In honor of National Milk Day, let us not forget one of the biggest benefits of drinking milk – strong bones. The nutrients in milk are what make it such a significant factor in keeping our bones strong. It’s particularly important to keep this in mind as we age, when bone breakdown largely outweighs bone formation.
We are drinking far less cow’s milk these days than we used to, despite knowing that dairy is probably the best way to get all the calcium we need. One 8 oz. glass of milk or 1 cup of yogurt contains roughly 30% of the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for calcium for people over the age of 3. That’s a lot for one serving. Not only that, the calcium found in milk happens to be in a form that’s easy for most of us to absorb and digest. Maybe you’ve sworn off dairy because of the potential health risks you’ve heard rumors of, are lactose intolerant or have a true milk allergy. Whatever the reason, the use of milk alternatives is on the rise. The good news is that these alternatives such as soy, almond, rice, hemp and coconut typically are calcium fortified, meaning they provide close to the same amount as cow’s milk. Almonds in particular are a great source of calcium, making almond milk a great natural alternative. And while this is certainly great news, don’t forget to check labels – certain types of calcium are absorbed better than others – look for calcium carbonate instead of calcium triphosphate.
Milk also naturally contains a ton of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin D – that oh-so-important nutrient necessary to adequately absorb calcium (not to mention it’s chockfull of potassium, phosphorous, riboflavin and vitamin B12). Luckily, most milk alternatives come fortified not only with vitamin D, but also many other essential vitamins and minerals to better resemble the nutritional profile of milk.
Cow’s milk is also an excellent source of protein – about 8 grams per cup, which is just slightly higher than what’s in one whole egg. Whey and casein, two types of protein found in milk, are complete proteins, with whey having the highest biological value out there of any protein source. What does that mean? It means it’s the easiest for your body to use and absorb. Of all the alternatives, goat’s and soy run a close second to cow’s milk in their protein content and biological value. If you’re looking for milk that packs in some serious protein, you’ll likely want to skip the almond, rice, hemp and coconut.
Milk offers a range of health benefits, though some may be better than others depending on your specific dietary needs. So in celebration of milk, check out what it can do for you, no matter which milk you choose:
- Cow’s: Provides calcium, vitamin D, protein and many other vitamins and minerals we need every day. These nutrients can all be found in other foods as well – so if you can’t tolerate it don’t worry, you’re not completely missing out.
- Goat’s: Slightly higher but comparable in terms of fat to that of cow’s milk, goat’s milk is a great alternative serving up the same amount of calcium, vitamin D and protein, but less lactose for those who can’t stomach cow’s.
- Soy: Highest in protein of the alternatives and equivalent to cow’s milk in its calcium content, plus it may have some benefits for lowering cholesterol. It’s important to note that soy is controversial and typically not recommended in large amounts. So if you tend to consume soy in other forms on a daily basis, you may want to skip the soy milk and opt for one of the other options.
- Hemp: A good source of fat, especially the omega-3s. One cup provides an entire day’s recommended intake. The downside? It’s lacking in protein and the taste is not exactly winning people over in droves. It also can be higher in sugar and calories so be sure to read your labels.
- Almond: A great source of natural calcium, fortified with vitamin D and B12, and contains heart healthy monounsaturated fat – it also happens to be lower in calories than most of the other milks available. So if you’re counting, this is a great option for you. However, like hemp, it can’t compete in the protein department.
- Coconut: Higher in saturated fat than most of the other plant based options, but lower in protein, it’s also lower in sugar and calories.
- Rice: The only thing rice milk has going for it over all the others is that it’s the least allergenic. Otherwise, it’s low in protein and higher in sugar and calories.
A word of caution: Many alternative types of milk have more than just added nutrients. Many contain additional sugar, salt and other “natural flavors” to improve the taste and consistency. I can’t stress enough how important it is to read labels – stick to no more than 10-12g of sugar per serving (ideally less), opt for the unsweetened versions and the shortest list of ingredients. And please, never pick the product that promises double the fiber, protein, etc. That means it was processed more. And to that, we say no thank you.
Dana Pitman is a Registered Dietitian and a New York State Certified-Dietitian Nutritionist at Hospital for Special Surgery and a regular media contributor for the hospital as well as outside websites and publications.