Adding milk to your morning coffee or cereal is generally a pretty straightforward affair. However, the variety of options in the dairy section of any grocer has been increasing, and it’s natural to wonder if they’re all the same when it comes to nutrition. While we certainly don’t want to discourage experimentation, there’s definitely something to be said about sticking with the good old-fashioned original: dairy milk.
Dairy packs a plethora of nutrients into each 8-ounce serving, and they’re all crucial for supporting good health. In fact, there are nine essential nutrients provided in milk alone: protein, calcium, phosphorous, vitamin B5, vitamin B3, vitamin B12, vitamin B2, vitamin D and vitamin A.
Let’s look at vitamin D as an example: It helps protect your teeth and bones and can even aid in preventing mood disorders such as depression. Unfortunately, the nutrient is found in very few foods and also happens to be one of the most common nutritional deficiencies. With just one glass of milk, however, you can consume up to 25% of your daily vitamin D needs, in addition to the other vitamins and minerals mentioned above.
The nutrient profile in milk is just one of the reasons it’s long been considered a nutritious part of a daily diet. You can also rest assured about what’s in the drink, as the product is standardized and tightly regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This means that to be called ‘milk,’ the product must, at the very least, have the aforementioned nutritional breakdown. The main variance you’ll see with real dairy milk is the fat content, which is required to be listed on the container or label. The amount of milk fat affects the calories and fat content, but does not affect the other nutrients.
Plant-based alternatives, on the other hand, are not tightly regulated or standardized, and they can vary greatly in nutrition from brand to brand. Some products can also contain additives to replicate milk-like products.
With technological advancements in recent years, even dairy milks have increased in variety to match health preferences. Sometimes, this can be a bit confusing when trying to grab a quick gallon at the market, so we’ve provided a quick breakdown to help you choose which milk to is right for you:
- Whole: Also known as Vitamin D milk, this full-fat milk contains 3.25% milkfat. This creates a creamier, thicker taste and texture. While the name ‘full-fat’ might sound scary, each 8-ounce glass contains 8 grams of fat — which is only 12% of your daily needs. Whole milk can be best for recipes and keeping you fuller for longer.
- Reduced Fat: Also known as 2% (because 2% of the milk’s weight is fat), each 8-ounce glass contains 5 grams of fat. This is a great “middle ground” milk choice in terms of calories and fat.
- Skim and Fat-Free: These varieties have 0–1% milk fat by weight. They have a thinner texture and lower calories because the fat has been ‘skimmed’ off. This is a great option for those seeking lower calorie and fat consumption without missing out on nutrients.
- Organic: The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets strict farming standards for products to qualify as organic. This milk must come from cows not treated with antibiotics or given any hormones for growth or reproduction reasons.
- Fortified: This refers to any milk that has added nutrients beyond the product’s standardized nutrition. These options are good choices for those with extremely picky diets or who otherwise need boosted or tailored nutritional value.
- Lactose-Free: This milk has been modified so the natural lactose sugars have been broken down. This results in a product that many suffering from lactose intolerance and gastric disturbances can tolerate without issue. Lactose-free varieties still have the same nutritional profile as other dairy milks.
- Flavored Milk: These varieties range in flavor from classic chocolate to trendy matcha, but the majority have one thing in common: added sugar. These added sugars make flavored varieties ideal for those looking to gain weight or athletes desiring high carbohydrate intake, but they aren’t for everyone. Aside from that added sugar, flavored milks do provide all the nutritional benefits in regular milk. Making your own natural flavored milk is simple; just blend strawberries (or a whole-food flavoring ingredient of choice) into plain milk.
- Grass-fed: Some studies have shown milk produced from cows that are grass-fed have a healthier breakdown of fat; more CLA, more omega fatty acid and better ratio of omega 3:6 than conventional dairy milk. But be aware that this milk may tend to have a stronger, grassier flavor.
- Raw Milk: This is milk that has not undergone pasteurization and is essentially straight from the cow. While it might sound more natural, it is actually illegal to sell in most states due to the high probability of the product containing dangerous bacteria.
It is important to remember that these varieties all have the same basic nutrition profile. Choosing the best type for you depends on tolerance, budget, beliefs, taste and personal macronutrient needs.
A big benefit of milk is its high versatility. Thanks to modern technologies, milk is no longer limited to the refrigerator section. There are shelf-stable boxed options that are ideal for lunch boxes, sports games or traveling. Milk is also very easy to find, as it’s often sold everywhere from gas stations and convenience stores to specialty shops like health co-ops.
A glass of milk straight from the fridge acts as a great snack, as it contains more protein than a hard-boiled egg, which can help keep the body full longer. Blending fruits, nut butters and even vegetables with milk can create a nutrient-dense, meal-replacement smoothie for active bodies on the go.
Of course, milk is also a breakfast staple for coffee, cereal, oatmeal and more. It can also be added to sauces and soups to create a creamy, nutrient-boosted meal. Often, classic dairy milk is most appropriate for recipes. For example, if you are looking for a frothy, steamed latte, your barista will suggest whole milk as it contains the best blend of fat, protein and natural sugar. This creates a creamy, aerated topping for your espresso. Plant-based barista blends typically contain extra fats through added oils to help replicate the foam structure needed for latte art and taste preference.
Dairy milks have also been researched for specific health benefits. For athletes and active people, chocolate milk has long been advised as a sports recovery drink, as it contains the body’s preferred ratio of carbohydrates to protein. Drinking milk before bed can help stimulate overnight muscle synthesis due to the high content of casein, a form of slow-acting protein. This unique protein breakdown of mostly slow-acting casein and fast-acting whey might be why adults who drink dairy milk have been shown to have a healthier body composition (more muscle tissue and lower fat percentage).
THE BOTTOM LINE
There are enough options for purchasing and consuming milk to fit just about everyone. If you are looking to boost your health without diving into fleeting food trends, sticking with old-school real milk might be ideal for your lifestyle and nutrition needs. Test out a few varieties of dairy milk to see which option is best for your preferences. Consulting a dietitian is also a useful resource to figure out how to incorporate dairy milk into your diet to gain the potential health benefits.