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The Great Milk Debate of 2024: Which Milk Is Healthier?

From cow’s milk to hemp milk, a CU Anschutz dietician breaks down the benefits of our growing milk options

minute read

Written by Laura Kelley on April 15, 2024

Milk. A wave of plant-based options has transformed a simple, cow-derived nutritional drink into a worldwide debate. Just going to a coffee shop or the grocery store can set off anxiety about the myriad milk options. Social media is rife with influencers promoting one kind of milk over another, leading to “udder” confusion.

Discussing almond milk to cow’s milk, soy to everything in between, Laura Kelley, a media relations specialist in the CU Anschutz Office of Communications, speaks to Cristina Rebellon, a registered dietitian at the CU Anschutz Health and Wellness Center, to get the skinny on the many options to see if one milk reigns supreme as “The Great Milk Debate” gains more steam.

Q&A Header

Oat milk, almond milk, soy milk and others have taken off in popularity over the last few years. Why do you think these milk alternatives are becoming more appealing than their dairy counterparts?

It seems that more people are interested in learning about the environmental impact of the foods they eat and drink along with how those foods influence their health. Some key attributes I’ve heard people say they are thinking about are greenhouse emissions, water and land use and overall nutrition. In addition, people may be looking for alternatives if they have lactose intolerance or an allergy to cow’s milk.

What are the health benefits and drawbacks of each of these types of milk (oat, almond and soy), and are they healthier than cow’s milk?

Calorie Comparison: Approximate (8 oz.)

(Note: Milk brand calorie counts can vary widely.)

  • Cow whole: 136

  • Cow 2%: 114

  • Cow 1%: 96

  • Hemp original: 140

  • Hemp unsweetened: 70

  • Almond original: 60

  • Almond unsweetened: 30

  • Soy original: 122

  • Soy unsweetened: 75

  • Coconut original: 514

  • Coconut unsweetened: 40

  • Oat original: 120

  • Oat unsweetened: 45

Cow’s milk is still the gold standard when it comes to a nutritional profile because of the levels of protein, calcium and vitamin D. Calcium and vitamin D can be difficult to achieve in the typical American diet, and cow’s milk can be a main source for those nutrients for many people. However, many consumers are challenged by the land, water and emissions impact cow’s milk may have on the environment.

Each plant-based milk has varying levels of their own environmental impact, though most are lower than cow’s milk. On the other hand, while most plant-based milks are fortified with key nutrients like calcium and vitamin D, researchers aren’t yet sure how well the body absorbs those nutrients. 

We know that soy milk is the milk alternative with a nutritional profile that is most similar to cow’s milk as it contains all essential amino acids. However, more research is needed to better understand how compounds interact in plant milks and how those interactions impact how the body absorbs nutrients.

Hemp milk is all the rage on social media with some influencers claiming it’s the healthiest milk alternative. What exactly is it, and is there science to back this claim?

Hemp is considered a complete protein because it contains all nine essential amino acids. However, a serving of hemp milk still contains less protein compared to a serving of cow’s milk. That being said, there is more protein in hemp milk than most other plant-based milk alternatives. 

A benefit of hemp milk is the seeds it is made from are high in polyunsaturated fats. Some research shows that replacing saturated fats with these more healthful fats can help lower a person’s overall cholesterol and risk for heart disease.

Where does coconut milk fall into this discussion, and how healthy is it compared to others?

Coconut milk sold in cartons generally has similar calories to other milk alternatives, though it is a high source of saturated fat. The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat in our diet. So if you chose to drink coconut milk, it is recommended to consume coconut milk in moderation and not in high quantities to limit saturated fat intake.

For those who still prefer traditional cow milk, is there really one type that’s better than others? Skim milk vs. 2% vs. whole milk?

When comparing the nutrition of milks that come from a cow, they are nutritionally very similar apart from fat and calorie content. Unsurprisingly, whole milk has more fat and calories than 2% or skim milk. 

Manufacturers add vitamins A and D to the lower-fat options, so the nutrition is the same across all cow’s milks when it comes to these nutrients and calcium.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans advises that adults choose fat-free or low-fat milk instead of whole milk to reduce the amount of saturated fat in the diet. This approach is to help keep a person’s saturated fat intake to less than 10% of calories per day and reduce the risk of chronic diseases.

How should we go about deciding which one of these milks (or a combination of them) is best for our diet?

I recommend each person consider what’s important to them and what they’ll be using the product for. If they’re wanting a protein source that is generally lower cost, cow’s milk is likely a good way to go. If they want to consider environmental impact, like water usage, a plant-based milk like oat milk is a good option. 

Consumers may also simply consider their personal taste. I suggest sampling several alternatives based on a person’s individual needs and choosing the one that has the best flavor and texture profile.

Are there any other milk alternatives that people should consider trying?

Producers are consistently trying to find a plant-based milk alternative that will achieve a similar nutrition profile to cow’s milk and have a low environmental impact. Keep your eye out for new options at the supermarket.

Anything you want to add?

I suggest people consider alternating the types of milk they purchase to achieve a variety of nutritional and environmental goals. Regardless of which you choose, we always recommend people still stay mindful of getting most of their nutrition from fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains.

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Cristina Rebellon, RD