can experience symptoms like wheezing, asthma, diarrhea, vomiting, and other gastrointestinal distress.
What you may not know is that a lot of people’s resistance to cow’s milk could actually be due to the effects of commercial milk’s processing and additives. Raw milk contains the lactase-producing bacteria Lactobacillus, which is destroyed during pasteurization. This should, theoretically, improve lactose digestion in raw milk drinkers. Raw, unprocessed cow’s milk might not cause discomfort, whereas the milk available in our grocery stores would.
Cow’s milk isn’t vegan-friendly either, since it is an animal product. Fortunately, if you can’t drink cow’s milk or prefer not to, there are other alternatives to enjoy.
“Ahoy!” No, not ahoy—soy. Soy milk is the only alternative that comes close to cow’s milk in nutritional content. The Dietary Guidelines include soy as part of dairy food, unlike other milks, because its nutritional content is similar to that of dairy milk. Commercial soy milk may contain preservatives, artificial synthetics, and other chemical additives, so make your own!
One study looks at how soy milk intake might reduce prostate cancer incidence. It was found that frequent consumption of soy milk reduced the risk of prostate cancer by 70 percent. This is because soy products contain isoflavones, which may reduce the risk of cancer.
Soy milk could also help prevent bone loss. According to the European Journal of Nutrition, soy protein and its isoflavones have “bone sparing effects.” Researchers concluded that daily intake of two glasses of soy milk containing 76 mg of isoflavones prevent lumbar spine bone loss in postmenopausal women.
Furthermore, soy milk can lower blood pressure in people with mild to moderate essential hypertension. One study showed that after three months of soy milk consumption, systolic blood pressure not only decreased but decreased more than in those who drank cow’s milk. The decrease in blood pressure was correlated with the increase in genistein levels, an isoflavonoid.
Soy also does not contain those natural hormones from cows. Not to mention, the carbon footprint of soy milk is way smaller than that of cow’s milk. Soy milk also contains the same essential amino acids as cow’s milk, just in a smaller amount. Soy milk has twice the amount of folate as animal milk and contains fiber because it’s a plant food.
Some people are allergic to soy though, which prevents soy milk from being an option. The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology provides that soy allergy affects 0.4 percent of children, but says they could outgrow that allergy.
Common allergic reactions to soy include:
- Tingling in mouth
- Swelling of lips, face, tongue, throat, etc.
- Runny nose
- Abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting
- Skin redness
Usually, someone is allergic to soy when his or her immune system marks certain soy proteins as harmful. Antibodies are created and trigger an immune response whenever soy is identified, releasing histamines and other chemicals into the body. You can have an increased risk of being allergic to soy if you have a family history of it, are young in age, and are allergic to other foods.
Overall, soy milk is a great alternative to cow’s milk. It tastes great and is cheap to make. You can make your own at home easily with the help of a Soyabella. All you need to make it is water, soy beans, a blender, and some kind of strainer or bag. You can also add other ingredients, like vanilla extract. Homemade soy milk is best. The soy milk available in stores is often made using soy protein isolate powder rather than ground whole soybeans.
Almond milk is another alternative to cow’s milk—and is one of the most popular plant milks. Almond milk can be made with almonds and water or almond butter and water.
Almond milk contains many beneficial nutrients. Commercial almond milks usually have added harmful synthetic or isolated vitamins, minerals, or protein and are sometimes high in sugar—so read the labels! (Unsweetened almond milk actually has considerably less sugar than cow’s milk.)
Carrageenan is another not-so-good thing that can be added to almond milk. Carrageenan is often used as a thickening agent in milks. Some believe it causes inflammation and digestive issues; it is even used in studies to induce inflammation in rats. Evidence is still considered lacking; however, it has been proven that carrageenan processed with acid (this may include stomach acid), called degraded carrageenan or poligeenan, is not safe to consume and may cause cancer.
While the Food and Drug Administration still approves the use of carrageenan as an ingredient, the National Organic Standards Board does not. So now, anything labeled “USDA organic,” does not contain it. Carrageenan can be in chocolate milk, almond milk, coconut milk, rice milk, soy milk, and more.
Another problem with commercial almond milk? Companies don’t often use whole almonds and most of it is water, thickeners, and added synthetics. Make it at home to enjoy milk without the carrageenan and other preservatives and additives!
One benefit of almond milk is that it is often lower in calories than cow’s milk. Atli Arnarson, PhD, a nutrition scientist/researcher, claims that a cup of enriched almond milk might contain 39.3 calories while low-fat cow’s milk could contain 102. Though remember, whole, raw milk is best. Nevertheless, if you want to up your intake of vitamin E, then almond milk might be the choice of beverage for you. One cup of almond milk could contain more than 100 percent of the recommended daily amount of vitamin E. Almonds are naturally high in vitamin E, but commercial almond milks usually have some extra added in (meaning a synthetic or isolated form). So, again, make your own!
Vitamin E has antioxidant properties; antioxidants can protect cells from free radical damage. Free radical damage can increase the risk of heart disease and cancer, so vitamin E might combat such risk. It could also be used to prevent or treat eye disorders like age-related macular degeneration and cataracts due to the role it plays in stopping oxidative stress from occurring.
Almonds are also rich in monounsaturated fats, fiber, biotin, magnesium, phosphorus, calcium, and phytonutrients. Harvard Health Publishing says almonds are believed to reduce heart disease risk and encourage a healthy gut due to their phytonutrients.
The best part? It’s dairy free! However, if you have a nut allergy, take caution.
Let’s get coconutty! Coconut milk is made from the pulp of mature coconuts. It is somewhat opaque and has, no surprise, a coconutty flavor. So, if you’re about all things tropical, this might be the milk for you. Not to mention, it’s pretty nutritious too.
Coconut milk is mostly water and fat but contains many beneficial nutrients. It is rich in manganese, phosphorus, iron, and magnesium. It probably lacks the most calcium out of the milks. It can be added, but we don’t recommend that.
There are different types of coconut milk based on fat content such as coconut cream (thick coconut milk), (thin) coconut milk, and coconut skim milk. Coconut milk also contains a little more than 2 grams of fiber, unlike many other milks.
Manganese plays a role in many bodily processes like:
- Amino acid, cholesterol, glucose, and carbohydrate metabolism
- Reactive oxygen species scavenging
- Bone formation
- Immune response
- Blood clotting
However, keep in mind that people usually only absorb between 1 and 5 percent of dietary manganese. And 100 grams of raw coconut milk contains 44 percent of manganese’s daily value.
Phosphorus is known for its role in the formation of bones and teeth, but it is also responsible for the following:
- Use of carbohydrates and fats
- Protein production to repair and maintain cells/tissues
- Adenosine triphosphate production (energy storage)
- Kidney function
- Muscle contractions
- Normal heartbeat
- Nerve signaling
Raw coconut milk contains 14 percent of the recommended daily amount of phosphorus.
Medical News Today claims coconut milk can stimulate weight loss and boost the immune system. Coconut milk has medium chain triglycerides that produce energy through thermogenesis (heat production).
In addition to weight loss, medium chain triglycerides also promote lipid catabolism, energy expenditure, and metabolic health. They can help manage metabolic diseases by modifying gut microbiota.
Coconut milk is high in saturated fats, and diets high in saturated fats have been linked to high cholesterol and heart disease. One study concluded that while coconut milk contains beneficial medium-chain triglycerides and significantly less fat than coconut oil, coconut constituents (other than coconut water) should not be used regularly in adults. This is because saturated fatty acids along with the absence of linolenic acid could have adverse effects.
On the other hand, one study found that coconut oil, which is even higher in fat than coconut milk, actually raised “good cholesterol” (HDL-C) levels without significantly increasing “bad cholesterol” (LDL-C). LDL-C can cause fatty buildups in the arteries, and HDL carries LDL away from the arteries. High levels of LDL-C raise the risk of heart disease, peripheral artery disease, and stroke. So consuming coconut milk might not be so harmful, after all.
According to KC Hayes, DVM, PhD, fat should be limited to anywhere between 30 and 40 percent of dietary calories. Going below that could cause the good type of cholesterol to fall—and going above that can raise total cholesterol and bad cholesterol. As mentioned, too much of anything can be bad, so use moderation.
Coconut milk has also been shown to act as an antioxidant. “Coconut milk is rich in antioxidants, which prevents free radical damage,” provides the Journal of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Research. “Free radicals are associated with the development of many diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease and age-related dementia.”
Antioxidants also help reverse damage and delay aging. According to the article, “a glass of coconut milk while taking other antioxidant-rich foods, such as pecans, raisins and cranberries, may boost the immunity while rebuilding the damaged cells in the body.”
Coconut milk is very versatile. It can be used in curries, desserts, sauces, soups, smoothies, and more! Try making it at home using shredded or flaked coconut, a blender, and a nut milk bag so you don’t have to worry about thickeners or additives like carrageenan. Even though coconuts are classified as drupes, coconut milk might also have the same effects as nut milks, so consider looking into other alternatives if you have nut allergies.
Cashew milk contains many vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats and can improve immunity and heart, eye, and skin health. Yet again, the milk’s nutritional content depends on if the cashew milk is homemade or store bought. For instance, homemade cashew milk probably has more calories, carbs, protein, fat, fiber, magnesium, iron, and potassium without the added synthetic nutrients that some enriched store-bought versions contain.
The cashew milk you buy is usually sweetened and 60 calories a cup with no saturated fat or cholesterol. Cashew milk is often characterized as creamier than other milks too. Its creamy taste and texture is really just an added plus to drinking nutritious cashew milk. It can be a good source of vitamin E, as well.
Cashew milk is rich in unsaturated fatty acids, which decreases heart disease. The potassium and magnesium it contains can also help improve heart health.
According to the American Heart Association, potassium can help control high blood pressure by reducing the effects of sodium and easing tension in blood vessel walls.
Magnesium functions in more than three-hundred enzyme systems. These systems may regulate biochemical reactions such as:
- Protein synthesis
- Muscle and nerve function
- Blood glucose control
- Blood pressure maintenance
- Energy production
- Oxidative phosphorylation
- Bone structure
- DNA, RNA, and glutathione synthesis
- Transport of calcium and potassium ions
The recommended intake of magnesium is 400-420 mg for men above age 18 and 310-360 mg for women. Over time, low intakes of magnesium can increase risk of illnesses like hypertension, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and migraine headaches.
Cashew milk isn’t a crazy, great source of magnesium like cow’s, coconut, hemp, or soy milk, but it does contain a good amount of it (the amount varies depending on the type and how it’s made).
Cashew milk can improve eye health because it contains lutein and zeaxanthin. Both prevent damage from free radicals. People with high levels of lutein and zeaxanthin were 40 percent less likely to develop advanced age-related macular degeneration. Try adding cashew milk to your diet if you want to increase your chances of good vision and eye health in old age.
Cashew milk contains vitamin K, essential for blood clotting. A vitamin K deficiency can allow for excessive bleeding. However, if your blood needs to be thinner, it may be best to steer clear of this milk.
Apparently, cashews are rich in copper too! Copper is necessary for protein production regulation, adequate growth, cardiovascular integrity, lung elasticity, neovascularization, neuroendocrine function, iron metabolism, and enzymes involved in aerobic metabolism, but copper can also be toxic. It is recommended that adults only consume between 1.5 and 3 mg of it per day. Copper also helps combat damage from free radicals. Although it is rare, low dietary copper intakes have been associated with mental retardation, anemia, hypothermia, neuropathy, and loss of skin or hair color.
Cashew milk also has anacardic acid in it. This may fight free radicals involved in the development of cancer. Researchers claim that it can act as a “therapeutic agent in the treatment of the most serious pathophysiological disorders like cancer, oxidative damage, inflammation and obesity.” In addition, anacardic acid has antioxidant and antibacterial properties. It can inhibit different prooxidant enzymes involved in producing reactive oxygen species (free radicals) and chelate metal ions (toxic). All this and more allows cashew milk to help boost immunity.
There are plenty of nut-free milks as well!
Oat milk can be made from oat groats, water, and possibly other grains. This type of milk is one of the safest options in terms of allergies. It is free of lactose, nuts, soy, and sometimes gluten (if made from gluten-free oats). This type of milk also benefits heart and bone health. It can be enriched as well, so it’s best made at home.
Unlike its counterparts, oat milk is very high in fiber. It does contain a lot more carbs and sugars compared to other milks, though.
Ryan Raman, MS, RD, says that unsweetened, fortified oat milk could be a good source of vitamin B12, riboflavin, calcium, phosphorus, the hormone vitamin D, and vitamin A. But again, we recommend making it at home as these are mostly likely added synthetic isolates.
Riboflavin aids in energy production, cellular function and development, maintenance of homocysteine levels (amino acid), and metabolism of fats and drugs. Riboflavin is yellow and can become inactivated by light; this is why milk isn’t stored in glass containers. The recommended intake varies based on age and gender; for adults it is anywhere between 1 mg and 1.6 mg depending on the individual.
Vitamin B12 is essential for blood cell formation, neurological function, DNA synthesis, and more. Deficiency of vitamin B12 can lead to megaloblastic anemia, neurological disorder, fatigue, weakness, constipation, loss of appetite, and weight loss. Neurological changes can include numbness or tingling in the hands and feet, balance issues, depression, confusion, dementia, poor memory, and sore mouth or tongue. The recommended dietary allowance (adequate intake) for this vitamin is 2.4 mg for those over age 14.
According to Raman, oats contain the fiber beta-glucans. Glucans play a role in different immune reactions as well as in treating cancer. Beta-glucan lowers cholesterol and has been linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. One study found that adding oat beta-glucan to the diet reduces LDL and total cholesterol without changing HDL cholesterol or triglycerides.
Rice milk isn’t the most nutritious option, but it is the safest in terms of allergies because it is dairy and nut free. It contains a lot of carbs and some sugars, calcium, iron, vitamin A, and more. Rice milk contains little protein but is low in fat. It is also usually fortified with various nutrients (meaning added synthetic ones).
More specifically, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides that one serving of unsweetened rice milk (8 oz.) contains about 22 g of carbohydrates, 2 g of fat, 13 g of sugar, 283 mg of calcium, 134 mg of phosphorus, 94 g of sodium, and 499 IU of vitamin A.
Rice milk is the lowest in fat and is cholesterol free, but it’s very starchy. It also doesn’t contain much protein. If you make rice milk with brown rice, it’s even better for you. Brown rice is high in B vitamins that support metabolism, circulation, and nerve function. If the milk is processed, some of these can be lost. Rice bran contains minerals and nutrients that can help lower blood cholesterol. However, this milk contains minimal amounts of calcium. You can make it at home just like the others.
The Last Sip
Drinking milk is one of the first things we do after coming into this world. Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on breast milk or formula forever to receive certain essential nutrients and health benefits. But remember, not all milks are the same. There are numerous types and variations, each having their own pros and cons. Some are better than others. The best kinds of milk you can consume are whole, raw, and homemade.
We covered the most popular kinds, but nothing’s stopping you if you want to keep looking for your milk soulmate. Maybe it’s handsome hemp milk or pretentious pea milk—you can do the research on those! You don’t have to stick to cow’s milk just to get its vitamins and other nutrients; nondairy milks could provide the same—if not more—nutritional benefits. No matter which type of milk you choose and no matter how old you are, you can still go on rocking that milk mustache.
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