Which Type of Milk Is Healthiest?

Ruben Castaneda

Milk does a body good, according to the 1980s marketing campaign. A simple message, but the reality is more complex. Certainly, there are lots of vitamins in this beverage. But today there's a wide array of different types of milk with varied health benefits.

"All 'milks' are not created equal," says Lise Gloede, a registered dietitian based in Arlington, Virginia. "Nutritional differences are vast. Consider using a plant-based milk (like soy milk) if you have allergies (or a lactose intolerance), but keep in mind that your intake of protein and riboflavin will be less. These are important nutrients."

Which milk is healthiest?

Choosing what milk is healthiest for you is a highly individual decision, Gloede says. "When selecting a milk or plant-based milk, I advise consumers to ask themselves what nutrients are most important to (them), along with taste, of course," she says. "If you need to gain weight and need more calories, protein, calcium and potassium (for athletes and people who may be underweight), go with full-fat/regular whole cow's milk." On the other hand, if you're trying to lose weight and need to cut calories, you can go opt for an unsweetened plant-based option, like almond milk.

Determining which milk is healthiest is a complex question, because the answer will vary between different individuals, agrees Lisa Garcia, a registered dietitian based in Laconia, New Hampshire. "Which milk is the healthiest?" is a question Garcia says she's often asked. "My reply is always (that) it depends on your individual situation," she says. Garcia asks her patients these questions: Do you have food allergies, food intolerances or food sensitivities? Are you trying to address a health issue? Are you following a particular eating style, such as vegetarian or vegan?

Your answers to these questions will likely rule out certain types of milk. However, you can still choose from a number of plant-based milks that provide protein and other important nutrients, Garcia says. Depending on your nutritional needs, here are 10 healthy types of milk:

-- Cow's milk.

-- Milk free of A-1 beta casein protein.

-- Low-fat milk.

-- Cashew milk.

-- Soy milk.

-- Almond milk.

-- Coconut milk.

-- Hemp milk.

-- Oat milk.

-- Pea milk.

[See: 7 Ways to Get Calcium Beyond Milk.]

What is whole milk?

Whole milk from a cow is composed of about 88% water, 5% lactose (carbohydrates), 3% fat, 3% protein and a good amount of the minerals potassium and phosphorous. The composition of milk depends on the breed of cow (like if it's a Holstein or Jersey cow), the animal's diet and its stage of lactation, according to milkfacts.info, a website dedicated to providing consumers with "factual, scientifically supported information about the composition, nutritional content, health issues and microbial issues associated with milk." Cow's milk contains nutrients such as vitamin B1, modest amounts of vitamin C, vitamin D, niacin and folate. It also contains minerals that boost the body's bone formation when our bodies are growing during childhood and adolescence and enzyme functions.

Goat's milk and milk from sheep are available at some outlets and online, too.

"Regular cow's milk used to be the gold standard for health, providing a necessary blend of calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, phosphorus and riboflavin and niacin," says Jenna Bell, a registered dietitian based in St. Petersburg, Florida. "Milk used to have no competition because alternatives were nutritionally inferior. But as research and the quality of milk alternatives has improved with new types and fortifications, other 'milks' have entered the health scene and are making their way into the American diet."

How much calcium is in milk?

One thing to keep in mind when deciding which milk is best for you is calcium content. Everyone needs calcium for bone health, according to the Mayo Clinic. Calcium helps build and maintain strong bones and also helps your heart, muscles and nerves function optimally. Too little calcium carries health risks. Kids who don't get enough calcium may not reach their full adult height, and adults may have low bone mass, which is a risk factor for osteoporosis, the Mayo Clinic says.

How to Tell If You're Deficient in These 5 Nutrients

The recommended daily allowance of calcium varies by age and gender. From ages 19 to 70, men should get 1,000 milligrams of calcium, and 1,200 milligrams if they are 71 and older. Women between the ages of 19 and 50 should get 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day, and 1,200 if they are 51 and older. Children need varying amounts of calcium depending on their age; infants less than 6 months old should get 200 milligrams daily, according to the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development within the National Institutes of Health. The amount rises with age, ranging from 700 milligrams daily for kids between ages 1 and 3 to 1,300 milligrams a day for adolescents between ages 14 and 18.

Different types of milk contain varying levels of calcium. An 8-ounce cup of whole milk has 276 milligrams of calcium, while skim milk has 299 milligrams, says Michelle Dudash, a registered dietitian based in Carmel, Indiana, and the author of "Clean Eating for Busy Families." The same amount of unfortified soy milk has 61 milligrams of calcium, while one type of almond milk contains about the same amount. Most plant-based milks are fortified with calcium and contain 25% to 50% of the recommended daily allowance of calcium for adults, Dudash says. Some plant-based milks aren't as high in calcium, though. For example, calcium in unfortified cashew milk has only about 2% of the recommended daily value of the nutrient, she says.

What vitamins are in milk?

Here's a breakdown of nutrients in the most popular milk choices, per 8-ounce serving:

Type

Calories

Total Fat

Saturated Fat

Protein

Sugar

% Calcium

% Vitamin D

Whole Milk

150

8

5

8

12

30

25

Nonfat Milk

90

0

0

8

12

30

25

Original Soy

110

4.5

0.5

8

6

45

30

Unsweetened Soy

80

4

0.5

7

1

30

30

Original Almond

60

2.5

0

1

7

45

25

Unsweetened Almond

30

2.5

0

1

0

45

25

Original Rice

120

2.5

0

1

10

30

25

Unsweetened Rice

90

2.5

0

<1

<1

30

25

Original Coconut

70

4.5

4

0

7

10

30

Unsweetened Coconut

45

4.5

4

0

0

10

30

Original Cashew

60

2.5

0

<1

7

45

25

Unsweetened Cashew

25

2

0

<1

0

45

25

Here's a rundown of different types of milk alternatives:

Cow's milk. Regular cow's milk provides an array of healthy vitamins and nutrients, such as vitamin D, calcium, potassium, niacin and protein, Bell says. It also contains saturated fat. The American Heart Association and many other nutrition experts advise consuming nonfat milk rather than full-fat dairy milk. However, there's ongoing research examining the health effects of the saturated fat in whole-fat dairy products. In 2017, a meta-analysis of 29 studies published in the European Journal of Epidemiology found that saturated fat from dairy fat consumption had a neutral effect on cardiovascular disease risk, Bell notes.

Milk free of A-1 beta casein protein. Typical cow's milk contains both A1 and A2 beta casein protein, major casein proteins. Casein makes up about 80% of the total protein in cow's milk. But emerging research suggests that A-1 beta casein may be undesirable -- it could be an inflammatory agent that contributes to gastrointestinal distress. An Australian company, a2 Milk, sources milk from cows whose milk only contains the A2 beta casein protein, Bell says. While more research is needed, people who have had issues with milk may find relief by drinking milk with the A2 protein only, she says.

Cashew milk. Dudash says she loves cashew milk's creamy taste. One particular brand of the beverage contains four times the nuts -- the equivalent of 11 cashews in each glass -- compared to most nut-based milks, she says. Cashew milk naturally contains 4 grams of protein per serving and 8% of the daily value for iron. However, be aware that it can contain a half-teaspoon of cane sugar per serving, so look for unsweetened varieties, Dudash advises. People who are watching their sugar intake may want to consider other options. "It's not easy to find the perfect plant-based drink!" she says.

[See: 7 Reasons to Choose a Plant-Based Diet. ]

Soy milk. This type of milk has numerous benefits, says Gabrielle Mancella, a registered dietitian based in Orlando, Florida. She's a corporate wellness dietitian for Orlando Health. "Soy is the closest thing to a complete protein," Mancella says. "It's low in fat, and if you get the unsweetened kind, it's low in sugar." She recommends getting choosing a soy milk that's non-GMO and organic, so it's minimally processed. Processing can make it harder for your body to recognize and metabolize certain foods. Offering that are highly processed also tend to have higher volume of preservatives, which are associated with inflammation.

Almond milk. Like soy milk, original and sweetened types of almond milk contain added sugar, from cane sugar, so it's best to get unsweetened or "light" varieties, says David Friedman, a clinical nutritionist and board-certified alternative medical practitioner. He's the author of "Food Sanity -- How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction." Almond milk has a sweet and nutty taste and a silky texture. It's low in calories and chock-full of vitamins and minerals, such as vitamins D, E and A, calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc, iron and phosphorous, Friedman says. The fat in almond milk is heart-healthy because it contains monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which research suggests can protect against coronary heart disease, he says. Almond milk can be made with dried almonds and fresh water, though you can add other ingredients, such as a pinch of sea salt or a half-teaspoon of vanilla. One recipe on inthekitchn.com calls for soaking almonds in water overnight for as many as two days, then draining and rinsing them and grinding the beans in fresh water.

Coconut milk. Be aware that this kind of milk packs more saturated fats than the other milk alternatives. "Coconut milk has a nice creamy consistency and a pleasant (coconut-flavored) taste, but doesn't stack up nutritionally to cow milk and soy milk," Dudash says. Coconut milk contains coconut cream, made from coconut meat, water, salt, a thickener such as locust bean gum, an emulsifier like sunflower lecithin and whatever vitamins and minerals -- such as calcium and vitamin D -- the manufacturer adds, Dudash says.

Hemp milk. This type of milk is made from the seeds of the hemp plant, which also produces cannabis, or marijuana. However, hemp products, such as hemp milk, hemp flour, hemp dietary fiber and hemp baking additive, are derived from a different part of the same plant, according to medicaljane.com. Hemp contains only trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the compound in marijuana that produces a "high." For a dairy alternative that's high in bone-building calcium, hemp milk is a great choice, Friedman says. Hemp milk is the top dairy milk alternative for calcium content, with one 8-ounce serving supplying 450 milligrams of the nutrient, or 45% if the recommended daily allowance. It's also rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Research suggests that including omega-3 fatty acids in your diet can help keep your cholesterol and blood pressure in check.

Oat milk. Milk made from oats contains 2 to 3 grams of fiber per serving, which is a healthy amount, Dudash says. At least one brand of oat milk adds chicory root fiber to boost the fiber content to 4 grams per serving. Adults should consume 25 grams of fiber daily (based on a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet), according to the Food and Drug Administration. Fiber boosts your digestive system and helps prevent constipation. A high-fiber diet appears to reduce the risk of developing an array of health conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, colon cancer and diverticular disease, according to UCSF Health.

[See: 8 Dairy-Free Desserts. ]

Pea milk. Milk made from peas or other legumes often contains protein amounts that are comparable to the amounts in soy milk and cow's milk, Garcia says. Overall, pea milk typically doesn't provide the same amount of nutrients that you'd get from cow's milk or soy milk. However, this shouldn't be an issue if you consume meat, poultry, seafood or eggs. "For someone who is a vegan and consumes no animal products, this is also not an issue if you are following a nutritionally balanced vegan diet," Garcia says. "For people who are new to the vegan lifestyle, it's really a good idea to consult a registered dietitian who is experienced with plant-based eating -- especially if you are a woman of childbearing age."