By Catherine Cioffi, B.S.
Confused about all the new "milks" you're seeing in grocery stores? This is not surprising. Just look at the variety of non-dairy, fortified milk beverages on supermarket shelves. For example, consumers can now choose from a range of soy-based, nut-based (like almond), grain-based (like rice) milks and more.
There are advantages and disadvantages to having so many options. Here's a guide to help you choose the milk that's best for you.
Dairy foods are good sources of calcium and vitamin D. These promote bone health. Many milk products are also fortified with other vitamins and minerals, like vitamin A and phosphorus.
Non-dairy milks were originally targeted to people with a diary-milk allergy or those with lactose intolerance.
However, non-dairy milks that are fortified can also be good sources of calcium, vitamin D and other vitamins and minerals for anyone. But not all of them are fortified. Just be sure to check the label or Nutrition Facts panel to find out.
Dairy milk can vary from 0% butterfat in skim milk to 3.25% butterfat in whole milk. The more butterfat, the higher the calories, total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. The chart below compares the nutritional values for 1 cup (8 ounces) of various types of dairy milk.
The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults have three servings of milk, milk products or soy-fortified substitutes per day. They should be fat-free and lowfat to help limit the extra calories.
Soy milk is almost identical to dairy milk in its nutritional content. Most brands have moderate amounts of fat, which make them similar in calories to lowfat (1%) dairy milk.
They're also fortified with vitamin D, vitamin A and calcium. Just be sure to check the label for this. Soy milks are much higher in protein than other non-dairy milks — about 7 grams per cup versus 1-2 grams (or none at all). This is an important difference for vegetarians and vegans who are trying to meet their protein needs.
These come in varieties such as almond, walnut or hazelnut. There might also be "original" or "vanilla-flavored." They are lactose-, soy- and gluten-free, which can be appealing for those with allergies or diet restrictions. The unsweetened versions are also lower in calories than other milks: One cup has about 35-45 calories. However, they provide much less protein than dairy and soy milks.
One cup (8 ounces) of a coconut-milk beverage has the same number of calories as a cup of skim milk. But one key difference is that it's much higher in fat, especially saturated fat. Coconut is one of the only plants that contains saturated fat (more commonly found in high-fat animal products).
However, this may also explain its unique taste, which is why so many people on restricted diets are drinking it as an alternative to lactose-, soy- and gluten-free milks.
Raw coconut milk (usually in a can) comes from grated coconut. It's much more concentrated in taste, as well as calories and fat. This tends to make it more appropriate as a flavor additive to soups and sauces when cooking.
Rice, oat and quinoa milks are the most common examples of milks in this category.
They are unique for their higher total carbohydrate and sugar contents. The rarer seed milks, like hemp, sunflower and sesame seed, have the highest fat content of all the alternatives — 6 grams per cup.
The following chart shows how the various milks compare in nutritional value. Serving size is 1 cup (8 ounces).
*Based on Silk, Soymilk, Original
Consumers have more milk options now. These can help them meet key nutrient needs, especially for calcium and vitamin D. Many of us are deficient in these. Try to choose lower-fat, unsweetened options, as the higher-fat or sugar-sweetened options can add extra, unnecessary calories.
Forman J and Silverstein J. "Organic foods: Health and environmental advantages and disadvantages." Pediatrics. 2012 Nov; 130:e1406. (http://dx.doi.org/10.1542/peds.2012-2579).
Catherine Cioffi received her Bachelor of Science in Nutritional Sciences from Cornell University May 2012. She is currently a dietetic intern at Brigham and Women's Hospital.