When we were little, cow’s milk was the no-nonsense staple that nobody thought twice about. Fast forward to 2019 and the milk fridge at your local supermarket seems to expand every time you visit it, which makes the seemingly simple task of buying milk more and more confusing.
As a dietitian, two of the most common types of milk I get asked about are regular skim milk and almond ‘milk’. The former being full of sugar, and the latter being sooo much better for you – right?! Well, your personal trainer might say so, but that’s not necessarily true. So, to give you some perspective, I’m going to walk you through the pros and cons of each and give the final verdict on which is better.
Firstly, let’s start with regular cow’s milk. In terms of macronutrients, you’re getting about 700 kilojoules (170 calories), 8.5 grams of protein, 5.5 grams of saturated fat and 15 grams of sugar for one cup of a full cream variety. But that’s not all – it also comes loaded with a range of micronutrients. You’re probably already well aware that dairy foods are rich in bone-strengthening calcium, but they also provide many other nutrients like Vitamin B12 for blood and nervous system function, Vitamin A to support healthy eyes and potassium to keep hearts pumping.
So, what’s the deal with skim milk? In terms of vitamins and minerals, the two varieties are relatively on par. But there is a rather distinctive disparity when it comes to the energy and fat content. One cup of skim milk will cost you just 355 kilojoules (85 calories) and you’ll save yourself 5.3 grams of saturated fat (FYI, that’s the harmful fat that can lead to clogged arteries when consumed in excess).
And the sugar content? Well, you’ll be pleased to hear the rumours aren’t true, as skim milk has just 12 grams per cup. What’s more, the sugar in milk is not the same as the sugar you get in confectionary – it’s simply a naturally occurring sugar called ‘lactose’ that’s perfectly healthy as part of a balanced diet.
The trend-setter staple, you’ll find almond milk in every ultra-cool café. For one cup of your run-of-the-mill almond milk you’ll get 355 kilojoules (85 calories), 1.5 grams of protein, 0.5 grams of saturated fat and 4.8 grams of sugar.
What might surprise you is the way almond milk is actually made. Put simply, it’s the result of almonds that have been soaked in water and then blitzed up. Of course, almonds are a super healthy food brimming with heart-healthy fats and fibre – but you’re not actually getting many almonds per glass. In fact, some leading brands of almond milk are only three to four per cent almonds (yikes!).
On face value, I can see why people may think almond milk is healthier. It’s a lighter option made with the goodness of nuts. But once you dig a little deeper, the story isn’t what it seems.
While almond milk has a similar energy content to skim cow’s milk, it has far less protein, which helps you to feel full and is key for muscle growth. Almond milk is also lacking in many of the key micronutrients found in milk, although you can get some with added calcium – so it’s highly advisable to check the label and look for at least 100mg calcium per 100mL. What’s more, almond milk can contribute to your intake of added sugars if you’re buying a sweetened variety, whereas the sugar in cow’s milk is completely natural and nothing to fret about.
All in all, unless you’re allergic or intolerant to dairy, I’d always recommend reduced-fat cow’s milk over the kind made from almonds.
Melissa Meier is an online and Sydney-based Accredited Practising Dietitian. You can connect with her at honestnutrition.com.au or on Instagram @honest_nutrition.