It used to be that milk was one of the most straightforward drinks available. You could choose whole, low-fat, or skim-and that was it. But over the past 10 to 15 years, the milk aisle has gotten considerably more crowded with a mind-boggling variety of dairy milks such as grass-fed and plant milks (oat, almond, sesame seed). According to a 2023 survey of 2,121 U.S. adults, 79 percent still buy cow’s milk. However, people are drinking a lot less of it. Per capita consumption has declined by 28 percent in the past 20 or so years, from 8.2 gallons per person per year in 2000 to 5.9 gallons in 2021, according to the Department of Agriculture. At the same time, sales of plant-based milks have been increasing: In 2022, 41 percent of households had purchased plant milks, according to a market analysis by the Plant Based Foods Association. Of all the milk sold, 15 percent is now plant milk, the report said.
To keep up with the growing plant milk market, the dairy industry has promoted what it claims are healthier and more sustainable cow’s milk options. Meanwhile on the plant milk side, more choices with added nutrients and better taste have made going dairy-free more appealing.
Is Cow’s Milk Good for You? There’s a lot of conflicting information about dairy milk floating around. Being necessary for bone health it has been touted by some as a near perfect food. But others say it is a cause of everything from inflammation and heart disease to digestive disorders and bad skin. The truth is, cow’s milk has mostly benefits and just a few drawbacks. On the plus side, it’s a concentrated source of important nutrients. One cup supplies 8 grams of protein, about a quarter of the daily value for calcium, and 14 percent of the daily value for vitamin D, and it provides magnesium, potassium, zinc, and more. There has been concern that the saturated fats in dairy milk (except for the nonfat variety), which can lead to chronic inflammation that is thought to be a cause of type 2 diabetes and other health problems. But a 2017 review of 52 studies in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition linked milk and other dairy consumption with anti-inflammatory effects in adults. Similarly, having a cup of milk a day doesn’t increase or reduce the risk of heart disease: A 2022 analysis of studies in the journal Nutrients concluded that drinking a lot of milk may contribute to acne, but according to others, no connection was found.
One thing about cow’s milk is clear: Many adults experience bloating, gas, and other stomach problems when they drink it because they’re unable to digest lactose, the sugar that naturally occurs in milk. For these people, lactose-free milk is widely available. Unless milk upsets your stomach, there’s no health reason to skip it. But it’s also fine for someone who eats a healthy variety of foods to avoid milk. Yogurt, kefir, and cheese are excellent sources of all milk’s nutrients. There are nondairy options such as tahini, collard greens, kale, and bok choy for calcium; lean meats, beans, and tofu for protein; and canned salmon and sardines for both.
Information on Plant Milks According to a recent survey, almost half of people who buy plant-based milk do so because they think it is healthier or has more nutrients than they need than cow’s milk, and 39 percent think it’s better for the environment or protects animals. But many experts say that plant-based milks are not more healthful than dairy milk. Soy milk comes the closest to dairy, since it is fortified with calcium and vitamin D. But most other plant-based products do not contain nutrients comparable to dairy milk. So if you’re switching to plant milk, and you relied on your daily cup of dairy milk for protein, calcium, and vitamin D, you’ll need to be sure you’re getting them elsewhere.
One other issue with plant milks: Some may contain additives like sweeteners and thickeners. Unless you seek out unsweetened varieties, you be getting as much as 13 grams of added sugars per cup. (The American Heart Association says men should have no more than 36 grams per day; women, 25.) And thickeners and stabilizers—like carrageenan, xanthan gum, and guar gum—which help give plant milks a consistency like dairy milk, but this may be problematic for certain people. Some studies have shown an adverse association between these additives and inflammation in the GI tract. If you notice gastrointestinal discomfort after drinking a plant-based milk, try additive-free options. Plant milks do have an edge when it comes to the environment. Their production creates 62 to 78 percent less greenhouse gases than dairy milk, and they use less water and land resources, according to a 2023 report in the journal Current Environmental Health Reports. But not all plant milks are equally environmentally friendly. According to a 2022 study published in the journal Sustainability, oat and soy milks are the best for the planet.
Cows that graze exclusively on grass produce milk that has more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than regular milk. But men would need to drink about 3 cups of whole milk to get just 19 percent of their daily needs (27 percent for women), so it shouldn’t be one’s only source. Grass-fed milk can have an earthy flavor. It’s also pricey: A half-gallon of organic grass-fed at Target costs $6.49, compared with $3.99 for regular organic. Look for the American Grassfed seal, which is considered to have excellent standards.
An extra processing step filters out some water and some of the lactose. This concentrates the milk, making it higher in protein and lower in sugar, and gives it a thicker, creamier texture. Companies also add lactase, the enzyme that breaks down any remaining lactose into simple sugars, a step that creates a sweeter flavor than regular milk. Because its thicker than regular milk, it may not work as a 1:1 swap in recipes. At Walmart, a 52-ounce carton costs $4.18; 64 ounces of regular milk costs $1.73.
Typically, this process is used on organic milk to extend its shelf life. The milk is heated to a higher temperature during ordinary pasteurization than on regular milk. This kills more of the bacteria that can make milk spoil. (Regular pasteurization mainly kills bacteria that can cause illness.) Once you open the carton, though, you should still consume it within seven to 10 days like any other milk. As for nutrition, it’s no different from regular dairy milk, but some complain that it has a “cooked” flavor.
If your body doesn’t produce enough lactase—the enzyme that breaks down the lactose in milk—you may experience bloating, gas, and diarrhea when you drink regular dairy milk. Lactose free milk has lactase added, so its easier to digest for those who are lactose-intolerant. It has the same nutrients as regular milk, but it tastes a little sweeter. Use it like regular milk, but you might not require any sugar added to your coffee.
People often assume that any stomach upset after drinking milk is due to lactose intolerance. But if lactose-free milk still bothers your belly, you may want to try A2 milk. Regular milk contains A1 and A2 proteins; A1 has been linked with GI symptoms and inflammation in some people. A2 milk comes from cows that don’t produce the A1 protein, so it can be easier to digest. (A2 milk still contains lactose, so it won’t help those with lactose intolerance.) It also costs more: 59 ounces may cost $4.99, while, in general 64 ounces of regular milk is $2.69.
Skim vs. Whole Which Is Healthier?
For the past few decades, doctors and dietitians have advised that nonfat or low-fat dairy is the way to go to cut back on calories and saturated fat—which experts thought would raise cholesterol levels, upping the risk of heart disease. Newer studies, however, challenge these
beliefs. Current research indicates that the fats in milk are not associated with weight gain, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, or inflammation. Any milk
consumption, as part of an overall healthy eating pattern, is just fine. If you enjoy nonfat or low-fat milk, stick with it. Replacing 1 cup of whole milk with nonfat in your smoothie, for example, can save you about 60 calories and 4 grams of saturated fat—without cutting protein or calcium.
Raw Milk: Any place?
Most milk in this country goes through the process of pasteurization. That means it has been heated to a temperature that’s high enough to kill harmful, potentially deadly, bacteria, such as campylobacter, E. coli, salmonella, and more. Milk that has not gone through this process is considered raw. Proponents of raw milk claim that pasteurization eliminates milk’s nutrients. There is no evidence, however, to prove this. And raw milk and cheese is responsible for 96 percent of dairy-related food-borne illnesses and hospitalizations that occur each year in the U.S., according to research published in the Journal Emerging Infectious Diseases—despite the fact that only 3.2 percent of Americans drink raw milk. It’s often better to choose foods that are less processed—fresh vegetables instead of veggie chips, for example. But for some foods, processing represents a major food safety advance. Pasteurized milk falls squarely into that category
SUMMARY OF PLANT-BASED MILKS
Nutrition information per cup listed below each
Among all plant milks, soy contains the most protein, vitamins, and minerals, coming the closest to dairy milk in nutritional value. And when Food and Drug Administration researchers analyzed 85 plant-based milk samples, soy milk stood out for being high in several minerals found in dairy milk. Soy milk has a slightly sweet, nutty flavor that can work well in coffee, with cereal, or for drinking.
Calories 80 I Saturated fat 0.5 g Carbohydrates 4 g I Protein 7 g Calcium 300 mg I Vitamin D 3 mcg
Oat milk’s mildly sweet flavor, thickness, and natural creaminess make it a good substitute for dairy in soups, coffee drinks, and baking. It’s higher in carbs than dairy milk and most other plant-based milks, supplying as much as 17 grams per cup of unsweetened versions. (Dairy milk has 12 grams per cup.)
Calories 100 I Saturated fat 0 g Carbohydrates 12 g Protein 1 g Calcium 260 mg I Vitamin D 4.4 mcg
Coconut milk has more saturated fat than other plant-based milks and about the same amount as whole cows milk. But some of those fats are medium- chain fatty acids, which don’t seem to be linked to cardiovascular disease. Its taste is mild, with a slightly tropical twist. Just make sure you’re buying coconut milk in a carton rather than canned. The canned type is thicker, higher in fat, and better used in cooking rather than as a drink.
Calories 45 Saturated fat 35g Carbohydrates 2 g Protein 0 gm Calcium 130 mg Vitamin D 2.5 mcg
Slightly sweet, nutty almond milk is widely available. It tends to be lower in calories than most other plant-based milk. It’s not as eco-friendly as other plant milks because it takes a lot more water than dairy milk to produce. Perfect for smoothies: Its mild flavor lets other ingredients shine.
Calories 30 Saturated fat 0 g carbohydrates 1 g Protein 1 gm Calcium 450 mg Vitamin D 5 mcg.
This milk has an earthier, richer flavor and thicker texture than some other plant-based options. Use in soups, sauces, and other recipes you might use cream in. It’s also an easy plant-based milk to make at home. Soak 1 cup of raw cashews in water overnight and drain. Combine in a blender with 4 cups of water and a pinch of salt; add vanilla or a date to sweeten, if desired.
Calories 130 Saturated fat 1.5 g Carbohydrates 7 g I Protein 4 g ealcium 15 mg I Vitamin D 0 mcg
SESAME SEED MILK
This milk has a toasty flavor and a nutrition profile similar to that of other milks. Some options contain up to 8 grams of protein, but it’s not all naturally found in the milk; rather, it’s added pea protein. Because it’s newer to the market, you may have a hard time finding sesame milk in local stores. The sesame plant doesn’t require a lot of water to grow and is naturally heat-resistant—so it’s a good bet for sustainability. Pairs well with cereal and fruit.
Calories 90 Saturated fat 0.5 g Carbohydrates 2 g Protein 8 g Calcium 390 mg Vitamin D 5 mcg