Make Mine Shaken, Not Stirred

It’s encouraging to see that milk shakes are making a big comeback across America, especially since overall cow milk consumption – a critical component in maintaining strong bones and a healthy diet – is down, dropping 25 percent from 1975 to 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In part that’s due to milk allergies and lactose intolerance, but also to the proliferation of non-dairy drinks and the wide variety of “milk” products now available.

But just because it says “milk” on the label doesn’t make it milk – and the many substitutes attracting consumers are not necessarily as healthy as the real deal. So, what do we need to know about milk? Is it safe, is it healthy, and what types of milk products are best for us?

The primary types of milk sold in stores include whole milk, reduced-fat milk (2%), low-fat milk (1%), and fat-free milk (containing no more than 0.2% milk fat). The percentages included in the names of the milk indicate how much fat is in the milk by weight. Whole milk is 3.5% milk fat and is the closest to the way it comes from the cow before processing. All of these milks contain the nine essential nutrients found in whole milk but less fat.

The United States government sets minimum standards for fluid milk that is produced and sold. Reduced fat milks have the same nutrients of full-fat milk; no water is added to these types of milk. Additionally, most milk undergoes processing before we buy it. The three primary steps include pasteurization, homogenization and fortification.

Pasteurization heats the milk to destroy harmful microorganisms and prolong shelf life. Normal pasteurization keeps milk safer while maintaining its valuable nutrients. Ultra-high temperature (UHT) milk is pasteurized at a much higher temperature to make it sterile. UHT milk is then packed into special containers that keep it safe without requiring refrigeration.

After pasteurization, milk undergoes homogenization to prevent separation of the milk fat from the fluid milk. Homogenization creates a smooth, uniform texture. Then milk is fortified to increase its nutritional value or to replace nutrients lost during processing. Vitamin D is added to most milk produced in the United States to facilitate the absorption of calcium. Vitamin A is frequently added to reduced-fat, low-fat and fat-free milks. Vitamin A promotes normal vision, particularly helping the eyes to adjust to low-light settings.

All milk must comply with very stringent safety standards and is among the most highly regulated and safest foods available. Organic milk is produced by dairy farmers that use only organic fertilizers and organic pesticides, and their cows are not given supplemental hormones. Dairy farmers and producers also make many specialty forms of milk to meet consumer preferences and needs, such as milk that is lactose-free and ultra-pasteurized.

Consuming Dairy Milk Alternatives

While milk consumption per capita has been on a steady decrease, the mainstreaming of plant-based dairy alternatives like soy, almond and rice milk has averaged annual U.S. sales growth of 10.9 percent since 1999, resulting in more than $1 billion in annual retail sales.

The non-dairy milk product category was created to accommodate people who are lactose intolerant or have vegan dietary restrictions – not because they are nutritionally equivalent or better. Alternatives like soy milk and almond milk generally are much lower in calcium and vitamin D, but many of these products make up for it by adding the nutrients later.

Conventional milk is an excellent source of protein and bone-strengthening calcium, as well as vitamins D and K. The National Academy of Sciences recommends that people aged 19 to 50 should digest 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day, or drink around one to two glasses per day, but it’s still unclear how much calcium we should be consuming. Researchers also warn that too much milk could mean an excess of saturated fat and retinol (vitamin A), which can sometimes end up weakening bones.

Soy milk is a protein-rich alternative to cow’s milk but lacks in calcium. Soy often is used for babies who have trouble digesting whole milk. It is richer in vitamin B and has 10 percent of our recommended daily intake of folic acid, a B-complex vitamin. Soy has proven effective in lowering cholesterol, but to obtain that benefit requires that you consume about four to five soy products daily. Also, because processing of soy results in a bitter flavor, soy milk products have added sweeteners and flavor enhancers, and these extra carbs can be harder to digest, making people gassy.

Almond milk sales have climbed over the past few years; it has been touted as a healthier alternative to milk and soy milk, and does not contain lactose. Its benefits include fewer calories than soy (90 calories in 8 ounces), no saturated fat or cholesterol, about 25 percent of our daily vitamin D, and almost half of our vitamin E requirement. Though almond milk has also been recognized for preventing heart disease, it lacks the same nutritional value as conventional milk, containing very little protein.

Rice milk is processed, milled rice, blended with water until it transforms into a liquid. During the process, carbohydrates become sugar, giving it a natural sweetened taste. The sugary alternative is very low in nutrient value unless vitamins and calcium are added to it. It’s the least likely to trigger allergies, but contains almost no protein.

Goat milk is popular around the world, though not as common in the United States. People perceive that it’s healthier than cow’s milk, and easier to digest, but that isn’t the case. It has more saturated fat than cow’s milk, similar levels of cholesterol and is higher in calories and total fat. And goat’s milk, like cow’s milk, contains lactose.

Hemp milk is less well known among American consumers, but worth considering. A glass of hemp milk contains the same number of calories as soy milk, one-third to one-half of the protein, but 50 percent more fat (five to six grams per serving). However, most of the fats in hemp milk are omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids, key for nervous system function and healthy skin and hair. Certain omega-3 and omega-6 fats also appear to reduce inflammation and lower blood lipid levels.

Whichever milk you choose, some type of milk is important for good nutrition. If you cannot digest cow’s milk, alternatives are useful, but you may need to take calcium or other vitamin supplements for nutritional balance. Check with your physician or a nutrition specialist to see what’s best for you, and bottoms up!


Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!