Skim, soy, more: Which milk is best?

Cow’s milk is one of the most concentrated natural sources of calcium. One eight-ounce glass provides 300 mg of calcium, and drinking a few glasses of milk each day (either plain as a beverage, or in cereal, oatmeal, or a healthy smoothie) can go a long way toward helping you meet your daily calcium goal.

But if you don’t drink cow’s milk, rest assured that there are plenty of other ways to get adequate calcium in your diet. There are delicious, calcium-fortified “milk alternatives” to choose from, including soy, almond and rice milks (more to come on those below). And beyond beverages, you can get ample calcium from low-fat/nonfat yogurt, reduced-fat cheese, broccoli, kale, almonds, starchy beans, low-fat ice cream, pudding or frozen yogurt and calcium-fortified foods (orange juice, waffles, etc.).

How much milk do you need?
You certainly don’t need milk, but you do need calcium. Because milk is such a rich source, nutritionists often talk about calcium requirements in terms of “milk equivalents,” but you can use any combination of calcium-rich foods (and supplements, if necessary) to meet your daily needs.

  • Children 4-8 years old need 800 mg calcium per day, or the equivalent of about three glasses of milk.
  • Children 9-18 years old need 1,300 mg calcium per day, or the equivalent of about four glasses of milk.
  • Adults 18-50 years old need 1,000 mg calcium per day, or the equivalent of about three glasses of milk.
  • Adults over the age of 50 need 1,200 mg calcium per day, or the equivalent of about four glasses of milk.

For adults and all children ages 2 and up, I recommend skim (nonfat) milk, or 1 percent milk if you like the extra creaminess. Compared to whole and 2 percent milk, skim and 1 percent milk have less of the bad stuff — artery-clogging fat — but the same amount of the good stuff — calcium, protein, vitamin D, potassium and other vitamins and minerals.

Enhanced skim milk
Enhanced skim milk has extra nonfat milk solids or concentrated skim milk added to it, so it is richer in protein and calcium than regular skim milk. Most brands have 10-11 grams of protein compared to the eight grams of protein per serving in regular skim milk, and 350-400 mg calcium compared to the 300 mg calcium in regular skim milk. Popular brands include Farmland Dairies’ Skim Plus, Over the Moon, and Smart Balance fat-free milk. Enhanced skim milk is especially great for kids, who can often use the extra protein and calcium boost. It’s also a terrific choice for people who are trying to make the switch to fat-free milk for health reasons but just can’t adjust to skim milk’s thin consistency. Enhanced skim milk is creamier and richer than regular skim milk, since it is more concentrated and sometimes has added thickeners. A lot of my clients who dislike the watery taste and texture of skim milk in their coffee are perfectly happy using one of these thicker, enhanced skim milks.

Lactose-free milk
People with lactose intolerance lack adequate amounts of the enzyme necessary to digest lactose, a type of sugar found in milk and other dairy products. Makers of lactose-free milk add this enzyme directly to the milk and predigest the lactose for you, so you can enjoy milk without the unfortunate digestive aftermath. Lactose-free milk has the same amount of calcium and other vital nutrients as regular skim milk, but tends to taste a little sweeter than regular milk (the lactose is predigested and broken down into simple sugars, which slightly changes the taste of the milk).

Soy milk

Traditional soy milk is made from pressed, mature soy beans mixed with water and typically some sugar or sweetener to mask the slightly bitter taste of the unsweetened soy milk. Soy is the most popular “milk” choice for individuals who are lactose-intolerant, follow a vegan or vegetarian diet that doesn’t include dairy, or have an allergy to cow’s and other mammalian milks. Soy milk is naturally low in saturated fat, and because it’s plant-based, it’s cholesterol free. It also offers up some nutrients that cow’s milk does not, including heart-healthy omega-3 fats.

On the flip side, most brands of soy milk contain a few less grams of protein than cow’s milk (and flavored soy milks typically contain even less protein than plain). Soy milk contains some natural calcium, but not nearly as much as cow’s milk. However, most manufacturers fortify their soy milk products with calcium, vitamin D and other nutrients found in cow’s milk so they end up having a very similar nutritional profile.

The average plain or vanilla soy milk contains 100-140 calories per cup, a bit more than skim cow’s milk. Light versions that contain fewer calories (50 to 90 calories per cup) and less fat are also available, but be aware that they also contain less protein.

Almond milk
Almond milk is made from finely ground almonds mixed with water and sometimes sugar (some brands make both “sweetened” and “unsweetened” varieties). Like soy and rice milk, almond milk is mostly water by weight. Almond milk has a thin consistency that takes some getting used to, but many people prefer its mild, nutty taste and think it’s less chalky than other plant-based milks. Almond milk is a popular choice for individuals with milk and/or soy allergies, people who are lactose-intolerant, and vegetarians and vegans. Though it is a heart-healthy choice, almond milk contains only one gram of protein per cup, which is significantly less than cow or soy milk. Most brands are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, but you’ll need to check the nutrition facts panel to be sure.

Rice milk
Rice milk is a mixture of partially milled rice and water (flavored varieties are available as well). Like almond milk, it’s typically packaged in aseptic boxes and found on store shelves, but a few brands also make refrigerated products. Rice allergies are extremely rare, so rice milk is a fine choice for individuals who are allergic to other types of milk. It’s also another option for people who are lactose-intolerant and vegetarian or vegan.

There are a few downsides. Rice milk is low in protein and contains only one gram per eight-ounce serving. It can also taste a little watery or chalky on its own, but some people prefer the taste. Look for brands that are fortified with calcium and vitamin D.

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