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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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