Cow’s milk has ample competition these days, surrounded by an every-growing array of ‘milks’ made from almonds, cashews, peas, oats, hemp and more. These plant-based alternatives make us feel like we’re doing something good for our bodies, but are they really any better? The answer is… complicated. Registered dietitian Molly Kimball gives us the rundown on top picks for cow’s milk and plant-based milk.
Cow’s milk contains a significant amount of sugar – 12 grams per eight-ounce cup – in the form of lactose, a naturally-occurring milk sugar. And with eight grams of protein in a cup of regular cow’s milk, that means that cow’s milk has 50 percent more sugar than protein.
Ultra-filtered milk – familiar in varieties like Fairlife and Trader Joe’s – improves these stats, with 50 percent more protein and 50 percent less sugar than regular milk. Maple Hill takes ultra-filtering even further with their Zero Sugar milk. Each of these still provides the expected benefits of milk, like one-third of a day’s worth of calcium and a hefty dose of vitamins A and D.
When it comes to ‘non-milk’ plant-based milks, the protein content can vary widely, ranging from zero to 10 grams of protein per cup. Added sugar is one of the main drawbacks, with even ‘original’ or ‘plain’ varieties of many plant-based milks packing in nearly a day’s worth of added sugar. It’s also worth noting that oat milk – even unsweetened varieties – is higher in carbs that most other milks, with a low-to-moderate bit of protein.
Most plant-based milks are made from nuts, seeds or grains that are mixed with water and salt; many of the major brands also include thickeners and emulsifiers like guar gum or gellan gum. (MALK, Forager and Three Trees are three brands that do not include any stabilizers or emulsifiers – essentially just the nuts or seeds, water, and potentially flavor enhancers like sea salt or vanilla beans).
TOP 4 PICKS FOR LOW CARB, MODERATE PROTEIN MILK + MILK ALTERNATIVES
- Per cup: 110 calories, 0 carbohydrate, 0 sugar, 8 grams protein
- Ingredients include organic ultra-filtered milk, water, minerals, gellan gum
Ripple Pea Protein Milk (original, unsweetened)
- Per cup: 80 calories, 0 carbohydrate, 0 sugar, 8 grams protein
- Ingredients include pea protein, sunflower oil, algal oil, vitamin/mineral blend, water, sunflower lecithin, sea salt, organic guar gum, gellan gum
- Per cup: 80 calories, 4 grams carbohydrate, 0 sugar, 10 grams protein
- Ingredients include filtered water, almonds, pea protein, vitamin/mineral blend, sea salt, gums (e.g. locust bean gum and/or gellan gum), sunflower lecithin
Good Karma Flaxmilk + Protein (original, unsweetened)
- Per cup: 60 calories, 1 gram carbohydrate, 0 sugar, 8 grams protein
- Ingredients include filtered water, cold pressed flax oil, pea protein, vitamin/mineral blend, sunflower lecithin, sea salt, gellan gum, xanthan gum
3 of Molly’s Least-Favorite Milk Options:
- Oatmilk | high carb, also high sugar, with only low-to-moderate protein
- Lava Milk [made from pili nut] | high carb, high sugar, low protein
- Rice Milk | carb carb carb, with minimal protein
THE BOTTOM LINE
The good news is that for those who wish – or need – to avoid cow’s milk for dietary, nutritional or environmental reasons, there is a milk alternative to suit nearly any taste preference, intolerance or sensitivity. The key is to check labels closely to find the milk alternative that has the majority of the nutrients you’re looking for, without the stuff that you don’t want.
Molly Kimball, RD, CSSD is a registered dietitian + nutrition journalist in New Orleans, and founder of Ochsner Eat Fit nonprofit restaurant initiative. Tune in to her podcast, FUELED | Wellness + Nutrition and follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at @MollyKimballRD. See more of Molly’s articles + TV segments at www.mollykimball.com, and sign up for Eat Fit Wellness Bites weekly newsletter, here.