Milking it

Whole milk, low-fat, two percent, silk, goat, almond, lactose free . . . there’s even coconut milk! Confused? If you’re wondering what is what and which is better — or best for you and your family — here’s a quick primer to help you sort out the fat from the soy in your dairy products.

If you’ve ever traipsed through the dairy aisle at your local grocer, you know there’s a wide assortment of milk choices. But the contents and differences can be confusing, and misleading to the uninformed. Some people (including babies) can’t digest whole milk — fortunately, there are many non-dairy “milk” products available to help provide critical proteins and nutrients typically found in milk. But for those of us who can’t imagine an Oreo, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or bowl of cereal without cold milk, here’s some facts that might help narrow your healthy choices.

The primary types of milk sold in stores are whole milk, reduced-fat milk (2%), low-fat milk (1%), and fat-free milk. The percentages included in the names of the milk indicate how much fat is in the milk by weight.

Whole milk is 3.5 percent milk fat and is the closest to the way it comes from the cow before processing. Consumers who want to cut calories and fat have multiple options: Reduced-fat milk contains 2 percent milk fat and low-fat milk contains 1 percent milk fat. Fat-free milk, also called nonfat or skim, contains no more than 0.2 percent milk fat.

All of these milks contain the nine essential nutrients found in whole milk, but less fat. The U.S. government sets minimum standards for fluid milk that is produced and sold. Reduced-fat milks have all of the nutrients of full-fat milk; no water is added to these types of milk.

There are many types of milk – different fat levels, lactose-free, flavored and plain, rBST-free, organic and conventionally produced. This variety allows consumers to choose the milk product that best matches their nutritional needs and personal preferences.  All milk and milk products have an irreplaceable package of nutrients that cannot be found in any other single food or beverage. Cup for cup, organic and regular milk contain the same nine essential nutrients – such as calcium, vitamin D and potassium – that make dairy products an essential part of a healthy diet.

Organic labeling is not a measure of the quality or safety of a product. As with all organic foods, it’s the process that makes milk organic, not the final product. Any differences between organic and conventionally-produced milk are not likely to have an impact on our health. According to the United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA), milk and milk products can be labeled “organic” if the milk is from cows that have been exclusively fed organic feed with no mammalian or poultry by-products, have access to pasture throughout the grazing season, are not treated with synthetic hormones and are not given antibiotics. Due to the pasture feeding requirement, organic milk can have more omega-3 fatty acids. However this will vary depending on the season and other factors.

Milk is among the most highly regulated and safest foods available. Both conventionally produced and organic milk are routinely tested for antibiotics and pesticides and must comply with very stringent safety standards, ensuring that both organic milk and conventional milk are pure, safe and nutritious.

What’s most commonly referred to as simply “milk” is cow’s milk, a product of the cow’s mammary gland. As with all other animal-based foods, it’s a complete protein; that is, it supplies people with all the necessary amino acids to form proteins. Cow’s milk contains 8 grams of protein and 12 grams of carbohydrates per 8-ounce cup.

Cow’s milk is a rich source of other nutrients as well. One cup provides adults with about 30 percent of their daily calcium needs and about 50 percent of their vitamin B12 and riboflavin requirements. Often, milk is fortified with vitamin D to facilitate the absorption of calcium. Vitamin A is usually added to milk as well. But as already mentioned, depending on the selection, cow’s milk can have a significant amount of fat. (See chart )

Soy and non-dairy substitutes

Lactose, the primary carbohydrate in cow’s milk, poses a digestive problem for some people. These folks are deficient in the lactase enzyme that’s needed to break down this milk sugar, causing gas, bloating, and diarrhea after consuming some forms of dairy products. The solution is to purchase products with the lactose already broken down, to take the enzyme in the form of a pill or drops, or to find a substitute for these foods.

Soymilk is not technically milk, but a beverage made from soybeans. It is the liquid that remains after soybeans are soaked, finely ground, and then strained. Since it doesn’t contain any lactose, soymilk is suitable for consumers who are lactose-intolerant. It’s also a popular cow’s milk substitute for vegans and vegetarians since it’s based on a plant source (others include rice, oat, almond, coconut, and potato milk).

One cup of unfortified soymilk contains almost 7 grams of protein, 4 grams of carbohydrate, 4½ grams of fat, and no cholesterol. Although soymilk supplies some B vitamins, it’s not a good source of B12, nor does it provide a significant amount of calcium. Since many people substitute soy beverages for cow’s milk, manufacturers offer fortified versions. These varieties may include calcium and vitamins E, B12, and D, among other nutrients. If you do choose to use soymilk instead of cow’s milk, read labels carefully to be sure you’re getting enough of these important nutrients or consider getting them from alternative food sources.

Soymilk may help some people reduce their risk for heart disease. Soy naturally contains isoflavones, plant chemicals that help lower LDL (“bad” cholesterol) if taken as part of a “heart healthy” eating plan. The recommendation is to take in about 25 grams of soy protein per day. One cup of soymilk has about 7 to 10 grams of protein, depending on the brand. If you’re going to buy soy, go for the unflavored, organic soymilk in order to preserve the protein it contains.

Almond milk sales have climbed over the past few years, as it has been touted as a healthier alternative to milk and soymilk. It contains 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, researchers don’t believe it has the same nutritional value as conventional milk, and it has 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. This 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 and has twice as many carbohydrates.

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