Many people, seniors, parents, teens, friends with doctorates in Nutrition, ask me what is the best milk to drink. Generally they are asking about whether they should purchase Whole milk (4% fat), Low fat (2% fat), Skim (1% or less fat), or Soy milk. This is a great question and the answers are so elusive because:
1. There is a lot of confusing, even conflicting press on this subject.
One day you will read that Cow's milk is unhealthy, unnecessary and allergenic as in the July, 2012, New York Times article, "Got Milk? You Don't Need It" by Mark Bitman. But five months earlier the New York Times ran an article about a big study, 'Putting Numbers to Children's Milk Needs', which promoted the benefits of milk, especially for increasing kids' Vitamin D and calcium intakes.
Livestrong.com, the popular health and nutrition blog, published an article in 2011, "The Dangers of Soy Milk to Kids' Health' by Owen Bond. The article talked about the allergenicity of soy, the danger in the estrogen-like compounds it contains and the negative behavioural associations with soy intake. Same year, same blog had just run an article extolling the health benefits of soy milk in young girls (by Steph Barnard).
2. The number of milk choices in stores is mind boggling.
In addition to all the conflicting information out there, the number of milk and milk products is growing. There are the standard milks that I list above and right next to them are the lactose-free versions followed by the almond milk, hemp milk, goat's milk, milk with added protein and unhomogenized choices. In addition, around the corner from all of those are the heat-stable milks that are boxed and on the shelves for months.
3. There is little good science making it through all the noise.
There is a vast amount of poor information on the web about milk and specifically which milk is best to consume. This is in part because the research that holds this information is hard to understand and very limited.
I will use this and my next post to address question of milks. I hope to put this issue to rest for all us milk (lactose-loving and otherwise) consumers out there.
Part One - Cow's Milk versus Soy Milk or other alternatives
The most common reasons to avoid cow's milk include adhering to a Vegan Diet (diet that excludes all animal products), having a cow's milk allergy or lactose-intolerance or a belief that Soy milk or other milk alternatives are superior foods health-wise.
Obviously, if your beliefs dictate that you exclude animal proteins, cow's milk would not be on the menu and soy, hemp, almond, hazelnut, rice, oat or coconut milks would be fine. However, all these milk-alternatives are not nutritionally equal. Soy milk is superior among these choices. It offers more protein and other nutrients per ounce than any of the others. If you don't tolerate Soy milk, then try some of the others but be sure they are fortified with calcium, especially if the youngsters in your household are drinking the product. After Soy milk, hazelnut or oat milk offer more fiber and protein than the others.
If you can't drink Cow's milk because of an allergy then consider the alternatives but note that some individuals have a cross-over reaction with Soy products. If soy is tolerated than that is the superior alternative milk because it has much higher nutrient density than the other milks. If you don't drink cow's milk because of lactose intolerance try the Lactose-free milks. Lactose-free milk is simply milk treated with enzymes that breaks the Lactose into digestible sugars. It is a better choice than soy milk, because it still retains a lot of the fatty acids and other desirable nutrients that only occur in animal milks. It is also less processed than soy milk.
But it may also be that what you thought was lactose intolerance is actually a cow's milk allergy and then no amount of enzyme will enable you to tolerate the milk. Just as a side note, for those that are lactose-intolerant and are not keen on drinking milk, they can try Greek yogurt. Greek yogurt is made by eliminating a lot of the whey and lactose, making it creamier, less sweet and often tolerated by the lactose intolerant.
If you avoid cow's milk because you believe that there are healthier alternatives, you need to rethink that choice. The fewer ingredients listed on a food label means that food has had undergone less processing and contains less preservatives. In the case of cow's milk versus soy milk debate, many would argue that cow's milk has been pasteurized and homogenized, and therefore highly processed. I will discuss this more at length in part 2 of my blog on this topic, but even with these treatments cow's milk (or goats) is still a less processed
|Soymilk production machine|
Lastly, if you are drinking milk to increase your calcium intake, the calcium in cow's milk is much better absorbed than the calcium in any of the other milk-alternatives. Not only does the lactose in cow's milk help increase calcium uptake in the body but other components in cow's milk help increase calcium absorption. This is true of not just cow's milk but all animal milks.
Bottom line...cow's milk is a better option, if you are not vegan and you tolerate cow's milk.
Cow's milk offers the best calcium absorption and is actually a less processed product than the current milk alternatives offered in stores. If you are vegan and/or can't stomach cow's milk the next best option is soy milk, just look for the soy milks with the fewest ingredients on the label.
See part two of this blog for which cow's milk you should put in your cart - skim, 1%, 2%, or full-fat.