As a child milk was always a no nonsense staple.
Enter adulthood and milk, like many other foods has been the victim of pseudoscience fear mongering. The minefield of milks on the supermarket shelf combined with the mixed messages make it difficult to understand what on earth is the best milk to pick – or whether to pick any at all!
Let’s let science guide our way!
Milk from a Nutrient Standpoint
Given milk is designed to fully nourish newborn animals, it’s nutritional profile is quite impressive.
Quality protein: Cow’s milk is an excellent source of protein (casein and whey) and it contains all 9 essential amino acids (the ones your body cannot produce). Just one glass provides you with 8g of protein. Whey protein is packed full of branched-chain amino acids that provide fuel and aid muscle repair. It’s no surprise that studies have linked milk consumption with muscle and physical maintenance in older adults. This is also why many protein powders are based on milk proteins and what makes it an ideal recovery aid for athletes. (Read more on post workout nutrition here).
Calcium: Milk (and other dairy products) is one of the richest dietary sources of calcium. Calcium has many functions in the body but its primary job is the development and maintenance of healthy bones and teeth. It is also important for blood clotting and wound healing, maintaining blood pressure, and muscle contractions including heartbeat. It is important to try to pair calcium-rich foods with sources magnesium and vitamin D, as vitamin D supports calcium absorption in the small intestine and magnesium helps the body take calcium into the bones.
Vitamin B12: Cow’s milk contains high levels of vitamin B12, which is essential for your brain, nerves, DNA and red blood cells. Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products, therefore if you are following a vegan diet supplementation may be necessary.
Milk is also fortified with other vitamins and minerals to help Australians meet their nutrient intakes.
How Much is Ok?
According to the guidelines, 2-3 daily serves of dairy (1 serve = 250mL of milk) are required for most adults. We’d usually encourage you to meet this by eating a variety of dairy foods, not just milk. However, if milk is the only dairy product you consume, 2 or 3 glasses a day would be adequate. The main concerns about drinking too much are 1) it may mean you are not eating enough from the other food groups 2) you may be consuming too much saturated fat.
Types of milk
The number of people that are intolerant to lactose is on the rise and with this we’ve seen a rise in milk alternatives. Each type of milk has its advantages and disadvantages, depending on your diet, health and personal preference.
Lactose Free milk – milk producers add lactase (an enzyme that breaks down lactose) to milk so that people who are lactose intolerant can tolerate it.
A2 milk – this is made from a type of cow that only produces A2 proteins. There is some research to suggest that people who experience discomfort from regular cows milk may be able to tolerate A2 milk. Is it just as nutritious as normal cow’s milk.
Soy milk – made from soybeans and water. Because it is plant-based it is free of cholesterol and low in saturated fat. Soy milks are good sources of protein and are usually fortified with calcium. For individuals who cannot tolerate cow’s milk, we would recommend soy milk as it is similar in it’s nutrient profile.
Almond milk – made from ground almonds and water. It is lower in calories than other milks and free from saturated fats. It is also lactose-free. Even though almonds are a good source of protein, almond milk is not. Naturally it does not contain calcium, however, many varieties are fortified with calcium.
Rice milk – made from rice and water. It is typically higher in carbohydrates and is not a good source of protein. Naturally it does not contain calcium, however, many varieties are fortified with calcium.
Many of the milk alternatives lack adequate calcium, so it’s best to look for a ‘calcium fortified’ option (aim for 100mg calcium per 100mL). Some can also have natural or hidden sugars/sweeteners. Make sure to check out the sugar content, and ingredients list to ensure you are selecting the best option.
What’s the Go with Full Fat vs Low Fat
|Full Fat||Fat content remains unaltered, ~3.25% fat.|
|Low Fat||Skimming process alters fat content, ~1% fat.|
|Skim||Skimming process removes fat content, ~<0.5% fat.|
For a long time, recommendations have been to select reduced fat dairy options where possible. However, this is more commonly being called into question.
Full-fat milk does not undergo skimming processes to reduce fat content. Whilst this does mean there is a greater saturated fat content, there is ongoing research into whether or not we should continue to be concerned about saturated fat. In say this, saturated fat is still known to increase “bad” cholesterol, so we should still watch our intake (everything in moderation!). However, full-fat milk contains a considerably greater amount of omega-3 fatty acids. These are widely known to improve brain and heart health and reduce risk of cancer. Some of the important vitamins in milk e.g. Vitamin D, are fat soluble, meaning higher fat content increases absorption through the body.
On the other hand, low-fat has overall lower energy content, with comparable levels of calcium, protein and carbohydrates. As vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, some is lost in the skimming process, however manufacturers typically add it back into their product.
The bottom line is – go for the one you like more! If you prefer the taste of full fat and are happy consuming the extra calories, then by all means go ahead. If you are looking to cut calories and enjoy low fat, then reduced fat may be the go for you.
Debunking Milk Myths
Why are humans the only animals to continue drinking milk into adulthood?
When we are babies, most of us are born with the enzyme lactase, which allows us to digest the lactose sugars present in milk. In some populations where milk consumption has always been low (e.g. Japan and China), most children stop producing the lactase enzyme after they are weaned off breastmilk. Overtime, this has created entire populations of “lactose intolerant” individuals.
Interestingly, when you look at populations where milk consumption has always been high (e.g. Europe), we find that most people continue to produce the lactase enzyme after weaning, meaning they can digest milk easily. From an evolutionary standpoint, the mutation that occurred to allow people to continue producing lactase into adulthood has been an inherited advantage and hence has been passed down the generations. This is because milk is a great source of protein, energy, calcium B vitamins, meaning those with the mutation were generally healthier and produced more children, so the presence of the mutation spread.
What about the hormones present in cow’s milk?
All milk whether it’s from cow’s, goats, sheep or human contain small amounts of various hormones, including estrogen and progesterone. The thing you need to remember is that the concentration of hormones in milk is so tiny compared to how much your body produces on a daily basis. This tiny amount has very little physiological effects, meaning the health benefits of drinking milk far outweigh any adverse effects. If there was any strong evidence that milk raised incidence of cancers or any other diseases, it would be listed at the top of every article on the internet, including government recommendations, trying to persuade you from drinking milk.
The science certainly indicates that milk (and other dairy) are nutritious food sources that should be included as part of a healthy, balanced diet. There is no need to fear milk – just drink it in moderation! Of course, it is perfectly okay to think milk is unethical from an animal rights standpoint or question it’s impact on the environment. As long as you are not swayed by the pseudoscience out there that might try and tell you it is dangerous to drink.