Cow’s milk has a lot going for it. It’s naturally high in protein, calcium, phosphorus, potassium and selenium. If you’re not a vegan vegetarian (no animal products!) and you’re not allergic to casein (milk protein), milk is a nutritious choice. If you’re lactose intolerant (you can’t digest the carbohydrate in milk), lactose reduced milk is a good and effective choice for most people.
A good alternative to milk if you’re allergic to milk protein or you are vegan vegetarian, is soy milk. Soy milk is also very high in protein (8 grams) and it’s a very high quality plant protein. It’s also naturally high in folate, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus and vitamin C. The
manufacturers add calcium, some B vitamins (B12 and riboflavin) and also vitamin D. I would say that soy and cow’s milk are the most nutritious milk choices. Both have a broad array of naturally occurring nutrients plus a few that are added for other benefits. Flavored soy milks have some sugar added so be sure to check out the sugars. Some have less, some have more than the natural sugar in milk (lactose).
A lot of people are drinking almond milk but it’s probably not as nutritious as you think. It only has one gram of protein compared to the eight grams in soy and cow’s milk. Nor does it have all the nutrition that almonds have – so don’t forgo your whole nuts for the milk. To make almond milk, the almonds are soaked in water and ground up and then more water is added. Then the mixture is strained – so much of the almond gets drained out. When you look at the almond milk label, most of the nutrients in almond milk are added – not a natural part of the almond. The calcium, vitamin E, zinc, vitamin A, vitamin D, and the B-vitamins are all added synthetically. As with soy milk, the flavored versions can have quite a bit of sugar added. If you are vegan or allergic to cow’s milk, I definitely give a big nutritional edge to soy milk. One advantage to the plain almond milk (which is lightly sweetened) and the unsweetened is that they are low in calories – 30 and 60 respectively. But light soy milk and skim milk are also pretty low in calories – 60 and 85 respectively. Now, if you love the way almond milk tastes, then it is fine to drink it – just make sure you’re getting your protein elsewhere. To me, taste always wins out! But if you’re just looking at which one packs the biggest nutritional punch, I’d have to give the edge to soy and cow’s milk over almond milk.
Beth Kitchin, PhD, RDN
Assistant Professor, Nutrition Sciences
University of Alabama at Birmingham