Got milk? This is the kind you should be drinking

Sean Rossman
Milk being poured into a glass.

The diversity in the modern milk market — spurred by the eye-catching emergence of alternatives — makes choosing a half-gallon of the refrigerator staple more complicated these days.

But nutritionists advise there never was a reason to stray from good old fashioned cow's milk, aside from environmental concerns and new options promising better health benefits. The truth is, however, the stuff once delivered to our doorsteps remains the most nutritious. Those nut and plant-based milks often contain little of their namesake and are fortified with vitamin water. 

"Consumers are always looking for what's new and also demand more choices in the marketplace. Never before have we seen an increase like this in alternative milks," said Kim Larson, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "The nutritional profile of these will vary, especially in the protein area, but also in terms of vitamins in minerals."

We asked Larson and Angela Lemond, a Texas-based registered dietitian nutritionist, to break down some of the most popular types of milk, from cashew to cow.

Cow's milk, nutritionists say, still offers better nutritional benefits than milk alternatives.

Cow's milk — still the 'gold standard'

The throwback cow's milk, both Lemond and Larson point out, is the healthiest option because of its naturally occurring vitamins, which include everything from Vitamin D, potassium and calcium, to phosphorous, Vitamin B-12 and even melatonin. It's the "gold standard," Larson claims.

Lemond recommends 1% and skim milk. However, she says whole milk, which contains more calories will work for people who are very active and lack cholesterol issues.

Lemond in part blames the movement away from cow's milk on the negative perception of dairy farms. She assures people modern dairy farms are mindful of the ethical treatment of animals and do not add hormones. She encourages her clients to go visit farms.

Soybean fields rows in the summer.

Soy milk

Of course, many people have difficulty digesting milk. In which case, soy milk, Lemond and Larson say, is the best option.

Soy milk, essentially pulverized soybeans, Lemond said, is the closest you'll get to a naturally occurring milk without drinking cow's milk. It has a lot of nutrition including added boosts of Vitamin B-12, calcium and Vitamin D. Larson said it's "nutritionally equivalent" to cow's milk.

Soy milk contains more of its main ingredient — soybeans — than almond milk contains almonds, Lemond said. It's also high in healthy polyunsaturated fats, compared to the saturated fats in cow's milk. 

But soy milk, for all of its benefits, has fallen out of favor with vegans and those with lactose intolerances because of GMO concerns, Larson said. Genetically-modified organisms, are feared for their possible health hazards. Although, a National Academies of Science report last year found GMO foods weren't detrimental to health. The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications said 94% of soybeans were genetically engineered in 2015.

Almond milk.

Almond milk

Almond milk, which Larson said is the No. 1 selling plant-based milk, lacks little of one key ingredient: Almonds. 

Almond milk, Lemond said, contains only about four to six almonds in an 8-ounce glass. The rest is water and added vitamins. For almond milk and other plant-based milks, sweeteners need to be added to make them palatable.

She says if you want the benefits of almonds, eat almonds. Lemond calls almonds a, "nutrition powerhouse" high in Vitamin E, calcium, fiber, magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids.

Rice milk is good for those with lots of allergies because it lacks nuts and dairy.

Rice milk

Lemond recommends rice milk, which is rice based with added vitamins and water, for people who can't eat dairy or nuts. Although she ranks it under almond milk in terms of nutrition. 

She too cited its lack of protein, typical in these alternative milks.

"Often consumers mistakenly believe (plant-based milks) are healthier," Larson said, "which is not true. This 'health halo' has blurred the lines so much that other plant based milks jumped on the wave and are enjoying the ride."

A glass of cashew milk with a bowl of cashews.

Cashew milk

Lemond said cashew milk is similar to almond milk, but, due to the nut's composition, has more saturated fat than almond milk.

It too is low in protein, has few actual cashews, and also has many of its nutrients added.