Low fat, no fat, soy milk, dairy free – the choices are endless! So which is healthiest? Jessica Colacino investigates

Milk - which is best? - Women's Health & Fitness Australia

Full Cream Milk

What it is: Full cream milk or full-fat milk is cow’s milk that contains on average 3.8% fat.
How it's made: Full cream milk comes from Daisy’s udders, then is homogenised and pasteurised to create a silky, white liquid.  

Health perk: Full cream milk is high in calcium and provides a unique package of essential nutrients including: vitamin A, vitamin B12, riboflavin, potassium, magnesium, zinc, phosphorus, carbohydrate and protein. Dairy Australia accredited practising dietitian Glenys Zucco says that there is light at the end of the tunnel for those of us who enjoy full-fat milk but may have been avoiding it like the plague due to concerns about its saturated fat content.

“For the past three decades, saturated fat has been considered a major culprit of CVD and as a result dietary advice persists in recommending a reduced intake of saturated fat, regardless of its source. However, over the last five years nutrition science has evolved and research is now showing that not all saturated fats are equal. In fact milk drinkers, including regular fat drinkers, have a slightly lower risk of heart disease, hypertension and bowel cancer.”

Health pitfall: Some claim that full cream milk creates extra mucus and can lead to asthma in children but as CSIRO food scientist Galit Segev explains, that is not the case. “Numerous studies have shown that full cream milk does not cause mucus production, and milk is rarely a trigger of asthma.” According to the National Asthma Council of Australia, research suggests that dairy may help protect children against becoming asthmatic. “In a study of over 3,000 pre-school children, researchers found that children who ate dairy foods every day had significantly fewer asthma symptoms than children who didn’t eat dairy foods every day.”

Best use: Full cream milk can be used in everything from smoothies and coffee to breakfast cereals, scrambled eggs and even drunk straight up – no chaser.

Expert says: For those who are lactose intolerant and therefore unable to effectively digest lactose, the naturally occurring sugar in the milk, most can still consume small amounts of cow’s milk without symptoms “Most people who are lactose intolerant can still drink half to one cup of milk without symptoms; and full cream milk is better tolerated than low fat milk. Low fat dairy products generally have slightly higher lactose content due to the addition of milk solids, so always check the label,” explains Segev.

Skim Milk

What it is: Skim milk is a reduced fat cow’s milk that must contain less than 0.15% fat.

Point of difference: Skim milk is the lowest fat and saturated fat milk option.

How it's made: Segev says that in skim milk “the fat is separated out and then ‘skimmed off’ resulting in its low fat content. The milk fat carries Vitamins A and D, therefore Vitamin A and D are added to replace the vitamins that were reduced when the fat was removed”.

Health perk: Skim milk has the lowest fat and saturated fat content of all cow’s milk. And “as a result of removing the fat, lower-fat milks are generally higher in calcium and protein than regular milk”, Zucco says.

Best use: As the flavour of skim milk is not as distinctive as full cream milk it can be used in any dish that requires cow’s milk. It is a great addition to smoothies and coffee as the taste isn’t overpowering; you’ll hardly notice the difference from cow’s milk.

Goat’s Milk

What it is: Milk produced from goats.

Point of difference: Segev explains that goat’s milk doesn’t need to be homogenised like cow’s milk as it has more easily digestible fat particles. “The fat is naturally distributed in the milk creating smaller and more stable droplets,” says Zucco.

How it's made: After milking the goat, the milk is then pasteurised but doesn’t require homogenisation.  

Health perk: It’s higher in calcium and nutrients such as riboflavin and phosphorus thank cow’s milk, but can cost up to three times more.  

Health pitfall: As goat’s milk has similar levels of lactose in to that of cow’s milk, Segev advises consumption in small quantities if you’re lactose intolerant.

Best use: While it does taste pretty average as a drink due to its unique and, well, goatish flavour, it’s okay in dishes like scrambled eggs and frittatas.

Soy Milk

What it is: Soy milk is made from soybeans. It contains a similar proportion of protein as cow's milk: around 3.5% protein, 2% fat and 2.9% carbohydrate.

Point of difference: Soy milk is lactose free and a good substitute for cow’s milk if fortified with calcium.

How it's made: Soy Milk is made by soaking dry soybeans and grinding them with water.

Health perk: Suitable alternative for those who cannot tolerate cow’s milk or children who cannot tolerate breast milk.  

Health pitfall: Soy milk is not suitable for people with soy allergies and coeliacs should always check the label before consuming.

Best use: Soy milk has an almost nutty flavour so it is a great additional to breakfast cereals and muesli. But, if you are ordering it in your coffee, be warned that it can congeal, forming a lumpy consistency. Don’t yell at your barista!

Almond Milk

What it is: Almond milk is made from ground almonds. It has a nutty taste (go figure)!

Point of difference: Almond milk is low in fat, saturated fat and calories. It is suitable for those who are lactose intolerant and vegans.

How it's made: Almond milk is made when roasted almonds are ground to make almond butter and then mixed with water. In some cases vitamins are added and the milk is fortified with calcium, stabilisers and, sweetener.

Health perk: PT Mark Richardson, of Body Language Personal Training, praises almond milk for its calcium. “Almond Milk is quite low in fat due to only 3% of the milk being almonds. It also has a good calcium content, which is something good to look out for when you are exploring dairy alternative,” he says.

Health pitfall: Segev explains that the low protein content means of Almond Milk means to is not suitable as a replacement to cow’s milk. “One serve of full cream milk has eight grams of protein, with almond milk only having one gram, so this milk is not recommended as a cow’s milk replacement.” Almond milk is obviously not suitable for people with nut allergies.

Best use: Try almond milk in smoothies, on your breakfast cereal or muesli. It also provides a great flavour in coffee and herbal teas like chai and rooibos.

Rice Milk

What it is: Rice milk is made from white or brown rice.

Point of difference: Non-reactive on the stomach so it will not affect those who are lactose intolerant. It is also vegan friendly and gluten free.

How it's made: White or brown rice is cooked and ground with water.

Health perk: Rice milk is low in fat and saturated fats.

Health pitfall: Richardson advises that rice milk can be high in carbohydrates and sugar content due to the high glycaemic index of rice. Due to its low protein and calcium content, Segev suggests that rice milk is not appropriate for children.

Best use: Rice milk is quite sweet to taste, so if you’re prone to building sugar castles in your coffee you probably won’t need to. Avoid using it with artificially sweetened protein powders, as it can get sickly sweet (but it is a great addition to your morning smoothie).

And there you have it, with so many options, there’s no need to have a cow if you don’t like milk. There are plenty of choices to ensure your next coffee, smoothie or breakfast cereal doesn’t feel like an udder loser. (Okay, who used the last of the cow puns?)

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