Thirty years ago, cow's milk ruled the dairy case. Milk was seen by many as a near-perfect food, essential to good health and children's growth. Once glance at the dairy case today, and you'll see how drastically options have changed, with a proliferation of choices. In fact, a recent grocery store visit in our hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, revealed 73 varieties! So how does a savvy shopper navigate the expanding milk section? Read on for our guide.
The Reason for the New Milks
Nondairy milk consumption has steadily grown about 11% each year since 1999, while consumption of cow's milk has declined 25% since 1975. There are a few reasons for this change in demand.
1. DAIRY INTOLERANCE
A substitute for dairy has become a medical necessity for many people. The prevalence of food allergies has increased almost 20% since 1997. (Many also believe sensitivity or intolerance to foods has increased, although that is harder to diagnose and quantify.)
2. SHIFT IN PERCEPTION
Cow's milk is not necessarily the nutritional gold standard anymore. Many feel that nondairy milks are better for them—but choices should be based on an individual's health and needs.
3. PUSHING PLANTS
Consumers as a whole (from vegetarians to meat-eaters) are seeking more plant-based foods to use in place of meat and dairy. Motivation may stem from health, sustainability, or cost concerns; switching to a nondairy milk is an easy way to incorporate more plant-based foods.
4. CONCERNS ABOUT HORMONES
While the FDA has deemed conventional farming practices safe, many people still question the safety of hormone-like drug and antibiotics given to animals that produce milk.
The Newest Milks on the Market and What's Next
- Filtered Milk One of the newest products to hit the market. Filtering concentrates the nutrients in milk by removing water; one cup of filtered has up to 50% more protein, up to 30% more calcium, a creamier mouthfeel, and a richer taste compared to unfiltered milk.
- Grass-Fed Organic Milk For milk to be labeled organic, the cows must get at least 30% of their diet from grass-grazing. Grass-fed organic milk differs from standard organic in that it comes from cows whose diets are exclusively grass.
- Peanut Milk The National Peanut Board confirmed development is under way, but there's no release date yet. This milk will have around 8g protein per cup—an amount currently only found in soy and pea milks for the nondairy crowd.
- Plant and Grain Blends Manufacturers are blending coconut, legumes, nuts, seeds, and grains for new flavors.
- Added Protein Many nut and grain milks are low in protein, so several brands now offer "protein" or "boosted" versions. The added protein usually comes from peas and bumps protein to about 8g per cup.
The Skinny on Sugar and Milk
Original, unsweetened, vanilla—the options are plentiful, and added sugars are different for each. Here's a breakdown of approximate added sugar amounts in the different milks; aim for less than 10g.
NO ADDED SUGAR
Plain dairy milks, nondairy milks labeled "unsweetened"
Most nondairy milks labeled "original"
Vanilla-flavored dairy and nondairy milks
Chocolate-flavored dairy and nondairy milks
The Final Word on Raw Milk
Some people claim nutrients and good bacteria are lost when milk is pasteurized, making raw milk a healthier choice. But research suggests little to no nutrients are actually lost, and the CDC warns raw milk can contain harmful bacterial like E. coli and salmonella. Best to play it safe.