Oh My Milk!

By Meigan Freeman, UC Davis Nutrition Peer Counselor

Do all those new milks have you overwhelmed? Well I am here to help, because we all have 99 problems, but milk shouldn’t be one! I’ll break down the nutrition content of each milk, environmental impacts, and cost so you can make an informed decision of which milk is most fitting for you.

Dairy: The longest standing milk out there, dairy is the classic that comes from cows. You can find four types at most grocery stores, skim (fat free), 1% fat, 2% fat, and whole milk (3.25% fat). Out of all the milks I compared, dairy has the highest in saturated fat which we should strive to avoid. It also has less calcium than its plant milk alternatives, which may seem surprising at first, but the other milks are fortified with calcium and therefore have more. Fortification is the process of adding nutrients into foods and helps people get adequate amounts of nutrients that Americans, on average, do not consume enough of. Healthy Aggie Tip: When available, try to buy fortified and enriched food for a nutrient boost!

            Dairy milk is about $2.69/gallon and is therefore a sound financial choice.  Environmentally, dairy has the highest impact. In a 2018 study, dairy milk produced higher GHG emissions and required much more land than soy milk. Cow agriculture is pretty tough on the environment, they take up a lot of land, produce a lot of methane, and drink a lot of water.

Pros:

  • Classic and consistent flavor
  • Low cost
  • Good for baking and recipes
  • High in protein

Cons:

  • Highest environmental impact
  • High in saturated fat
  • Slightly lower in calcium than plant milks

Oat: Oat milk has recently become very popular for its creamy and thick mouthfeel. This plant milk may be the most similar to dairy in terms of taste, but its nutrients are much different. Oatly’s brand oat milk is fortified in vitamins and minerals, with comparable or higher amounts than dairy and other plant milks. It has a moderate amount of protein that is less than soy and dairy, but higher than coconut and almond. 

At $5.29/ gallon, oat milk is an expensive choice. However, oat milk is one of the least intrusive milks on the environment’s land, water, and gas emissions.

Pros:

  • Creamy & rich flavor
  • Fortified with lots of vitamins and minerals
  • Small environmental impact

Cons:

  • Usually high in added sugar
  • Pricier than dairy milk
  • Less protein than dairy milk
  • Sometimes separates in drinks like coffee or tea

Soy: Soy milk is the OG, traditional plant milk. It has just as much protein as dairy, and is also a complete protein. A ‘complete’ protein (meat, eggs, dairy, quinoa, soy) contains all essential amino acids, whereas an ‘incomplete’ protein (beans, grains) contains only some amino acids. Fact Check: Soy milk has a bad reputation for causing increased estrogen levels, but this is just a rumor! It is true that soy milk can slightly increase estrone, a minor, weaker hormone, however, you would have to drink A LOT of soy milk to notice any harmful effects.

Pros:

  • Only plant milk with as much protein as dairy
  • Low in saturated fat
  • Fortified with lots of vitamins and minerals
  • Easy to find unsweetened versions
  • Low environmental impact

Cons:

  • May separate in drinks like coffee and tea
  • More expensive than dairy ($4.29/gallon)

Almond: Have you ever had homemade almond milk? Someone made it for me once and it was delicious! Here’s a recipe. Almond milk has a moderate amount of some vitamins and minerals, but often not as much as soy, oat, or dairy. It also has very low protein, so if you enjoy this milk, make sure you are getting adequate protein from other sources! It costs about $4.29 per gallon. As for the environment, this milk has low impact on gas emissions and land, but uses a large amount of water (still less than dairy though!).

Pros:

  • Homemade milk is simple to make and may be more cost effective
  • Low in saturated fat

Cons:

  • Low amounts of vitamins and minerals
  • Low amount of protein
  • More expensive than dairy ($4.29/gallon)

Personally, soy milk is my top choice for its high protein content and low environmental impact. However, our nutritional needs and goals likely differ from each other, so this doesn’t mean soy milk is right for you! I enjoy oat milk in my lattés, so sometimes my milk choice just depends on my mood and the use. I hope this article helps you find what milk is best for you; remember that everyone is different and no milk is ‘bad’ or ‘good.’ It all depends on you and your individual, special self! For a more in-depth analysis of plant milks (including coconut not mentioned herein) check out the milk spreadsheet I made which outlines the nutrition content of each milk.

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