Photo: Zachary Zavislak/Trunk Archive
Milk does a body good—or does it? From soy to almond to regular old cow’s milk, we decode what you’re putting in your coffee.
By Megan Cahn
Drinking milk is a part of our culture, whether on its own or in all the other dairy products we consume, from cheese to yogurt to ice cream. But lately, traditional cow’s milk has come under fire because of the hormones and antibiotics given to the livestock that produce it, the negative environmental impact of dairy farms where it’s made, and the high fat content within it. (Plus, so many people are just naturally lactose intolerant.) Luckily, there are many milk alternatives out there. Almond milk is having a major moment, while formerly popular soy milk is on the way out. And as for the other options? We spoke with three nutritionists to get the lowdown on 10 different kinds of milk.
This creamy nut milk has ousted soy from the hippest coffee shops across the country, but is it worth the hype? For those who are lactose intolerant or vegan, almond milk contains many of the same nutrients as cow’s milk, but with fewer calories. “Almond milk provides a hefty dose of vitamins, including vitamin E and biotin,” says Carly de Castro, co-founder of Pressed Juicery and author of Juice: Recipes for Juicing, Cleansing, & Living Well. “This makes it especially beneficial for cardiovascular health, blood sugar balance, and getting supple and moist skin. Plus, it’s low in calories and can easily be blended into a latte or green smoothie.”
Still, you should always look for unsweetened or unflavored almond milks, and check the label, as many processed versions contain added sugar or salt. Nutritionist Arielle Haspel also warns that almond milk can contain carrageenan. “This is a substance that doesn’t have too much research on it yet,” she explains. “But it is thought to degrade in the gastrointestinal tract and in the liver and turn into a ‘carcinogen,’ resulting in a serious inflammatory agent that may cause intestinal abnormalities and possibly cancer.”
Soy milk has a lower sugar content than regular milk and is less expensive than other milk alternatives. It also contains phytoestrogen, which can accelerate calcium absorption. But it is often highly processed and contains many additives, so it’s no longer recommended by many nutritionists. They think soy is toxic to the body unless it’s fermented, like in miso soup, salad dressings, tempeh (a fermented soy and grain product), and tamari (a wheat-free soy sauce), explains Haspel. Unfermented forms of soy are known to cause an imbalance of sex hormones, inhibit protein absorption, and deplete the thyroid of iodine, one of the most important minerals needed for growth and metabolism. “I heard that drinking two glasses of soy milk daily for one month is enough to alter a woman’s menstrual cycle,” Haspel told us.
Whole milk is high in potassium and contains a balanced distribution of fats, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, and minerals, but it contains the enzyme lactase, which is difficult for many people to digest, explains nutritionist Keri Glassman. Also, because it is pasteurized, the good bacteria is often killed, so drinking it can decrease the immune system’s ability to fight pathogens. Dairy products can also contribute significant amounts of cholesterol and fat to a person’s diet. “Diets high in fat and saturated fat can increase the risk of several chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease,” says Haspel. “Also, breast feeding mothers may tend to have colicky babies if they consume cow’s milk, as the cow’s antibodies can pass through the mother’s bloodstream into her breast milk and to the baby.”
Bad news for those thinking they were taking the healthy route by drinking fat free milk. Dairy intrinsically has fat, so the more fat that is stripped and skimmed, the more processed the product is. Because it’s skimmed of fat, very often sugar, artificial flavors, and chemical additives are added to compensate and make it taste better. So many products made with skim milk, like fat-free yogurts, cottage cheese, puddings, and ice cream have more sugar and carbohydrate content than the one percent, two percent, and full-fat options. “Most people tend to eat more of the fat-free option and end up hungrier faster because it doesn’t fill them up or satiate their taste buds,” says Haspel.
Drinking skim milk can also lead to nutritional deficiencies, explains Glassman, because the body needs adequate levels of fat to absorb certain vitamins, including A, D, E and K. If there are inadequate levels of fat in your diet, your body may need to take vitamin D from reserves stored in your bone.
“Organic milk is one of the best options if you’re drinking cow’s dairy, because it is free of hormones, pesticides, and antibiotics,” says de Castro. Organic milk also has higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids than conventional milk, which helps to lower inflammation while improving cognition and cardiovascular health.
So while it’s more expensive than regular milk, organic milk is definitely worth the splurge. If not organic, Haspel explains that dairy cows are often given synthetic hormones to increase milk production that you will end up taking into your body. In addition, many cows need to be treated with antibiotics because they’re producing more milk than they naturally are able to, so they end up attracting infections. Traces of these antibiotics and hormones have been found in samples of milk and other non-organic dairy products.
Raw milk has not been pasteurized or homogenized and contains living bacteria, enzymes, and many enzyme-based, pathogen-killing systems. It’s known to significantly boost immunity, especially in children who get sick frequently. It also may help with asthma and improve digestive function and ability, explains Haspel.
Even though it’s cows milk, raw milk typically doesn’t cause the same symptoms in those who are lactose intolerant as other cow’s milks. But because it’s not pasteurized, there is a risk of taking in bacteria and is not recommended for pregnant or nursing women. “Make sure you know and trust the origin of your raw milk,” advises Haspel. “It should come from pasture-raised, grass-fed cows, and the farm should test the microbial count of the milk to ensure there’s no bad bacteria.”
Coconut milk is made with the meat of the coconut, which is one of the richest sources of beneficial fats. It contains medium-chain fatty acids, which support thyroid function and therefore boost your metabolism. This can help with weight loss, despite its higher caloric content, says de Castro. It is also rich in vitamins, iron, and fiber, and contains lauric and caprylic acid, which are both antibacterial and antiviral.
Coconut milk is derived from a grain, so it’s not good for those sensitive to gluten or on the Paleo diet. Canned varieties are too thick to use as a replacement for milk, but they can be used as an egg or cream substitute. Still, the canned variety has a very distinct coconut flavor that may overpower the other ingredients in a recipe.
n the bohemian pockets of cities like Los Angeles and Boulder, goat milk is becoming a regular café option. It has more calcium than cow’s milk, which helps build strong bones and teeth, as well as more magnesium, which boosts immunity. It is also known to cause less allergic-like symptoms, so for those who are lactose intolerant, it’s a good option. Some people, though, are averse to its grassy taste, and it has more calories, fat, and saturated fat than cow’s milk. It is also lacking B vitamins and selenium.
This nutty and easily-digested milk alternative often gets a bad rap because it is made with the seeds that marijuana is grown from. Thus it can only be sourced in places where the hemp seed is legal, like Canada, explains Haspel, even though it has none of the compounds or effects of THC. And hemp milk is a good option for vegans, those who are lactose intolerant, or have nut allergies, as it’s a great source of protein, containing the 10 essential amino acids, along with healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids. “It is also a rich source of vitamin A, folic acid, and zinc, which are all needed for healthy development, skin turnover, and immunity,” says de Castro. It does, however, expire very quickly.
“Rice is believed to be one of the most hypoallergenic foods, making rice milk perfect for those susceptible to food allergies,” says de Castro. It is a bit thin and watery and has a very neutral flavor, so it often tastes best in blended drinks and baked goods rather than on its own. Also, most rice milks are derived from white rice, not brown rice, so they are more processed. And while rice milk does contain less fat than regular milk varieties, it has a significant amount of carbohydrates, and is relatively lacking in vitamins and minerals.
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