A stroll down the milk aisle of your grocery store might have you doing double takes. Soy Milk, rice Milk, coconut milk, almond milk, low-fat, unsweetened, fortified . . . the list goes on! There are a plethora of different types of milk, each with distinct advantages. Dairy milk is one of the most popular forms of milk, and has many popular derivative products such as bovine colostrum and whey protein powder. The other various types of milk products offer very sought-after alternatives for those avoiding animal products, or just avoiding dairy in particular.
Your classic refrigerator staple, we have all heard that milk “does a body good.” Rich in calcium and Vitamin D, dairy milk helps build up bone mass and prevent bone loss through the entirety of your lifetime. 1 cup of whole milk also provides 8 grams of protein, as well as heaping portions of Vitamin B-6 and potassium – potassium is vital to fluid balance in the body and supports healthy muscle and heart function.
In addition to being a good source of calcium and Vitamin D, milk is also one of the drinks that lower blood pressure. In combination with the recommended servings of fruits, vegetables, and reduced sodium that a DASH diet[1. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/news/press-releases/2001/nhlbi-study-finds-dash-diet-and-reduced-sodium-lowers-blood-pressure-for-all] calls for, 3 servings of low-fat dairy food (like low-fat milk) have proven to help lower blood pressure in patients with hypertension.
What’s the difference between whole, 2%, low-fat and skim milks? Whole milk contains 3% fat content, while reduced fat milk (2%), lowfat milk (1%, and skim milk (0%) have gone through additional processing to remove extra fat that naturally comes with the cream from the cow. Whole milk is higher in calorie count, saturated fats, and cholesterol, but some studies[2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22810464] have shown it’s not all bad for you and moderate consumption of those fats might actually help lower the risk for obesity. On the other hand, lower fat milks contain higher percentages of some those helpful vitamins and nutrients like potassium.
Coconut milk has seen its heyday in the past five to ten years as it’s come to popularity as a lactose-free alternative to regular dairy milk. When the flesh of a coconut is grated and soaked in hot water, cream rises to the top and is skimmed off; the remaining liquid is extracted and processed into fresh, canned and bottled coconut milk that is sold in stores.
While much fattier than its dairy counterpart, coconut milk carries decent nutritional weight as well. The medium-chained saturated fatty acids in coconut milk convert in the body into antiviral and antibacterial fighting machines, and are more readily used for energy by the liver – making them less likely to be stored as fat. Coconut milk is also believed to help aid in digestion and nourish healthy gut flora; one study [3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18521965] even showed coconut milk to help in the reduction of ulcers in rats by 56%.
Moderate consumption of coconut milk is still recommended because of its high rate of saturated fats, and it is good to remember that added sugars in flavored and sweetened coconut milk can negate the health benefits you might otherwise receive from the plain, natural version.
One of the earliest substitutes for dairy milk, soy milk has made the rounds in the U.S. in the past several decades. The big note on soy milk is that 90% of soy produced in the world today is genetically modified and contains phytoestrogens, chemical compounds that mimic the activity of the hormone estrogen[4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1480510/] in the body, not necessarily to your benefit. You can find organic and non-GMO soy products in some grocery stores which is the best route for consumption.
Soy milk is made by soaking dried soy beans and emulsifying them into a liquid. With 8 grams of complete protein per cup of soy milk (it contains all the amino acids), around 130 calories and appreciable values of magnesium, Vitamin B-6 and calcium, soy milk might be a healthy addition to a balanced diet. Like coconut milk, added sugars and sweeteners of flavored soy milk can reduce the positive health benefits it has to offer.
Concerns about deforestation to support the soy industry are balanced with known ecological benefits of soy helping offset some of the carbon footprint made to produce dairy milk by farming cows. It is important to note that interestingly, the greatest percentage of soy in the world is actually produced to serve as animal feed.
The latest in lactose-free and soy-free milk alternatives is milky libations made from nuts, like almonds. Plant-based almond milk is a product of essentially blending almonds with water and straining them. While almond milk does offer some of the same health benefits as its mother nut, the almond, they pale in comparison to actually eating a handful of almonds. One 8 oz. glass of almond milk will contain about 1 gram of protein, 1 gram of fiber, and only 1.5 grams of monosaturated (heart-healthy) fats.
It is a low-calorie beverage and can easily be found in unsweetened versions without added sugar, but a quick check of the ingredients and you’ll often find almond beverages to be mostly water with agents added for thickening and fortified with calcium and vitamins A and D. One a good note, one 2011 study [5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22043817] demonstrated a 30% suppression rate in the growth of prostate cancer cells when almond milk was consumed.
Whether you’re lactose-intolerant, vegan, or simply interested in your own dairy intake, knowing the health benefits and nutritional yields of the hottest new milk-substitutes is important for maintaining a balanced diet. Additional commercial milk-like beverages have come out of grains like rice and hemp in recent years as well – who knows what’s next! We live in an amazing age of easy access to these types of foods, and taking full advantage of their availability can really help benefit your overall health and nutritional balance.