Milk and non-dairy alternatives such as soy, rice, almond, and oat milk are staples in many homes. But of all the milk options, which one is the healthiest?
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Every child in America has probably heard the following: “Drink your milk! It’ll make your bones strong and help you grow taller”. Milk has been a staple in many people’s homes, but many have also resorted to non-dairy alternatives such as soy milk, rice milk, almond milk, and oat milk. The popularity of non-dairy milk grew when the population that was vegans or lactose intolerant grew. Today, there are over a dozen different types of non-dairy milk sold in stores and online.
Cow’s milk provides adequate amounts of fat, carbohydrates, and protein, which make it a nutritious beverage. In infants, cow’s milk was found to reduce the risk of fever and respiratory infections, and cow’s milk can overall assist with the protection of the body. Despite the concern of high-fat content in cow’s milk, consumption of cow’s milk was associated with reduced risk of childhood obesity. Cow’s milk was also found to lower the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and various cancers. Although cow’s milk has been said to help strengthen bones, there is limited evidence that supports the statement, and much of the evidence points towards positive bone health in adulthood rather than in childhood.
Cow’s milk is one of the most commonly consumed milk in the world. However, since the milk comes from a cow, some concerns arise, the first being the presence of Salmonella and E. Coli that can cause severe disease. Additionally, cow’s milk contains lactose, which is one of the most common allergies amongst children and infants. Lactose intolerance is common in people of African or Asian descent. In terms of nutritional content, cow’s milk is high in calories and in fat, which could be a concern for those who are watching their consumption of saturated fat.
Oat milk has recently become extremely popular as a milk alternative. Its taste is heavily oat-forward but has been known to be one of the best milk to use for espresso drinks because of its thickness and creaminess. When steamed and foamed, oat milk has similar properties to cow’s milk.
Oats themselves are high in fiber, lower cholesterol levels, help prevent cancer, a good source of protein, and contain antioxidants. When turned into milk, oats retain their ability to lower cholesterol levels.
Oat milk lacks calcium, which is one of the most desirable features of cow’s milk. Because of this reason, many oat milk are fortified with calcium. Also, the phytic acid found in oat milk prevents the absorption of zinc and iron, two essential minerals that our body needs to thrive. The production of oat milk can be harmful to our environment. Similarly to cow’s milk production, oat milk production carries an acidification risk. However, oat milk has a chance that it is 21-37% higher than cow’s milk. The result of this acidification is ammonia emissions, and ammonia gas is dangerous to inhale and can lead to adverse health effects. Even though oat milk has risen in the ranks, there are not many studies that have been conducted regarding its specific nutritional benefits as of yet.
Soy milk is derived from soybeans, which are a source of a complete protein that is vegan-friendly. Soybeans also are used to make miso paste, tempeh, and tofu. Soy is rich in healthy fats and protein, which is highly beneficial for those who are vegan or vegetarian, as soy milk can be a good source of a complete protein. Soy milk is relatively inexpensive and is similar in price to cow’s milk.
Soy milk, as mentioned above, is high in protein and fat, but it also contains isoflavones which are linked to cancer prevention. Phytosterols are also found in soy milk, and phytosterols lower cholesterol levels. Soy milk is lactose-free, like many cow’s milk alternatives, and it is also cholesterol-free since plants do not have cholesterol.
Even though soy milk is a nutritious beverage, there are some downsides. One of the reasons why soy milk has lost popularity is because of its prominent, bean-forward taste that many consumers dislike. Although this flavor is masked when mixed with other items, soy milk can be difficult to drink on its own. Similar to other plant-based dairy alternatives, soy milk is low in calcium and vitamin B12. Of course, there is also a concern for those who are allergic to soy products and, therefore, cannot consume soy milk. The main topic of debate when it comes to soy milk is the isoflavone content because of isoflavone’s ability to act like estrogen in the body. This is an issue for infants due to their high sensitivity to estrogen products that can negatively affect them later in life.
Almond milk is another popular kind of milk that is made by blending almonds and water and running the resulting mixture through a cheesecloth to catch the blended bits of unwanted almond pieces. Almond milk has a mild, nutty taste and is less creamy than cow’s milk.
Almonds are high in monounsaturated fatty acids, which is considered a type of “good” fat. Monounsaturated fatty acids help with weight management and loss and can reduce LDL cholesterol (aka “bad” cholesterol) in the body. In addition to healthy fats, almonds are also high in protein, fiber, vitamin E, antioxidants, and manganese. Though naturally low in calcium, many almond milk brands fortify their milk with calcium, making almond milk a good source of calcium. Almond milk also has prebiotic fibers that are good for gut health.
Almond milk is made from almonds, which some may have an allergy to. Despite its high protein content, almond milk still has less protein content than cow’s milk. Almond milk is also more expensive due to almonds being difficult and costly to grow. Cow’s milk is the more affordable option in this case, but for those who are not concerned with cost, almond milk may be the option for you.
Rice milk is made from brown rice and water and is more watery than cow’s milk. This milk is naturally sweeter than cow’s milk because rice is a simple carbohydrate, and simple carbohydrates are broken down into sugars. Rice milk is an alternative to dairy for those who are allergic to soy, almonds, and lactose.
Brown rice is one of the healthiest varieties of rice; you can learn more about other healthy rices in our article “World’s Healthiest Rice Varieties.”
Rice milk is low in fat, more specifically, saturated fats. Rice milk has similar amounts of calcium, magnesium, and iron compared to cow’s milk but has higher levels of vitamin A and E. Since rice milk contains the phytosterols beta-sitosterol and gamma oryzanol, rice milk has been shown to lower cholesterol, hypertension, lower risk of diabetes, act as an anti-inflammatory, and act as an antioxidant. Overall, rice milk does have its benefits, but there are many concerns when it comes to this grain-based beverage.
Rice milk has the lowest amount of protein when compared to other plant-based dairy alternatives. Since it is generally low in fat, rice milk is also low in critical, healthful fats such as monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Additionally, due to rice milk’s lack of full nutritional content, consumption of solely rice milk as a replacement for cow’s milk can lead to malnutrition. Malnutrition as a result of protein deficiency that is called kwashiorkor was found in infants that were on a rice-based vegan diet; therefore, replacement of cow’s milk with rice milk needs to be accompanied by adequate protein consumption.
The most dangerous aspect of rice milk is its arsenic content. High levels of arsenic were found in rice drinks on various occasions, which can cause cancer and other serious side effects that could be incredibly harmful to children. Due to this reason, rice milk is not suggested for consumption by infants or children.
Probiotic drinks are beverages that contain bacteria that promote a healthy gut environment, resulting in easier digestion, improved immune system function, alleviation of depression and anxiety symptoms, and hypertension prevention. Probiotic products are typically fermented foods or cultured milk and are sold in various forms such as yogurt drinks, kimchi, and miso paste.
A study found that a fermented milk drink containing the bacteria L. helveticus, which includes lactononadecapeptide. Lactononadecapeptide was studied for the improvement of cognitive function in middle-aged adults. The participants were given a drink containing L. helveticus once every day for eight weeks and tested for their neuropsychological status. The participants that were given the probiotic drink had significantly improved total scores, attention scores, and memory scores compared to the participants that drank the placebo. In conclusion, probiotic beverages, specifically ones that contain the bacterial strain L. helveticus, can improve attention and memory amongst healthy adults.
Check out our article “The Best Time to Take Probiotics” for more information on how probiotics help your body.
Buying organic can be a pain at times. Organic foods are known to be more expensive than their non-organic counterparts, and sometimes there is no organic version of the food you wish to purchase. Purchasing organic foods requires additional funds and meticulous planning of where to go grocery shopping for the day. This raises the question: is it even worth it to buy organic?
In terms of dairy, it is worth it. Organic dairy has added health benefits that are worth the extra time, labor, and money. It was found in a study conducted in 2016 that organic milk and meat contain 50% more omega-3 fatty acids than in non-organic milk and meat. Omega-3 fatty acids are linked to reduced rates of heart disease, improved neurological development, and better immune system function. Additionally, organic crops were found to have up to 60% higher amounts of antioxidants. Overall, buying organic can make a difference, and it may be worth it to seek out organic dairy products.
There is no simple answer to this question. The best milk is the milk you enjoy drinking, and that can provide the nutrients you need. Cow’s milk contains a full profile of nutrients that is an excellent addition to a balanced diet. For those who are lactose intolerant, vegan, or simply prefer plant-based milk, oat milk, soy milk, or almond milk may be the best fit for you. There are different benefits to each plant-based milk. However, it may be best to shy away from rice milk, especially if you are searching for plant-based milk for your infant or child.
Although probiotic drinks are not a type of milk, it may be beneficial to add it to your diet. The beneficial health effects are incredible, and probiotic beverages help to rebalance the gut. This is important for those who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome or other similar issues, as a healthy gut environment is vital to the alleviation of symptoms. The decision on whether to drink a probiotic drink is best discussed with your doctor or dietitian, so please consult your health professionals before making your decision.
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