Conventional wisdom argues that whole-fat dairy products are less healthy than their low-fat counterparts. But because there’s no study on food that won’t be immediately contradicted by a different study, new findings published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition challenge this notion by suggesting that consuming whole-fat dairy products might actually reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke.
The researchers behind the study found that none of the fatty acids in dairy products were linked to a higher risk of death, and that one was even associated with a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease. They also found that people with higher levels of these fatty acids—which may have resulted from the consumption of whole-fat dairy products!—had a 42 percent lower risk of death from stroke.
The implication here is that, essentially, it really doesn’t matter whether you drink whole, two-percent or skim milk at all. In fact, whole milk might even be the healthiest choice, since it contains more of those supposedly beneficial fatty acids.
Naturally, these findings have caused some confusion about which types of milk are really healthier for you than others, so to find out, we asked Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, to help us rank each type of milk out there—from most healthy to least healthy.
It’s worth noting before we begin, though, that despite the recent study’s findings, Hunnes believes that dairy milk simply isn’t a necessary part of the human diet. “We are the only mammals on Earth who drink the milk of another species willingly, knowingly and truly without reason,” she argues. “No other mammal on Earth drinks milk after weaning, and the main reason people are told to consume milk is for calcium, vitamin D and other trace minerals that we can now get from numerous plant-based sources.”
With that out of the way, here’s her ranking…
1) Soy Milk: “Soy milk is a wonderful source of complete protein, plus it usually has a little fiber in it,” Hunnes explains. “It contains as much protein as cow’s milk without the saturated fat or potentially tumor-growing casein (animal protein).” Hunnes also says that there’s no need to worry about the phytoestrogens found in soy milk, which are often blamed for causing men to grow breasts by creating a hormonal imbalance: “Cow’s milk contains way more naturally-occurring hormones than soy milk,” she emphasises.
Additionally, Hunnes recommends buying organic, unsweetened soy milk to avoid genetically modified organisms and the extra carbohydrates that come in sweetened varieties.
Now, if you’ve heard that soy isn’t so healthy for planet Earth, you’re not entirely wrong—but it’s also more complicated than you may think. It’s true that approximately 480,000 hectares of land (equivalent to about 960,000 football fields) are deforested every year to enable the production of soy in major soy-producing countries. However, the vast majority of this soy is used to feed pork, poultry and dairy cows in response to the massive global demand for meat and dairy products. Meanwhile, only a small portion of this soy is used to make soy milk. To that end, converting forest to pastures for beef cattle is responsible for destroying 2.71 million hectares of tropical forest each year in only four countries.
Put simply, soy isn’t destroying the Earth nearly as much as meat and dairy is.
2) Hemp Milk: “Hemp milk contains some good protein, omega-3 fatty acids and a healthy dose of micronutrients that you can’t necessarily get from other foods,” Hunnes says. It’s particularly a good source of the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid, which has been shown to decrease inflammation and control blood pressure.
3) Coconut Milk: “Coconut milk has very little protein in it, but it’s a good source of potassium [which supports cardiovascular health], and potentially, some other electrolytes,” Hunnes says. “It contains a lot of fat, but may be well-tolerated by individuals who don’t tolerate milk-fats well.” It’s also a good source of medium chain triglycerides, which are linked to increased endurance, weight loss and lowered cholesterol.
4) Almond and Rice Milk (tied): “I tend to lump almond and rice milk together because neither has much protein,” Hunnes says. “While almond milk is probably more nutritious, rice milk is a great alternative, since people are more likely to have allergies to nuts or soy. Rice milk is also good for people who have kidney disease, and therefore, need a low-potassium or low-phosphorus substitute.”
6) Kefir: “This is a fermented milk, so it’s much better than your average cow’s milk—though, not necessarily better than plant milks—because of the probiotic load it contains,” Hunnes explains. “Probiotics are great for our digestive tract, but these days, you can find them in pill form or in non-dairy yogurts.”
From here on, we’ll be moving on to dairy milks, which Hunnes explains are all relatively similar (and therefore, difficult to rank). “I kind of lump all cow-milk products together, because they’re good sources of calcium and vitamin D (as are plant milks), but they’re also high in casein, which is possibly carcinogenic, and whey, which can only be found in cow-milk products.”
With that, Hunnes quickly runs through how these traditional dairy milks might rank in order of healthiness:
7) One-Percent Milk: “I rank this first because it has some fat, and some fat in dairy has been shown to possibly be beneficial,” Hunnes says.
8) Skim Milk: “I rank this second, because it’s better than fattier versions of milk, but probably not as beneficial as the slight amount of fat found in one-percent milk,” Hunnes explains.
9) Two-Percent Milk: “Two-percent milk has a fair amount of saturated fat,” Hunnes says. “It’s pretty close in that regard to one-percent milk, so in some ways, it could be ranked similar to one-percent.”
10) Whole Milk: “This has too much saturated fat in it for anyone over the age of two,” Hunnes emphasizes.
11) Half-and-Half: “This has way too much saturated fat,” Hunnes says.
But bearing in mind the pro-dairy-fat study that we mentioned at the start of this article, it’s worth noting that science continues to go back and forth in regard to whether or not saturated fat is actually healthy. Even Marcia de Oliveira Otto, the lead researcher of the above-mentioned study and an assistant professor of epidemiology, human genetics and environmental science at the University of Texas School of Public Health, claims that her research isn’t a reason to drink more milk, as noted by The Atlantic:
“De Oliveira Otto believes that this evidence is not itself a reason to eat more or less dairy. But she said it could encourage people to give priority to whole-fat dairy products over those that may be lower in fat but higher in sugar, which may be added to make up for a lack of taste or texture.”
As the American Heart Association says, “Saturated fats are just one piece of the puzzle. In general, you can’t go wrong eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fewer calories.”
12) Raw Milk: Raw milk is milk that hasn’t been pasteurized, meaning it hasn’t been heated to decontaminate it for safe drinking. “There’s just too high of a chance for the introduction of bacteria,” Hunnes warns. “This scares me, but I’ve also probably seen too many videos of factory dairy farms, where cow udders have pus on them.”
Welp, pass that soy milk, I guess.