Which type of milk is healthiest?


Remember when you wanted to add milk to your cereal and there was only one type available – cow's milk? Or you went to grab a coffee and you could only choose between cream and regular old milk? No question: Back then, consumer choices were so much simpler. Today, taking a stroll through your local supermarket dairy aisle is enough to make your head spin. Here's what you need to know about the health benefits and drawbacks of six "milk" options:

Cow's milk

Packed with nine essential nutrients – calcium, potassium, phosphorus, protein, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin B-12, riboflavin and niacin – milk is a nutrient powerhouse. All varieties have 8 grams of protein and 12 grams of sugar (which come from naturally-occurring lactose, not added sugar) and provide 30 percent of your daily calcium needs and 25 percent of your daily vitamin D needs per 8-ounce glass. The jury is still out on whether the 5 grams of saturated fat found in whole milk is beneficial, so opting for nonfat or 1-percent milk is still probably you're healthiest – and lowest-calorie – bet.

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Dairy farmers protesting low milk prices
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Dairy farmers protesting low milk prices

Milk producers spray powdered milk to protest against dairy market overcapacity outside a meeting of European Union agriculture ministers in Brussels, Belgium, January 23, 2017.

(REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)

A milk producer tries to extinguish a flare as farmers spray powdered milk to protest against dairy market overcapacity outside a meeting of European Union agriculture ministers in Brussels, Belgium, January 23, 2017.

(REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)

A man walks past the entrance to the European Union Council building after it was sprayed with powdered milk by farmers protesting against dairy market overcapacity in Brussels, Belgium January 23, 2017.

(REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)

Milk producers spray powdered milk to protest against dairy market overcapacity outside a meeting of European Union agriculture ministers in Brussels, Belgium, January 23, 2017.

(REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)

A woman walks past the entrance of the European Union Council building after it was sprayed with powdered milk by farmers protesting against dairy market overcapacity in Brussels, Belgium, January 23, 2017.

(REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)

A man walks his dog next to a model of a cow as milk producers protest against dairy market overcapacity outside the meeting venue of European Union agriculture ministers in Brussels, Belgium January 23, 2017.

(REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)

A sign against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) is pictured on a bench outside the European Council in Brussels, after farmers sprayed powdered milk to protest against dairy market overcapacity, Belgium January 23, 2017.

(REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)

A Belgian milk producer sprays powdered milk next to a model of a cow to protest against dairy market overcapacity outside a meeting of European Union agriculture ministers in Brussels, Belgium, January 23, 2017.

(REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)

Milk producers spray powdered milk to protest against dairy market overcapacity outside a meeting of European Union agriculture ministers in Brussels, Belgium, January 23, 2017.

(REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)

A man runs for cover as milk producers spray powdered milk to protest against dairy market overcapacity outside a meeting of European Union agriculture ministers in Brussels, Belgium, January 23, 2017.

(REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)

Belgian police officers watch as milk producers spray powdered milk to protest against dairy market overcapacity outside a meeting of European Union agriculture ministers in Brussels, Belgium, January 23, 2017.

(REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)

A model of a cow is pictured on a tractor after milk producers sprayed powdered milk to protest against dairy market overcapacity outside a meeting of European Union agriculture ministers in Brussels, Belgium, January 23, 2017.

(REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)

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Soy milk

Soy milk has always been a good alternative for people with a milk intolerance or allergy. Packed with heart-healthy soy, 7 to 8 grams of protein, almost no saturated fat and plenty of calcium and vitamin D, it can definitely be a smart choice for other folks, too. Just keep in mind that the sugar found in the sweetened and original varieties are added sugar (from cane sugar), so if you're watching your total sugar consumption, you might want to stick with the unsweetened kind. In other words, think tall soy latte – not venti.

Almond milk

Rich in calcium, low in calories and a good source of vitamins D, E and A, almond milk's benefits go beyond its sweet-nutty taste and silky texture. However, just like with soy milk, the original or sweetened varieties contain sugar from added cane sugar, so look for unsweetened and "light" varieties, which have 0 grams and 3 grams of sugar, respectively. Surprisingly, almond milk has minimal protein (just 1 gram per 8-ounce glass), so if you're hoping to use it as a protein source with your meal, add some protein in another form to your smoothie instead.

Rice milk

With 120 calories per 8-ounce glass, original rice milk has more calories than other milk alternatives (not including whole milk, which has 150 calories per serving). Even though the high-sugar amount – 10 grams per glass – is naturally occurring, rice milk provides less nutrition than other types of milk (only 1 gram of protein, for instance). If you have multiple food allergies, though, rice milk is a fine choice.

Coconut milk

This sweet "milk" isn't high in calories (only 45 per serving in unsweetened varieties and 70 in "original" types), but of the milk alternatives, it's the highest in saturated fats, packing 4 grams per glass. Still, if you love the taste of coconut, it's probably not harmful to include a little coconut milk in your diet – just keep in mind that, per serving, there is no protein and the drink provides only 10 percent of your daily calcium needs, making it a loser in that department compared to other "milk" options.

Cashew milk

While cashew milk is less pervasive on coffee shop counters and menus, its creamy taste makes it a perfect low-calorie swap in many recipes. Just like almond milk, it can be a good source of calcium for people who avoid milk products, but it's not a good source of protein. Bottom line? If you don't have any allergies, all "milk" options can be included in a healthy diet. Just keep an eye on protein, added sugar and saturated fat to wear that "milk" mustache with pride.

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Ways to get more milk into your diet
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Ways to get more milk into your diet

Make milkshakes and smoothies with just milk and frozen fruit rather than adding ice cream. 

(Photo via Shutterstock)

Thicken up your homemade soups by adding milk to the broth.

(Photo via Getty Images)

Try making new kinds of pudding -- especially rice pudding! -- with milk at home.

(Photo via Getty Images)

Cancel out an unhealthy snack by having milk with your cookies -- a perfect, classic pairing!

(Photo via Getty Images)

Add milk to your tea or coffee instead of cream or just having it black.

(Photo via Getty Images)

Have a mug of warm milk before bed to help you fall asleep.

(Photo via Getty Images)

Don't pour out your leftover cereal milk, drink it up!

(Photo via Getty Images)

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Copyright 2017 U.S. News & World Report

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