Milk alternatives
Family Health

Milk and Milk Alternatives: Which Is Best for Your Health?

Over the past few years, milk alternatives have sprung up in grocery stores across the country, and many have adopted them without question. Besides veganism and vegetarianism, what are the reasons behind this shift away from cow's milk? Here's a bit on the controversial research on dairy and alternative milks to help you determine whether milk or milk substitutes are best for you and your family.

Recent Research on Dairy and Human Health

  • Food & Nutrition Research assessed the available research on dairy's impact on human health and found that dairy intake had a positive effect on bone mineral density due to its high calcium content but wasn't associated with a decreased risk of bone fracture.
  • After a review of current research studies, the Journal of the American College of Nutrition published an article looking at the relationship between dairy products and cancer. The findings include probable association between milk intake and lower colorectal cancer risk, a probable correlation between a diet high in calcium and prostate cancer risk, and limited evidence supporting the connection between milk intake and lower risk for bladder cancer.
  • The Iranian Journal of Public Health conducted a study observing the connection between hormones, dairy, and human health. This research found a potential connection between growth factor 1 hormone, some of the estrogens found naturally in cow's milk, and the initiation and provocation of breast, prostate, and endometrial tumors. This study also noted that the variety of steroid hormones found in dairy products needs to be considered an important risk factor for several cancers in humans.

Common Milk Alternatives

The above research may allude to why some people choose a milk substitute. Other reasons may include the antibiotic content of certain brands of cow's milk and the environmental impact of animal agriculture, but there are also drawbacks to these vegan substitutes.

Common milk alternatives include soy, almond, rice, cashew, oat, hemp, and coconut milk. Generally, these milks will be low in protein and calcium, which is why many people drink cow's milk. With that being said, many of the alternative milks you'll buy in the store will be fortified with calcium and sometimes even protein.

Are Milk Alternatives Worth It?

While some may believe that choosing a milk substitute is a better environmental choice, the production of almond milk, one of the most commonly purchased milk alternatives, is actually worse for the environment than that of cow's milk. While almond milk production emits fewer greenhouse gases, it uses nearly 21 times the amount of water.

Even though some of the research about cow's milk is concerning, most of the negative findings were observed in those with high milk or dairy intake. A good way to include dairy in moderation is to aim for one or two servings of dairy per day, and seek out vegetable sources of calcium or choose a calcium supplement with vitamin D.

It's also important to note that there's still speculation about whether the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) recommendation for daily calcium intake is accurate. Some research suggests that we may need less calcium per day to maintain bone health than the USDA advises. Keep in mind that dairy is not consumed in many Eastern cultures, and their bone health is comparable to those cultures that do.

Whether you use cow's milk or an alternative for your cereal in the morning, there are pros and cons to each beverage. While dairy provides more protein and calcium, evidence is emerging on negative health effects that high dairy intake can have on one's health. Milk alternatives, on the other hand, are wonderful vegetarian options but aren't very nutrient dense, and production can be taxing on the environment. When choosing an alternative, just make sure you're getting your daily calcium from vegetable sources or a supplement.

Posted in Family Health

Christina Manian is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Originally from the Boston area, she attended Boston University where she majored in nutritional sciences with a concentration in dietetics. She recently completed her nutrition education at the Mayo Clinic with a focus on medical nutrition therapy. While her background has mostly been in the clinical setting, Christina embraces wellness nutrition as the backbone of optimum health. She is excited to be able to educate a larger audience about nutrition through the written word.

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*This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute health care advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor or physician before making health care decisions.