With so many choices, how do you know which milk is best to buy? This guide will help you cut through the confusion.
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Whole milk, reduced-fat milk, low-fat milk or nonfat milk?
Consider whole milk a once-in-a-while treat. Nutrition experts recommend drinking low-fat (1%) milk or nonfat milk to limit intake of the saturated fats that boost risk of heart disease. And don’t be fooled: reduced-fat (2%) milk is not a low-fat food. One cup has 5 grams fat, 3 of them the saturated kind.
Organic or not?
People associate organic milk with superior nutrition, better treatment of animals and a healthier planet. But there’s no evidence that organic milk is more nutritious. Preliminary research has suggested that grass-fed cows produce more vitamin E and heart-healthy omega-3 fats, but organic standards don't require cows be solely grass-fed.
rBST-free or not?
The claim “rBST-free” indicates milk produced without using the artificial growth hormone recombinant bovine somatotropin, or rBST. Giving this hormone to a cow boosts its milk production by about five quarts per day. Note: All organic milks are rBST-free, but not all rBST-free milks are organic (i.e., farmers may use pesticides, fertilizers, etc.).
This type of milk is basically regular cow’s milk minus lactose, the natural sugar in milk. It provides all the same healthful nutrients (e.g., protein and calcium), just not the sugar that stokes digestive problems for up to 50 million Americans.
Raw vs. pasteurized?
During pasteurization, milk is heated to high temperatures then rapidly cooled to kill harmful bacteria, including salmonella, E.coli 0157:H7 and listeria. While raw-milk enthusiasts claim heating milk destroys its natural enzymes and beneficial bacteria, studies show that the nutritional differences between pasteurized and raw milk are slight.
Don't like milk?
Don’t have a cow: milk can come from many sources. Though you may drink these plant-based milks in place of what Elsie produces, “Technically, these drinks aren’t really milk,” says Catherine W. Donnelly, Ph.D., of the University of Vermont. Regardless, here’s a milk/“milk” comparison* per cup.
80-150 calories (nonfat to whole), 0.5-8 g fat, 0-5 g saturated fat, 8-9 g protein, 12-13 g carbohydrate, 0 g fiber, 30% DV calcium, 25% DV vitamin D. Nutrition notes: One cup provides a third of the recommended daily dose for calcium and 16% of the daily value for protein. It’s a good source of vitamin D and phosphorus, which build strong bones, as well as the B vitamin riboflavin.
90-150 calories (nonfat to whole), 2.5-8 g fat, 1.5-5 g saturated fat, 7-8 g protein, 9-12 g carbohydrates, 0 g fiber, 30% DV calcium, up to 30% DV vitamin D. Nutrition notes: Goat’s milk contains lactose. Many suggest that people who are allergic to cow’s milk can tolerate goat’s milk, but immunologists often advise those allergic to cow’s milk to avoid goat’s milk too.
60-130 calories, 2-6 g fat, 0-0.5 g saturated fat, 4-12 g protein, 5-15 g carbohdyrates, 0-4 g fiber, 4-30% DV calcium, up to 30% DV vitamin D. Nutrition notes: Studies link soy’s protein and phytoestrogens with a reduced risk of cancer and heart disease. Choose a soymilk fortified with calcium and vitamin D—and shake before you pour, as added nutrients can settle to the bottom of the carton.
110-120 calories, 2.5 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 1 g protein, 20-24 g carbohydrate, 0 g fiber, 2-25% DV calcium, up to 25% DV vitamin D. Nutrition notes: Rice milk is lower in protein and higher in carbohydrates than cow’s milk and soymilk. It’s also a poor natural source of calcium so choose one that’s fortified with the mineral.
60-80 calories, 2.5-4.5 g fat, 0-0.5 g saturated fat, 2-9 g protein, 5-11 g carbohydrate, 0-4 g fiber, 20-30% DV calcium, up to 25% DV vitamin D. Nutrition notes: Almond milk is naturally high in calcium. Buy one that’s fortified with vitamin D, too, for a nutrition profile similar to cow’s milk.
110-130 calories, 3-7 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 4-5 g protein, 6-20 g carbohydrates, 1 g fiber, 2-46% DV calcium. Nutrition notes: Hemp milk supplies high-quality protein (i.e., a good mix of amino acids) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acid.
As surprising as it may seem, considering I'm a dietitian and nutrition editor of EatingWell Magazine, my preferred variety of milk is the chocolate kind, especially after a workout. It delivers the mix of protein and carbohydrate our bodies need to recover energy supplies after an intense workout.
But at the grocery store, my choices don't just stop at plain versus chocolate milk. There's also fat content to consider and milk labeled organic, RBST-free and lactose-free. And beyond the grocery store, there's the raw milk versus pasteurized milk debate. With so many choices, how do you know which one you should buy? This guide will help you cut through the confusion.
Check out the slideshow above to learn what milk you should buy.