When I was a kid, there were only two kinds of milk….white or chocolate.
I mean, there were probably more, but to a kid growing up in rural Manitoba there were only two kinds that mattered! Milk was as much of a staple in our house as the air we breathe, and drinking a glass of milk at dinner was expected. Everyone drank milk and there was really no question as to whether or not that was a healthy choice.
More recently though, popular diets (such as the ketogenic, paleo, or vegan diets) have advised against drinking milk, due to it’s supposed unnaturalness, too-high carbohydrate content, or disease-causing effects (apparently). Called inflammatory, cancer-causing, and downright dangerous by these diet advocates, it has got many people seriously questioning their relationship with this childhood staple. It’s a common question I get from clients, and a hot debate I see all over my social media feeds.
Should we drink milk? Is cow’s milk healthy for us, or is a “dead food”, filled with cancer-causing agents and inflammatory substances? Are plant-based milks a better option?
For the purpose of this article, I’ll be referring to “milk” when I simply mean cow’s milk. When discussing milk alternatives such as soy, almond, or coconut milk I will specify the type.
Why drink milk?
Milk is a very nutritious choice for most people. It contains 8 grams of protein per cup (making it a good source of protein), is an excellent, convenient source of calcium, and provides us with a handful of other vitamins and minerals such as potassium, phosphorus, and Vitamins A and D, and B12. Other foods made from milk like yogurt and cheese are also nutritious options, and provide us with these same nutrients. The claims that milk is bad for us, causing cancer and inflammation in our bodies is just not true.
Why does milk cause digestive issues in some people? Are they allergic to milk?
Animal milks (like cow’s milk or goat milk or human milk) contain a sugar called “Lactose”. In our digestive tract we produce and enzyme called “Lactase” which breaks down that sugar so we can absorb it and use it for energy. Some people do not produce very much of this enzyme, we call this condition “lactose intolerance’. If a person who is lactose intolerant drinks too much milk, all of that sugar cannot be digested completely. This undigested sugar sitting in the gastrointestinal tract is what causes the cramping, gas, and diarrhea associated with lactose intolerance. A person with lactose intolerance can drink low-lactose milk (in which the lactose sugar has been already broken down), or take lactase enzymes before consuming milk in order to aid digestion. Lactose intolerance is NOT a milk allergy! A true milk allergy is related to the proteins in milk, not the lactose sugar. People who are lactose intolerant can usually consume a small amount of milk without symptoms (such as putting milk in their coffee), but experience GI issues with larger amounts (exactly how much depends on personal tolerance). People who have a milk protein allergy need to avoid all milk and milk products completely.
Yogurt and cheese can often be safely consumed by people with lactose intolerance, because bacteria eat up the lactose sugar during the fermentation process necessary to create these foods. There is relatively little lactose left in most commercial yogurts (and even some that are verified lactose-free), and cheese has essentially no lactose left. So, if you are unable to drink fluid milk due to lactose intolerance, other dairy products may be great options for you!
Almond, Coconut, Soy, Oh My! Are Plant-Based Milk Alternatives Healthier?
There has been a huge influx in the market lately for plant-based milks. The popularity of vegan diets, paleo diets, and the ketogenic diet have created a large demand for these products, and plenty of opportunities for food companies looking to cash in on the trend. When I was a kid, the only milk alternative you could really find out there was soy milk, but more recently there is a whole aisle in most grocery stores dedicated to the various types of plant-based milks out there. But are they healthier than cow’s milk?
Let’s compare the facts:
As you can see, there is quite a lot of variation when it comes to both the protein content and sugar content of the different plant-based milks. Most varieties have unsweetened versions that provide zero added sugars, but even the “Original” version of most have at least a few grams of the sweet stuff added to make it taste better. Anything flavored can definitely be a sneaky source of hidden sugars. The maximum recommended amount of added sugars for women per day is 6tsp (9tsp for men). For some of these products even 2 cups per day is going to put you over that daily limit.
From a micronutrient perspective, all of the products on my list have close to equal amounts of vitamins and minerals. When choosing a plant-based milk always pick one that says “fortified”, because it means they’ve added all of the vitamins and minerals to make the beverage equal to cow’s milk. The non-fortified versions of these products would not provide the same nutritional benefits.
Which choice is the best for those who want or need to go dairy-free?
Soy milk is a pretty clear winner when it comes to the bottom line of nutrition content. That being said, choosing something you enjoy the flavor of is important as well, and usually what drives us to pick one product over another. Other dietary restrictions may also come into play here such as food allergies. A nut or soy allergy will definitely limit your options to a select few.
Children on the other hand should be drinking high-fat cow’s milk (not listed on the above chart, but provides 160 calories, 8 grams of fat, and 8 grams of protein per cup) because their nutrient needs are different than adults. They need much more fat in their diet than we do, and the plant-based milks just don’t provide enough nutrient density to meet that need. If a child is unable to drink cow’s milk due to an allergy, soy-based products are the next best thing. Young children may become malnourished if plant-based milks such as rice or almond milk are a main source of calories in their diet, or being used as an infant formula.
To Pasteurize, or Not To Pasteurize?
In short, YES.
During pasteurization, the milk is heated by just a few degrees to kill any harmful bugs in the milk (such as e.coli). Some sources claim that this renders the milk less nutritious, making it a “dead food”. In reality though this is just fear-mongering, and often driven by a fad diet agenda.
Historically (like back in the days when most people lived and worked on their own small family farms), pasteurization of milk was an unheard of thing. People back then had no concept of bacteria, and drank their milk fresh and right from the source. The reason this was a (somewhat) safe thing to do was for a few reasons:
1. Each family’s milk always came from their same cow, or cows. They became immune to the specific bacteria present in their cow’s milk
2. Milk was consumed fresh daily. It was drank shortly after a cow was milked not allowing enough time for harmful bacteria to multiply, especially in the days before refrigeration
3. Bacteria were not as robust as they are today, resistant strains of bacteria like the ones we see today were not around yet
Today, the milk from dozens of cows is all mixed together at each dairy farm, and then mixed with the milk from thousands of cows from other dairy farms during processing and packaging. The milk then sits in a cooler at the grocery store until it’s purchased, and remains in our fridge until we drink it (or it goes sour). Without pasteurization we would be taking a huge gamble by drinking milk, because the pathogenic bacteria that could enter the milk supply from one farm or even one single cow would go on to contaminate the entire supply chain. Dairy farms do their best to prevent outside bacteria from getting into their milk supply, but pasteurization is the best and safest practice to ensure we are drinking a safe product. Pasteurization does not change the nutritional value of the milk, nor does it destroy any proteins or vitamins and minerals present.
But, do we really need to drink milk?
Really, no. There is absolutely no single food in the human diet that we 100% need to include to be healthy. Despite it’s great nutritional value none of the nutrients found in milk cannot be found elsewhere in our diets. It all comes down to personal choice. That being said, there is absolutely nothing wrong with drinking milk either. None of claims about it being dangerous to our health or increasing inflammation in our bodies are true. If you choose not to drink cow’s milk because of personal preference, lactose intolerance, or milk allergy, choose plant-based milk alternatives that are fortified and low in added sugars. Choosing a higher protein option is recommended as well, especially if you are using these beverages as a complete replacement for cow’s milk.
In short, milk is a great nutritious choice for people who like it and want to drink it. If you’re not one of those people, that’s completely fine too! There are many alternatives available that match milk’s vitamin and mineral content, and some even come very close when it comes to other nutrients like protein. It is important however to check nutrient labels for things like added sugars and limit how much of those we drink. If you are lactose intolerant, yogurt and cheese can still be eaten and provide all of the nutrients that regular milk has. So don’t be afraid to enjoy dairy products and all of the delicious options they offer!
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