The Best and Worst Milks & Milk Alternatives
Our grandparents had it easy: The milkman came, dropped off a few quarts, and all was good. Then, things started to get complicated. First, it was skim, then 1% and 2%. Then cows started getting crowded off the shelves by almonds and soybeans, of all things, bringing milk alternatives to light.
Why the move? Whether it's because you're vegan, sensitive to dairy, trying to lose weight, or jumping on the trend, more and more Americans are shying away from dairy products and embracing plant-based alternatives. But with so many options, it's no wonder so many of us are roaming the dairy aisle in udder confusion.
This is our guide to the healthiest milk alternative brands to buy (and what to skip).
Milk proteins are some of the best sources of amino acids out there. The two proteins in milk, whey, and casein, have the ability to preserve lean muscle mass and improve metabolic health during weight loss, according to research published in the journal Nutrition & Metabolism. And if you go for Grass-fed, you'll be getting higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids (good) and 2 to 5 times more CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) than their corn and grain fed counterparts. CLA contains a group of chemicals which provides a wide variety of health benefits, including immune and inflammatory system support, improved bone mass, improved blood sugar regulation, reduced body fat, reduced risk of heart attack, and maintenance of lean body mass.
Like humans, when cows have weakened immune systems (because they're fed corn and soy that they weren't meant to eat), they get sick. When they get sick, they take antibiotics, and those antibiotics are then passed on to their milk. The milk we drink. On top of that, dairy is a source of inflammation-inducing saturated fats. Although studies have linked full-fat dairy drinkers with lower weights and lower risks of obesity, studies have also connected these saturated fats to disrupting our gut microbiome, actually decreasing levels of our good gut bacteria. So if you're going to drink milk, it's probably best to drink some with fat, but not too much fat. And lastly, dairy is a common allergen. Many people have difficulty digesting milk, whether it's because of lactose intolerance or sensitivity to its casein proteins, which can also cause acne.
Eat This! Tip:
Organically raised cows are not subject to the same hormones and antibiotics that conventional cows are; no antibiotics for them means no antibiotics for you. And if you may be a little lactose intolerant, but want to continue drinking animal milk, give goat milk a try. "Though cow's milk and goat's milk have similar nutritional profiles, the latter contains less lactose than the cow variety, so it's easier for those with lactose intolerance to stomach," explains Isabel Smith, registered dietitian and founder of Isabel Smith Nutrition. "For some people, this may help reduce the most common side effects of cow's milk, including gas, bloating, and congestion," she explains. "Plus, the protein that comes from goat's milk is easier for our bodies to use than plant protein, so it may aid muscle repair and regrowth post-exercise better than dairy-free milk alternatives."
Grass-fed is the best option, but if you can't find it at your local grocery store, don't fret. Any plain ol' organic brand will do. Organic Valley's herds are 100% grass-fed and thus have higher levels of omega-3s and CLA in their milk. And always remember to choose milk with at least 1% fat. While skim milk may be lowest in calories, many vitamins are fat-soluble, which means you won't get all the benefits of the alphabetical nutrients listed on your cereal box unless you opt for at least 1%.
Organic Valley Organic Grass-Fed 2% Milk
Kirkland Brand Organic 1% Milk
Conventionally produced nonfat milk, brands vary by region
Almond milk may be all the rage these days, but it's nothing new. In fact, almond milk has been around since the Middle Ages. A mixture of ground almond and water (so simple, you can make it at home!), almond milk is naturally low in calories. Almonds are high in vitamin E, manganese, selenium, magnesium, potassium, zinc, iron, fiber, phosphorous and boast the highest levels of calcium out of all the nuts. That's quite the resumé! While other forms of milk need to be fortified with vitamins (including cow's milk), almond milk is naturally chock full of nutrients. It is, however, also supplemented with calcium, but in doing so, it serves up more of the bone-building mineral than cow's milk per serving!
The downsides are that almond milk is significantly lacking when it comes to the muscle-building macronutrient, protein, averaging a mere gram per serving compared to around 8 grams for dairy milk.
Eat This! Tip:
One reason to choose almond milk over cow's milk is to improve digestion, especially in those with lactose intolerance. But you might be undermining your goals if you choose a brand that uses carrageenan as a thickening and emulsifying agent to keep the almond protein properly dispersed in the water. Carrageenan is an additive derived from seaweed that has been linked to ulcers, inflammation, and other gastrointestinal problems. Look for brands with no emulsifiers or those which use sunflower lecithin and gums instead.
Elmhurst Milked Almonds is made with just almonds and water. Major bonus: Elmhurst uses 4 times more almonds than other almond milk brands, which drives up this cup's protein content to an impressive 5 grams.
Elmhurst Unsweetened Milked Almonds
Pacific Organic Unsweetened Original Almond Beverage
Researchers could go to war over the pluses and minuses of soy, and basically, the jury is still out—but we do have the low-down on what happens to your body when you eat soy. (And no, you won't get man boobs.) As of now, what we do know is that soy milk is the least processed of all dairy-alternative milks, highest in protein, low in saturated fat, and widely available to consumers.
On the other hand, soybeans contain high levels of phytic acid, an antinutrient compound which inhibits your body's absorption of essential minerals like calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc and may cause digestive problems. Fortunately, these effects only occur in the meal during which you're drinking the soy milk, and the phytates won't disrupt absorption indefinitely. But if you're drinking soy milk every day, the effects may be more pronounced. You may have heard sprouting grains and beans decreases levels of phytates, but this method doesn't work with soy. The only way to decrease phytate levels is through a combination of sprouting and fermenting, like in foods such as miso, tempeh, soy sauce, and natto.
Eat This! Tip:
When choosing soy milk, stick with organic, non-GMO brands to avoid unnecessary pesticide consumption. An astounding 94 percent of soybeans are genetically engineered in the U.S. And according to a study published in Food Chemistry, genetically engineered soybeans accumulate and absorb high levels of glyphosate—an ingredient that's a probable human carcinogen, according to a study in BMJ—upon being sprayed by pesticides during their growing season. The same study also found GMO soybeans have poorer nutritional profiles compared to organic soybeans. And beware flavored varieties, which can be packed with unnecessary sugars.
While both brands are organic and non-GMO, Soy Dream uses carrageenan as their emulsifier and thickening agent, whereas Silk uses gellan gum. Not to mention, Soy Dream adds cane sugar to their milk and doesn't come in an unsweetened version.
Silk Organic, Non-GMO, Unsweetened Soy Milk
Soy Dream Enriched Original Organic Soy Milk
Move over almond milk, a new nutty milk substitute has hit supermarket shelves. Made by blending water-soaked cashews with H2O, this subtly-flavored beverage is a good source of fiber, antioxidants, copper (which helps produce and store iron) and magnesium (a mineral needed for proper nerve and muscle function). It can be added to everything from cereals to homemade puddings, but if you typically use milk alternatives or creamers to add a flavor to your coffee, cashew milk may be worth a try—especially for those who are wary of soy or have a gluten sensitivity.
Like almond milk, cashew milk is fairly low in protein, so you'll have to pair it with protein-rich breakfasts like a veggie omelet.
Silk Unsweetened Cashew Milk
So Delicious Unsweetened Cashew Milk Beverage
Eat This! Tip:
If you typically get your calcium fix from milk, be sure to pick a variety that is a good source of the mineral. Silk's bottle has 45% of your DV of calcium compared to So Delicious' 10%. So Delicious adds canola oil to the mix—even if it is non-GMO, why would you want to drink canola oil? Plus, it contains phosphates, which have been linked to kidney disease, according to a study in Diabetes Spectrum.
This nutty tasting, creamy milk substitute is made from water and cannabis seeds. Yes, this is the same type of plant used to make marijuana, but the beverage lacks the psychoactive component of the drug so it won't get you high (sorry!). Hemp is rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and naturally carries 10 essential amino acids, making it a good vegan source of protein. Many brands are also fortified with a variety of other good-for-you nutrients like riboflavin and vitamins D2 and B12. If soy milk upsets your stomach, that's the other reason this milk may be worth trying. Unlike soy, hemp doesn't contain oligosaccharides, complex sugars that can cause gas and flatulence. The natural, unobtrusive flavor makes it a good allergen-free option for homemade baked goods and side dishes like mashed potatoes.
The only downside? It won't necessarily help keep your bones strong. If you depend on milk to get your daily calcium fix, hemp isn't the best pick. Although amounts of the nutrient vary by brand, some varieties only serve up ten percent your daily need. Also worth mentioning is the cost. It's a bit pricier than other milks on supermarket shelves.
Both options contain phosphates, but we chose Living Harvest Tempt as our top pick because it has less phosphates than its competitor and also contains vitamin B12. This vitamin is added to nut milks because they're typically used by vegans, who won't get the vitamin essential to blood and nerve health as it's only found in animal sources.
Living Harvest Tempt Hempmilk Unsweetened Original
Pacific Foods Unsweetened Hemp Original
If you're a fan of whole milk or cream, you'll love this naturally sweet milk's texture. The beverage is made from fresh grated coconut meat, which helps give it a natural, creamy thickness. Coconut milk is loaded with medium-chain triglycerides (a type of easily-digested healthy fat that helps fry flab), potassium, and a host of fortified vitamins (some brands have 50 percent of the day's B12!), making it a healthy way to add a tropical twist to coffees, teas, oatmeal, cereal and homemade smoothies. (Remember, we're talking about the variety sold in a carton, not a can, which is extremely calorie-dense and should only be used for cooking.)
Heed our warning: this isn't the best milk to gulp by the glass. While the fats in this beverage are the healthy type, they should still be consumed in moderation. Just one cup serves up 20 percent of the day's saturated fat, so be sure to look for varieties that are unsweetened to keep calories as low as possible and the overall nutritional profile sound.
While it may look like the "This" and "That" are pretty similar (they also both eschew using carrageenan), we like Silk's milk because it contains more calcium—a key component of the beverage—and fewer phosphates.
Silk Unsweetened Coconut Milk
So Delicious Unsweetened Coconut Milk Beverage
It about ends at "It's lactose-free." Oh, and rice milk is good to use in baking because it holds up well under heat.
But as far as dairy-free milks go, rice milk comes in last in regard to nutritional value. Made from boiled rice, brown rice syrup, and brown rice starch, rice milk is higher in sugar than its legume and nut-based counterparts, and lower in protein. Add to that the fact that arsenic levels in rice and rice-based products have been on the rise, and you're looking at a food that is almost entirely a NOT THAT!
Eat This! Tip
Use rice milk sparingly, and when you do, look for lower sugar varieties.
While we're not happy that both (if not all milk alternatives brands in the market) use inflammatory carrageenan and inflammatory vegetable oils in their rice milks, you're better off going with the easy-to-digest rice beverage from Rice Dream if you really want some rice milk. It's made with organic sprouted brown rice, which helps digest the starches in the grain, making it easier on your tummy.
Organic Sprouted Rice Dream Unsweetened, Original Enriched
Pacific Rice Original
This is one of the highest protein milk alternatives. Ripple Foods' powerful new pea protein-based milk is taking over the health food scene in a big way. And when we say powerful, we're not kidding; a one-cup serving delivers the same amount of protein as cow's milk. Ripple also is low in saturated fat and has 50 percent more calcium than the popular almond milk. The very best part, though, is that it actually tastes like creamy, silky milk!
As for the negatives, there are none besides Ripple's use of sunflower oil in their recipe. It might give the milk a creamy texture, but sunflower oil is high in omega-6s, which become inflammatory if consumes in high amounts. Luckily, Ripple also adds anti-inflammatory omega-3s to counteract these fatty acids, so the damage isn't too high.
Ripple Unsweetened has 40 percent less sugar than other flavored milks in the market. The vanilla pea milk has 15 grams of added sugars, compared to about 12 grams of sugar in traditional milk—and those don't count as "added" because they're naturally-occurring lactose sugars found in the milk. If you do like it sweet, the "Original" flavor isn't as bad, coming in at a mere 6 grams of sugar.
Ripple Original Unsweetened Pea Milk
Ripple Vanilla Pea Milk, 8 fl oz
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