Jane Says: Choose Your Milk Wisely

There is a dizzying array of milks on the market, from cow to coconut. Which one is right for you?

milk in glass
The milkman has a lot more options these days. (Photo: UpperCut Images/Getty Images)
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

“What’s the best kind of milk to drink? Cow, goat, soy, almond ... so confusing.”

                                                                          —Karen Vengruskas Wilson

Buying milk used to be simple, but not any more. Cow’s milk, goat’s milk, and milk imitations from a range of plant sources all jostle for position in many supermarkets. This variety of products happens to be a very good thing if you are vegan, have lactose intolerance, or a food allergy, or believe that the real thing makes you phlegmy

But if you have no reason to avoid cow’s milk, then why not make it part of a wholesome, balanced diet? Admittedly, the dairy business is a rough-and-tumble mix of industrial farming, agricultural policy, and medical/health interests, but there is also no denying that the recent growth of small-scale dairy farming has led to the production of high-quality milk and milk-based foods.

For an absorbing exploration of what is considered the First Food (plus recipes), read Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages, by the culinary historian and former Gourmet contributing editor Anne Mendelson. Her chapter on raw vs. pasteurized and organic vs. conventional is a triumph of painstaking research and solid, nuanced reporting; it alone is worth the price of the book.

Mendelson provides welcome context for current controversy. The health authorities who have prohibited raw milk in most of the country “represent muddled government thinking at its officious worst.” But don’t relax just yet. “The most frequent argument I hear about the health-giving properties of raw milk,” Mendelson writes, “is that the heat of pasteurization destroys the vitamin C and most enzymes present in raw milk. Quite true—but not of great importance to anyone’s health. Compared to other plentiful sources of vitamin C (most fruits, some vegetables), milk contains very little in the first place .... As for the large array of enzymes that disappear in heating, they are a highly species-specific aid to the digestive systems of newborn calves, and don’t need to greatly concern nonbovines ....”

When it comes to what is one of the fastest-growing segments of the organic market, Mendelson notes that “the great preponderance of organic milk comes from three or four very large producers owned by vast agribusiness conglomerates .... Why should we support new-style versions of factory farming clad in airs of moral superiority?” Zing.

Milk that’s free of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rGBH) is a no-brainer, but you should consider a certified organic label on a milk carton or bottle simply a starting point. Look for a brand that’s isn’t homogenized (one less processing step) and/or one that comes from a small dairy in your region.

Regarding goat’s milk, it’s more robust in flavor and more expensive than cow’s milk. Its biggest selling point in the United States is that the milk protein called casein is a bit different in goat’s milk; depending on a person’s dairy allergy or degree of lactose intolerance, he or she may find it easier to digest than cow’s milk. Goats are not given rGBH, and their milk is naturally homogenized: Because the fat globules are smaller than the ones present in cow’s milk, the fat doesn’t separate out.

Now to the plant-based nondairy “milks” that have become so popular.

But first, caveat #1: Most, but not all, plant-based milks are fortified with vitamins (including B12, especially important for vegans) and minerals, but they can contain sugar and additives such as (organic) canola and/or safflower oil. Read the label before you buy so you don’t get all the way home and then freak out. I’m just sayin’.

And caveat #2: If you’re a DIY type and want to make your own soy milk, almond milk, or custom blend, it’s easy to do. Be aware—especially if you are feeding children—that the end result won’t have the calcium and vitamins contained in an enriched commercial product.

Soy: Soy foods are a cornerstone of traditional Asian diets, and soy milk is almost as rich in protein as cow’s milk, with less fat and zero cholesterol. That said, some recent studies have raised a red flag regarding soy consumption, and the jury is still out.

Almond: I must be one of the few people out there who don’t think almond milk tastes nutty, but never mind—to me, it has the most pleasing mouthfeel of all the nondairy options. Nutritionally, though, it’s no substitute for a handful of whole almonds.

Rice: Low in fat and fortified with vitamins and calcium, this nondairy alternative is easy to digest. I wish I could think of more nice things to say about it, but I just can’t—the watery texture is a real hurdle for me. Any fans out there? If so, tell me why.

Coconut: People are crazy for coconut oil; according to the Facebook comments on last week’s post, y’all do everything but bathe in it. So why not put coconut milk on your cereal, too? Unlike the thick canned version used in Southeast Asian curries, the beverage is thinner, fortified, and lower in calories.

Hemp: This enriched drink made from the hemp nut will not have the effects you think it will, so you have only yourself to blame if you eat the entire box of Cocoa Puffs.

Oat: Enough, already! Eat oatmeal.

Tell us: What kind of milk do you cook with?

Jane Lear On staff at Gourmet for almost 20 years, most recently as senior articles editor, Jane wrote about culinary techniques as well as the popular "Kitchen Notebook" section. She’s also co-authored cookbooks and now blogs regularly at JaneLear.com. As our weekly food advice columnist, she's here to answer questions about the food landscape, from policy to no-fail cooking techniques.

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