The Best Types of Dairy Milk Brands To Buy, According to Nutritionists
We're willing to bet that the majority of American households have a gallon of creamy, cold milk sitting in the fridge as we speak. Whether it's being poured over breakfast cereal, added into recipes, or simply chugged by the glassful, milk is one of the more versatile staple items in our kitchens.
Though cow's milk has gotten a bad rap in recent years thanks to the rising popularity of alternative milk, there's still a lot to love about the good ol' fashioned favorite.
"Milk contains many important nutrients, including vitamin B12, calcium, magnesium, and vitamin A," says registered dietitian Sarah Rueven, founder of Rooted Wellness. "Most dairy milks are also fortified with vitamin D, a vitamin that is not widely found in our food supply but is important for immune function, bone health, and mood regulation, among other things."
And let's not forget about protein: Rueven says one cup of milk contains eight grams of protein, making it a great source of the same stuff which supports immune function, builds and repairs tissues, and produces necessary amino acids and hormones. (Most plant-based milks, on the other hand, contain less than a single gram of protein, meaning they aren't a 1:1 nutritional swap).
How to choose a healthy milk brand
You can buy milk at nearly every store that sells consumable products—from supermarkets and big box stores right down to your local corner gas station. But that doesn't mean all those milks are created equal; there are a few things to look for if you're trying to buy the healthiest milk around.
- Look for organic, grass-fed options. "Cows that were fed mostly grass produce milk that has more omega-3 fatty acids [which] are beneficial for heart and brain health," explains Rueven. FYI, to be classified as organic, cows must have been fed at least 30 percent of their diet from grass.
- Choose A2 over A1. You might never have heard of these labels before, but you should know what they mean if you're a regular milk-drinker. Nicole Magryta, RDN and author of Nourish Your Tribe, says A1 and A2 refers to the subtypes of beta-casein protein found in dairy: "A2 cow's milk, which comes from certain breeds of cattle like Jersey or Guernsey breeds, is less inflammatory than A1 cow's milk, [which makes up] the vast majority of what's available on store shelves."
- Do your research about rBGH. Recombinant bovine growth hormone, or rBGH, has been given to dairy cattle for decades despite the health problems it often causes the animals (and the fact that can pass to humans by drinking milk from cows treated with rBGH). It's wise to avoid it, but a rBGH-free label doesn't mean your milk is responsibly sourced, either. "Labels that read 'rBGH free' ensure the milk product does not come from cows treated with rBGH, but it doesn't mean they haven't been given antibiotics, GMO grains, or weren't milked while pregnant," says Magryta.
- Stick with whole milk. For a long time, consumers were warned to avoid the full-fat content of whole milk, but that's no longer the best recommendation. "Dietary recommendations to avoid full-fat dairy intake are not supported by the literature," says Magryta. "New studies have shown no association between full-fat dairy and a risk of developing diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity." What's more, not only does full-fat milk taste better, Rueven says the high-fat content makes it more satiating and can potentially prevent over-eating later on.
The 9 healthiest milk brands you can buy
This list of dairy milks will make putting together your weekly shopping list easier—and healthier—than ever.
1. Best grass-fed: Maple Hill Organic 100% Grass-Fed Cow Milk
"This milk is made from cows that did not receive antibiotics or growth hormones and were fed grass for the entirety of their life," says Rueven, who adds that it's important to pick a grass-fed milk with a label that says '100% grass-fed,' because otherwise the cows may have spent most of their lives eating a grain-based diet and only being fed grass for a short time.
2. Best organic: Stonyfield Organic Milk
According to Rueven, the health benefits of organic milk can be found in its lack of hormones and antibiotics as well as its ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. "A diet containing too many omega-6 fatty acids and not enough omega-3s has been linked to heart disease, as well as cancer, inflammation and autoimmune diseases," she explains. Stonyfield's organic milk checks all the necessary boxes, making it a solid choice.
3. Best ultra-filtered: Organic Valley Ultra-Filtered Organic Milk
Ultra-filtered milk is like organic milk on steroids, except, you know, not—because it's basically the cleanest milk around, free of GMOs, antibiotics, or pesticides. It's also technically healthier and easier to digest. "Organic Valley's ultra-filtered milk offers more protein and calcium, less sugar, and no lactose compared to regular organic whole milk," says Magryta.
4. Best lactose-free: Organic Valley Lactose-Free Organic Milk
Love the taste of milk but hate the GI symptoms that come with being lactose intolerant? Lactose-free milk contains an enzyme called lactase, which Rueven says helps to break down the sugar found in milk (a.k.a. lactose). As a bonus, Magryta says the Organic Valley milk brand comes from pasture-raised cows not fed with GMO grains.
If you have trouble digesting milk, it might not be due to lactose. Rueven says this milk is produced from cows that do not produce the A1 protein, which means that some individuals with slight dairy intolerances may find it easier to digest. Milk produced by The a2 Milk Company has also received certification from Validus, a company that performs farm animal welfare audits to ensure ethical treatment.
6. Best fortified: Clover Sonoma Organic Whole Milk DHA Omega-3 + Choline
Magryta says the addition of omega-3s and choline in this milk can support brain health, and that Clover cows are American Humane Certified and raised on local family-owned farms that follow sustainable agriculture practices. The Clover Sonoma milk brand is only available on the west coast, but it's a healthy and eco-friendly choice for folks living in the Pacific time zone.
7. Best low-temperature pasteurized: Lifeline Farm Organic Whole Milk
The Lifeline farm is biodynamic-certified and grows 80 percent of the feed for their dairy cows in-house, per Magryta. Their milk is also vat pasteurized, which means it's heated in small batches at a lower temperature than milk traditionally pasteurized at high temps in large quantities. This means it's safer to consume than raw milk, because it still kills bacteria—but may preserve more of the beneficial nutrients found in dairy milk.
8. Best goat milk: Meyenberg Whole Goat Milk
Rueven says goat's milk is easier for some people to digest, especially if they're sensitive to cow's milk. She likes the Meyenberg milk brand because it has added vitamin D, so you'll get an extra boost of nutrients that aid in immune and bone health.
9. Best unpasteurized: SideHill Farm Certified Organic Raw Milk
Planning a trip to Massachusetts or lucky enough to live there? You might want to partake in SideHill Farm's raw milk, which Magryta says is a safe option sold right on the farm. Raw milk has benefits, like higher levels of probiotics and nutrients, but you do need to be very careful. Because raw milk is unpasteurized, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says it can also be contaminated with dangerous bacteria like salmonella and listeria.
The 3 worst milk brands you can buy
Just because dairy milk can be a good source of protein and vitamin D doesn't mean you can run out and buy a gallon of any old brand (not if you're trying to make healthy choices, anyway). According to dietitians, non-organic milk is a big no-no, as is milk that has been irresponsibly sourced. Skip these 3 milks the next time you shop.
1. Any conventionally-produced store-brand milk
"Non-organic milk is made from cows eating a diet primarily made up of GMO soy and corn products," says Rueven. "This diet decreases the amount of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants found in milk." Magryta takes it one step further, recommending that consumers avoid off-brand milks produced by chain stores like Publix or Kroger, since they're not likely to be selling a quality (i.e. organic, grass-fed) product.
2. Horizon Organic Milk
Think the word "organic" means a milk product is worth purchasing? Think again. "This brand is known or suspected to be practicing outside the intent of organic rules and regulations, and [may] have questionable ethical treatment of animals," Magryta, pointing a history of marketing practices that some consumer watchdog groups claim are deceptive. Horizon was also the subject of a 2018 class-action lawsuit for including non-organic DHA in its organic milk products.
3. fairlife Milk
While fairlife doesn't necessarily make one of the worst milks you can buy, they may still qualify as one of the worst milk brands. If you're concerned about the ethical treatment of dairy cows Magryta warns fairlife might not be for you. Fair Oaks Farm, a fairlife supplier, was accused of engaging in abusive animal practices in June of 2019 after undercover workers documented cases of animal cruelty. The investigation is ongoing, but several class-action lawsuits have since been filed.