Remember when you used to pass through the lunch line in elementary school? There was a big cooler filled with those cute little pints of milk. Pink skim, blue 2%, red whole, and of course brown chocolate.
Now if you pass through the dairy section, you'll notice that so much of the milk isn't dairy at all. Why do we now have so many alternative milks? And more importantly- is it beneficial to drink them?
Dairy, specifically milk, has had a major reputation change since the mustache "Got Milk" campaigns of the 90s. I remember seeing JTT (squeeee!) in my YM Magazine (I am OLD) casually touting milk. Fast forward to now, where there's been bits of research that hint at milk being a pro-inflammatory in the body and causing potential harm.
If we look at the whole width of current research, which, ahem, is my job to do as a dietitian, the reality is that dairy is overall *not* going to cause harm. The exception of course is the population with true milk allergies. Rather milk shows anti-inflammatory properties in humans. Milk is very nutrient-dense, by which I mean you get a lot of protein and calcium for the calories.
So why then have all these alternatives sprung up? Lactose intolerance is a real thing, as an estimated 50 million Americans have it. Lactose is the naturally-occurring sugar found in milk, and our small intestines secrete the enzyme lactase to break it down. As we age, many of us have slowed down production of lactase. Some populations, especially Asians, have extremely minimal lactase production, hence the general cultural avoidance of dairy.
Signs of lactose intolerance can be mild to severe and include bloating, gas, diarrhea, and nausea. Milk has a higher amount of lactose. Cheese and yogurt have less, so even if someone has mild lactose intolerance, they can often tolerate regular amounts of those foods. There is no specific medical test- it's just "if it bothers you, don't consume it."
Back to the alternatives: While at Aldi last week, I again was a creeper- this time snapping pics of coconut milk, soy milk, cow's milk, almond milk, and oat milk.
Let's take a look at how they compare.
(I should add that my 6 year old just asked me what I was working on. When I told him, he said "be sure to say that boobie milk is the healthiest!")
Calorie content ranges quite a bit, from 30-120. That might not seem like much of a difference, but I think of total consumption. If you were to drink a cup each day, in a month that's a difference of 2700 calories. Added sugars jump out at me as well- call me a party pooper, but there is no reason to be drinking a milk product with added sugar.
In total, cow's milk is the most nutrient-dense. For 90 calories you get 9 grams of protein, zero grams of saturated fat, and zero grams of added sugar (lactose is naturally there, yes), plus calcium and vitamin D. Unsweetened almond milk is recommended as well- fewer nutrients like protein, but it is very low calorie while still providing comparable vitamin D and calcium. I personally use unsweetened almond milk. I don't have a lactose intolerance, but I like it in my coffee and my smoothies (plus it lasts a long time in the fridge!).
Ultimately it is a personal choice, of course. If you hate the taste of any of these milks, well, don't drink them! Know that if you are a cow's milk drinker, the research is on your side for it being beneficial. If you prefer the alternatives, try to choose a type with little to no added sugar.