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3 Reasons to Choose Milk Over Milk Alternatives

milk vs milk alternatives

Twenty years ago, milk meant one thing: cow’s milk.

Now, heading to the grocery store to buy “milk” could mean something wildly different.

From soy to almond to hemp to coconut to grain — the milk options these days are seemingly endless. And most people feel a little overwhelmed when it comes to choosing the healthiest milk for their family.

Today I’m going to break it down for you.

The Healthiest Milk

If you aren’t vegan and don’t have food allergies, cow’s milk is the most nutritious choice, if you buy organic. Cow’s milk:

  1. Is the only milk with significant naturally-occuring calcium – 30% of your Daily Value.
  2. Offers the most protein – 8 grams – of any milk.
  3. Has no added sugar – only naturally-occuring lactose.

These characteristics are unique to cow’s milk. Milk alternatives may be heavily fortified with calcium and other micronutrients, but that’s more like taking a vitamin with a glass of water, than eating a nutritious food. Our bodies tend to be more efficient with naturally-occurring nutrients and thus we absorb more from real food, than from processed foods.

Why Choose Organic?

Organic milk by definition does not contain:

  • antibiotics
  • artificial growth hormones (rBGH, rBST, or many more that are used but not often talked about)
  • GMOs
  • toxic, persistent pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides

Unless you raise cows or get milk directly from a farmer you know, buying organic is the only way to know you’re avoiding the above.

Organic milk has also been proven to have more omega-3 fatty acids than conventional milk, which makes it more heart-healthy.

What about the environmental implications?

In general, a plant-based diet is the most eco-friendly, since it takes so much land and energy to raise animals for food and dairy. But in order for milk alternatives to have a lower carbon footprint, you’d need to buy the ingredients in bulk (in a reusable bag) and make the milk yourself. Packaged nut and grain milks use a lot of energy and water to produce.

Organic dairy products have a lower carbon footprint than conventional, since they’re produced without toxic chemicals and since organic pasture absorbs carbon from the atmosphere.

What if I’m vegan or have food allergies?

In these cases, of course you’ll want to avoid cow’s milk.

I’d recommend organic soy milk, since soy has the most naturally-occuring protein and depending on the brand you buy, may have the least processed. Just make sure to look for soy milk that has “organic soybeans” as the first or second ingredient, and no “soy protein isolate” which is the soy derivative that’s been associated with increasing estrogen levels in the body. More on that here.

If you like nut or grain milks and want them to be nutritious, the best option is to make them yourself!

Here’s a chart comparing milk with milk alternatives, and a list of organic milk alternatives that do not contain carrageenan.

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  • Jackie
    July 6, 2015 at 9:04 am

    Respectfully I completely disagree with nearly everything is this post. I’m not going to argue each point, just say that not only does the human body not need cow’s milk it is terribly dangerous and has been linked to cancer and other disease. Humans can get all of the nutrients they need without consuming cow’s milk. A great read on this is The China Study. The milk industry is cruel and unnecessary. Cow’s milk is definitely not the healthiest milk!

  • Amelia Winslow
    July 6, 2015 at 9:18 am

    Hi Jackie, It’s true we all have different opinions on this manner, so thanks for sharing yours. I’ll point out that I don’t believe that humans don’t NEED to drink cow’s milk, or that it’s the only way to get the nutrients I’ve listed above. But I do believe that processed milk alternatives are a worse choice, nutritionally-speaking. Many people think switching their kids from cow’s to almond milk, for example, is a healthy switch, but it’s not. While I like almond milk taste-wise and see why others do too, it offers very little nutritional value. The same is true for many milk alternatives. They’re better used in moderation for taste, rather than for nutrition.

  • Rebecca @ Strength and Sunshine
    July 6, 2015 at 10:49 am

    Can’t agree with this at all. I’m an almond milk girl forever.

  • Taylor @ Food Faith Fitness
    July 6, 2015 at 1:06 pm

    This is such a great post! I love eating dairy and dairy alternatives…there really is no alternative to a big bowl of fresh strawberry and Greek yogurt! Love this!

  • Angela @ Eat Spin Run Repeat
    July 6, 2015 at 6:01 pm

    As a kid, milk to me meant conventional cow’s milk from the grocery store. Back then (and I’m 26 now so it wasn’t THAT long ago!) organic wasn’t a big thing (to my knowledge) but in my early 20s I started noticing that my skin would break out when I consumed a lot of dairy products (not just milk). I’m thinking this has to do with the antibiotics that you mention, so since then I’ve stuck to non-dairy milks. Even with those, I don’t go through them very fast but certainly notice that my skin is much better than it used to be!

  • Alisa Fleming
    July 6, 2015 at 8:33 pm

    I think it’s great when people find what works best for them and think it’s great that you promote organic! I’ve never compared milk beverages as apples to apples with milk – they’re just too different. Using the unsweetened varieties just for recipes and smoothies adds only about 30 calories to my day. For liquid, I opt for water and get nutrition from food. I like eating too much to get bunches of calories from beverages 🙂

  • Jessica @ Nutritioulicious
    July 7, 2015 at 5:49 am

    Milk has been such a hotly contested issue lately (as evidenced by jackie’s comment above). I’m in the camp that believes cows milk is still a very important and most bio available source of calcium. While the milk alternatives are good options for people who are lactose intolerant or have dairy allergies, as you mentioned, they are not the most nutritious.

  • Amelia Winslow
    July 8, 2015 at 11:17 am

    We each have our preferences, that’s for sure. I love almond milk – especially homemade – in smoothies. This post is more about the nutritional aspect, and in that category almond milk offers very little.

  • Amelia Winslow
    July 8, 2015 at 11:18 am

    I agree with you Taylor – it would be hard for me to live without yogurt 😉 Though I’ve seen a lot of people making homemade coconut milk yogurt lately, and I want to try that too!

  • Amelia Winslow
    July 8, 2015 at 11:19 am

    It takes so much trial and error to see what things in our diet are causing various symptoms, doesn’t it! Glad you’ve found the source of yours and have some alternatives to turn to 🙂

  • Amelia Winslow
    July 8, 2015 at 11:19 am

    Such a good point, Alisa – milk & milk alternatives are almost too different to compare!

  • Amelia Winslow
    July 8, 2015 at 11:20 am

    Agree 100%, Jessica.

  • Sara
    July 14, 2015 at 3:05 pm

    Just stumbled onto your blog and first post I get sucked into is one about milk, which I have Definite Thoughts on, lol. I’m actually anti-any milk because I think it all tastes nasty, shudder. My husband and two of my kids will use diary milk sparingly, mostly in cereal, and then my lactose intolerant kid uses almond milk occasionally in hot cereal. I also use almond milk in all my baking that calls for milk, so my daughter can eat whatever I’m making. All said and done we probably go through 2 gallons of dairy milk and 1 gallon of almond milk a month, for a family of five. I also have Definite Thoughts on organic vs conventional, but needless to say I buy the regular stuff :p

  • Barbara
    July 16, 2015 at 5:00 am

    While I don’t agree with the direction of this article, I do agree that some people who aren’t healthy and may not have a near solid dietary choice (financially challenged, poor options of fresh vegetables, etc. could benefit from drinking milk. This would lead to a totally different article. I also agree that the commercial based milk alternatives are not good either and would be best not to drink it at all. Although this article is about cow’s milk the organic kind, it would be best to also note that those who can afford organic cow’s milk may do well making their own milk alternatives. Much better than commercial

  • Margaret Ann @ MAK and Her Cheese
    August 1, 2015 at 3:57 pm

    Couldn’t agree more! I’ve heard many unreasonable arguments against dairy milk, including the idea that its calorie content is designed to grow cows, thus too high for humans! (says the dairy consumer under 80 pounds). Granted, everyone is unique and some have sensitivities to it, but that should be the primary reason to reject it.

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