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If you believe the ads, cows’ milk is a powerhouse product, capable of unsticking a peanut butter mouth, making white-mustachioed celebrities look health-chic and building strong bones. But isn’t soymilk better for your heart? And goats’ milk easier to digest? And aren’t rice milk and nut milk skinnier? The fact is, milk drinkers have never had more options or been more confused. Here, how to sort out the healthiest choices for animals, the planet and you.
Q: Should I drink at least some cows’ milk? Or can soymilk meet the same nutrition needs?
A: A cup of cows’ milk provides 16 percent of your daily value of protein as well as 30 percent of calcium, about 25 percent of vitamin D and riboflavin, plus healthy amounts of potassium and vitamins A and B12—but a glass of fortified soymilk (some flavors of Vitasoy, Edensoy Extra and Silk, for example) has virtually the same benefits. One alert: Several recent studies suggest that the calcium used to fortify soymilk settles to the bottom of the carton and doesn’t end up in your glass. To be safe, add plant sources of calcium to your diet and a supplement too—it’s hard to consistently get enough from food. Good options include broccoli, spinach, artichokes, Brussels sprouts, kale, collard and mustard greens and some legumes (especially soybeans and lentils).
Q: What should kids be drinking?
A: “The nutrients that are of concern for American kids—calcium, magnesium, vitamin D, potassium—are all provided by milk,” says Stephanie Smith, MS, RD, national spokesperson for the National Dairy Council. That’s one reason the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) upped its Dietary Guidelines in 2005 to three daily servings of low-fat dairy foods for everyone over the age of 8. (Children 2–8 should get two servings per day, and kids ages 1–2 should drink whole milk, as fat is essential for growth and development.) However, fortified soymilk can also meet those needs.
As for the notion that milk is vital for kids’ bone health, a controversial research review, published in the March 2005 issue of Pediatrics, found “scant evidence [to support] increasing milk or other dairy product intake for promoting child and adolescent bone mineralization.” Instead, Amy Joy Lanou, PhD, the study’s lead author and senior nutrition scientist for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, suggests that kids get 400–500 mg calcium per day from plant sources. However, other experts argue that low-fat dairy products are the easiest way to get the right amount of calcium into kids, particularly because so many dairy foods are fortified with vitamin D, which boosts calcium absorption.
The debate will no doubt continue, so for now, just make sure your rug rats are getting calcium from a variety of sources. And unless you’re really desperate to get your kids to drink milk, skip those candy-flavored single-serve bottles of milk. Sold under the name Slammers, they come in Moon Pie, 3 Musketeers, Milky Way and Starburst flavors. One cup of Starburst Strawberry contains 170 calories, 5g of saturated fat and 20g of sugar.
Q: What are my options besides cows’ milk and soymilk?
A: Goats’ milk has more calcium and vitamins A and B6 than cows’ milk and similar amounts of protein. “However, it contains less of a certain type of protein than cows’ milk, which is one reason why it may be digested more easily,” says Stephanie Clark, PhD, associate professor of food science at Washington State University.
With only 1 or 2 grams of protein, even fortified rice milk isn’t a significant source of protein, but it can be a good source of calcium and vitamin D, for about 120 calories per cup.
A cup of Almond Breeze nut milk has 10 percent of the RDA for vitamin A, 25 percent of vitamin D, 20 percent of calcium and 50 percent of vitamin E, and only 60 calories—but also only 1 gram of protein.
Q: What’s the deal with that milk that comes in unrefrigerated cartons? Is it regular milk?
A: Milk marked UHT (for ultra high temperature) simply undergoes a different method of pasteurization and is heated to much higher temperatures. Then it’s put in containers that protect it from bacteria, air and light. Its shelf life is several months, compared to refrigerated milk’s, which is only several weeks. After it’s opened, though, UHT milk should be refrigerated and won’t last longer than regular milk.
Q: Speaking of cartons, which type of milk container is the most environmentally friendly: paper, plastic or glass?
A: The answer pretty much comes down to two things: which type you can recycle in your area and how much fossil fuel is used for transporting it. Lightweight paper cartons and plastic milk jugs require less fuel to transport. But plastic jugs let light in, potentially affecting milk’s flavor. Opaque plastic blocks some light, but can be more difficult to recycle. Glass milk jars, though fairly uncommon, are the least desirable: They’re heavy, breakable and let in light.
Q: What makes organic milk organic?
A: What the cows are fed, not how they’re treated. Their food must be grown in soil that has been free from pesticides and fertilizers for at least three years, and organic cows can’t be given hormones or antibiotics. Unfortunately, they often are kept in factory-farm-style feedlots, just like regular dairy herds. And while the USDA does include “access to pasture” as a requirement for organic certification, it doesn’t prescribe how much time or require grass grazing for cows. However, a group of organic dairies that do let their cows out to graze is challenging the current rules. “Organic is not a health claim, it’s a production process that calls for care of the soil,” says Theresa Marquez, chief marketing executive of Organic Valley Family of Farms, and board member of the Organic Trade Association. “But you have to have a pasturing system. That’s what all organic farms should be doing.” There’s even a health benefit to grass-fed cows: Their milk contains high amounts of CLA, or conjugated linoleic acid, a muscle-building, cancer-fighting fatty acid.
Q: Why are animal rights and environmental groups so antidairy?
A: There are three key reasons:
Animal treatment: Cows are kept lactating as long as possible by constant pregnancies, which produce either more dairy cows or—besides the few male calves kept for stud—veal or beef.
Milk quality: To increase milk production, conventional dairy cows are given synthetic growth hormones and then antibiotics to treat any resulting infections. Some of those hormones and antibiotics end up in your glass.
Environmental effects: Each dairy cow creates 120 pounds of waste and drinks 50 gallons of water a day, while 80 percent of US agricultural land either grows grain to feed animals or animals to feed humans, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
So if you drink cows’ milk, go low-fat and organic. If you choose not to drink cows’ milk, try a fortified soymilk or other milk instead, and boost that with calcium-rich foods and a calcium supplement, too, just for good measure.