The white stuff
The white stuff ... With so many to choose from, it's worth checking what's in your milk. Photo: Quentin Jones
Whether you want to lower cholesterol, boost bone or give lactose a miss, there's a milk for you - and if you don't do dairy there's 'milk' made from nuts, grains and even quinoa. But how do these different milks stack up in terms of health benefits?
Let's start with the A2 versus A 1 milk debate. A 1 and A2 refer to different proteins that can occur in milk depending on the breed of cow – some cows produce milk with more A1, others produce milk with more A2, while others produce milk that contains both. Some evidence suggests that the A1 protein could be a risk factor for Type 1 diabetes and heart disease – but the jury's still out and, according to Food Standards Australia New Zealand, there's insufficient evidence to make any recommendations.
"Another theory suggests that A1 releases an opioid peptide that may affect movement in the gut which can affect digestive health," says Accredited Practising Dietitian Elena Oswald. "The research is still ongoing but with A2 milk I've seen improvements in patients with gastrointestinal pain and discomfort as well as constipation and diarrhoea."
Lactose free milk is a simpler story. Lactose is the sugar that occurs naturally in milk but some people are lactose intolerant, meaning they don't have enough of the enzyme lactase to digest lactose. This can cause symptoms like bloating and diarrhoea (but is quite different to having a milk allergy which demands avoiding milk altogether).
What about cholesterol lowering milks? These are enriched with plant sterols to help lower levels of 'bad' LDL cholesterol. According to the Heart Foundation, plant-sterol enriched foods can be useful if you have high cholesterol or diabetes (and therefore a higher risk of heart disease too). But if you do opt for sterol enriched products, have at least one daily serve of orange vegetables or fruit like sweet potato, carrots or rockmelon because plant sterols can lower levels of antioxidants called carotenoids – and that may increase heart disease risk, the Heart Foundation says.
As for organic milk, research from the UK suggests it has higher levels of healthy omega-3 fats - but we can't assume this applies to organic milk produced in Australia. The main difference with organic milk, is that cattle feed on pasture grown in organic soil enriched with compost not synthetic fertiliser, explains Greg Paynter, a soil consultant to Australian Organic, an organic farming industry association.. Organic milk also comes from cattle that graze on pasture - this may not be true of all cattle in the conventional dairy industry, some of which spend time in feedlots eating grain or other food supplements.
If you want calcium for bones, it's worth comparing labels because some brands have added calcium that delivers as much as 200mg per 100ml compared to around 120mg for most other milks – worth considering if you don't consume much dairy food, says Accredited Practising Dietitian Dr Kate Marsh.
"Some people assume that low fat milk has less calcium, but reduced fat milk has the same or sometimes more calcium compared to full fat milk," she says.
If you opt for dairy-free milk, her advice is to compare calcium content.
"Most soy, rice, oat and almond milks have added calcium but amounts can vary, so always check," she says. "Nut and grain milks tend to be nutritional lightweights consisting mostly of water, a small amount of nut or grain and sweetener and because of their low protein content are not generally recommended for young children."
Price varies a lot too – almond and oat milks in the supermarket can be less than half the price of products in the health food store
"Nutritionally, soy's advantage over other plant milks is that it's closer to dairy milk in its protein content and composition of nutrients. Some soymilks also have B12 added which is important for vegans," she adds.
As for avoiding added hormones or antibiotics in milk, any milk will do. According to Dairy Australia, no growth hormones are fed to dairy cattle and antibiotics are only used if an animal needs treatment for disease – in which case the milk isn't sold for human consumption.
What kind of milk is in your fridge?
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