Milkin’ It

Published on: 03/16/2022
Pouring milk into a glass
Remember when skim milk became “fat-free” milk, and 2% milk became “reduced-fat”? Maybe not😉, but as a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, I thought it was quite the big deal at the time. Who knew what was to come?!

Have you seen the dairy section of the market recently? I am all for options, but sometimes they can be quite overwhelming! There was always the whole milk, low fat, or nonfat milk dilemma. Now we have quite the choice of cow varieties and non-dairy varieties of milk on the shelves. Let’s dig in to understand what these milk are all about and what might be best for you🥛.

There are two main types of milk, cow’s milk and dairy-free milk alternatives, otherwise known as plant-based milk. Two types might sound simple, but there are many, many🙃varieties in our plant-based alternatives.

Let’s start with cow’s🐄 milk, as it has been around the longest. There are four main options of cow’s milk, which differ in the amount of fat they contain, and therefore calories. Plus, there is lactose-free milk, which still comes from the cow, but the milk sugar has been removed. These are excellent options for people who are lactose intolerant. They have basically the same nutritional breakdowns.

One of the huge benefits of cow’s milk is the amount of calcium in a serving. (Check back here for your calcium needs and facts!)

Let’s compare what 1 cup of each type of cow’s milk contains:

A few other terms to clarify around cow’s milk:

  • 🥛Does it matter if the milk is organic? Organic milk comes from organic dairy farms. Organic means that the cows receive feed that is free of pesticides. It also means the cows were not treated with antibiotics or growth hormones. I would say yes, it matters.
  • 🥛What is ultra-filtered milk? This one is more of a loaded question, so to speak, as it is actually unloaded and loaded up :). Ultra-filtered milk starts off as nonfat milk, which is then filtered to remove about half of the milk’s water content along with about half of the lactose, or milk sugar, letting the milk protein molecules remain. What you’re left with is essentially concentrated milk — all the protein, plus half the water and half the lactose. But we’re not done. This concentrate is then re-diluted with water, but still remains to have a higher protein concentration, so that it ends up with around 13 grams of protein per cup (as opposed to 8 grams per cup for ordinary cow’s milk). Fat is added back to the desired levels followed by the addition of lactase, the enzyme which breaks down the remaining lactose into its component sugars, glucose, and galactose, which are easier to digest than lactose. Then there is the addition of vitamins, with the resulting product containing half the sugars (around 6 grams instead of the usual 13 grams) and nearly twice the protein (13 grams versus 8 grams). Calorie-wise, the numbers balance out, with the added protein making up for the fewer sugars. It is a bit thicker than regular cow’s milk, similar to Greek yogurt being thicker than regular yogurt, due to the excess protein. Yes, it is a highly processed product.
  • 🥛How unhealthy is flavored milk, like chocolate or strawberry milk? These types of milk, no matter the flavor, tend to be higher in added sugar. If you crave one every so often, it surely balances out. If you are closely monitoring your sugar intake, just be sure to check the label so you know how much you are consuming in a serving.

🥥🌱Let’s move on to our dairy-free milk alternatives (plant-based milk). As I mentioned, there are quite a few, with new ones still heading to the market quite frequently. Milk alternatives can be a great option for someone who is lactose intolerant, does not like the taste of cow’s milk, or if you are avoiding animal products. It is a personal choice, but let’s dig into the nutritional breakdowns of the vast array of milk alternatives.

Let’s compare what 1 cup of each type of plant-based milk contains (*note — with all the different brands on the market, the nutritional analysis will vary):

Which milk is healthier: cow’s milk or plant-based milk?


Photo by Kim Gorga on Unsplash

No one milk is better than the other. And really, it comes down to what is best for you. We all have different likes (and dislikes) and dietary needs. Here are some other nutritional facts to keep in mind when making your choice.

  • Cow’s milk provides 13 essential nutrients per 8-ounce serving. “Essential” means the nutrients must come from your diet, as our bodies do not make them. These nutrients include protein, vitamin D, calcium, vitamin A, phosphorus, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B12, pantothenic acid, potassium, zinc, iodine, and selenium.
  • Cow’s milk is also a good source of protein. If you’re vegetarian, dairy can be an easy way to get more protein.
  • Oat milk has a very different nutrition profile than dairy milk. Oat milk provides fewer nutrients than dairy milk, and most of the nutrients it provides are fortified. That means they’re added during manufacturing, as opposed to occurring naturally. There may be added sugar as well.
  • Then there is the amount and type of protein in oat milk (and other plant-based kinds of milk) versus cow’s milk. Cow’s milk has about twice the protein as oat milk. Protein helps build lean muscle, and getting enough at each meal or snack can help you feel full and satisfied. As you can see from the charts, cow’s milk provides 8 grams of protein in every 8-ounce glass, while the same amount of unsweetened oat milk typically provides 4 grams (though the protein in oat milk varies from brand to brand, so it’s important to check the label). The protein in cow’s milk is also a source of complete, high-quality protein, which means every serving contains a full mix of essential amino acids. Most plant-based protein sources, like oats, are incomplete proteins and missing some of the essential amino acids our bodies need.

Plant-based milk products provide options to those who don’t drink or cannot tolerate cow’s milk. There are many types, and many brands, with various nutrients and ingredients. It is super important to read labels! Fortification of non-dairy milk alternatives is not federally regulated, so some brands may fortify more while others fortify less. There may also be additional ingredients, including stabilizers and emulsifiers (ie. gellan gum, locust bean gum, and sunflower lecithin). That’s why it’s important to read and compare nutrition labels and ingredient lists to make a well-informed choice, that works best for you.

Keep in mind, it is NOT just what you put in your cereal or use in your smoothie, but your overall diet each day. Whichever type of milk you choose, always keep in mind your total nutrition for the day☀️

We are all here, defending our independence, our country. And it will stay that way. Glory to the men and women defending us. Glory to Ukraine. Glory to the heroes.

🇷🇼~Volodymyr Zelensky

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With a longstanding dedication to healthy cooking and eating, I promote nutrition with a rebellious twist: the belief that perfection is not required for success on your wellness journey. 

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