Milk: There is No Substitute

Milk – A Nutrient Powerhouse

Milk is a good or excellent source of nine essential nutrients, including protein, calcium, vitamins A and D, vitamin B12, riboflavin (B2), niacin, phosphorus and pantothenic acid. Whether it’s fat-free, low-fat, lactose-free or flavored, the Food and Drug Administration mandates that cow’s milk not only be safe to drink, but that it meets a standard of identity – meaning that it contains all of these nutrients in the same amounts, in every glass of milk, every time, in every brand, from every store. Nondairy milks have no standard nutrient composition, so their nutrient compositions may vary from brand to brand. Additionally, some nondairy alternatives are supplemented with nutrients naturally found in milk.

As a registered dietitian, I compare foods based on the company they keep. While calories play a role in overall nutrition, they aren’t the only thing to judge. Here are a few other nutritional considerations:

Calcium: In addition to milk’s unique package of nutrients, its naturally occurring calcium is readily absorbed by our bodies. This is not always true of the various forms of calcium that may be used for fortification purposes. So, when comparing nondairy milk alternatives, it’s important to consider both the quantity and quality of the essential nutrients contained in each.

Protein: Milk is a great source of high-quality protein, with an average of 8 grams per cup. In comparison, many nondairy milk alternatives have 1 gram of protein or less per cup. Do you know how much protein is in your nondairy alternative?

Return on Investment, Guaranteed

At 25 cents or less per cup, milk is a nutritious bargain and a great return on investment. Most nondairy milk alternatives are twice the cost of milk.

Simple Ingredients

Milk is a natural product without added sugars, stabilizers or flavorings, which are often found in the ingredient list of nondairy milk alternatives. Typically, milk has three ingredients – milk, vitamin A and vitamin D. Take a look at the ingredient lists of the nondairy alternatives and compare them to milk – you may be surprised at what you find.

A Solution for Lactose Intolerance

Even if you are lactose intolerant, many options exist that allow you to enjoy the benefits of dairy without having to ditch it for a nondairy alternative. Whether it’s lactose-free milk or choosing other dairy foods that are naturally lower in lactose, such as yogurt or natural cheese such as cheddar, Swiss or mozzarella, there is a solution for everyone in the dairy case.

Disease and Risk Reduction

Current dietary guidelines recommend three servings of low-fat or fat-free milk, cheese or yogurt daily, acknowledging that the dairy group contributes many important nutrients. These recommendations are supported by scientific evidence that shows milk, as part of a balanced diet, has been associated with improved bone health, lower risk of cardiovascular disease, reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes and improvements in weight management.

Athletes who are looking to dairy beverages as a post-exercise recovery product must remember that carbohydrates and quality protein are behind the benefits of choosing cow’s milk. Research in adult athletes has shown that the high-quality protein profile of cow’s milk is well suited for recovery, containing both fast-acting protein for immediate recovery and slow-acting protein for long-term healing and muscle building.

So next time you’re choosing a beverage from the dairy case, take a closer look at the ingredient list and nutrition facts panel and see what you find – real cow’s milk may be a better bet than you thought!

Athletes can train harder and perform better with proper nutrition. Learn more on our blog about the benefits of milk as an exercise recovery beverage and how to eat for peak athletic performance.

By Jenna Allen, MS, RDN

Jenna is a registered dietitian with a passion for communicating science in an approachable way. She has been part of the Dairy MAX team since 2008. When she isn't working, Jenna is trying out new recipes with her three kids and working on her food photography. Learn more about Jenna.