When facing a plethora of options in grocery stores - in the dairy aisle and among various plant-based alternatives - deciding what milk to buy can give a shopper pause.
With that in mind, the Murray-Calloway County Hospital Center for Health and Wellness hosted Milk 101, a free nutrition education event presented by Registered Dietitian Alissa Bryan. Held Oct. 10, the half-hour class included the nutritional differences in the common varieties of cow's milk and alternative products, as well as some of the regulations under which milk is produced.
The dietitian explained that the categories of cow's milk - whole, 2 percent, 1 percent and skim - differentiate fat content. She said while there is a slight difference in the number of calories per cup - with 160 calories per cup of whole milk, 120 per cup of 2 percent, 100 per cup of 1 percent and 80 per cup of skim - it is more important to focus on the fat content.
Bryan said a cup of whole milk contains 8 grams of fat, about 5 of which are saturated fat.
By comparison, a cup of 2 percent, or reduced fat, milk contains about 3 grams of saturated fat within a total of about 5 grams of fat; a cup of 1 percent, or low fat, milk contains about 1.5 grams of saturated fat within a total of about 2.4 grams of fat; and a cup of skim, or nonfat, milk has so little fat that it rates as 0 percent of the recommended daily value for a 2,000 calorie diet.
"It is a big difference," Bryan said.
However, the dietitian added, the amount of protein, vitamins and minerals - such as calcium, potassium and magnesium - is the same in each variety of cow's milk. While she recommended buying lower-fat varieties, Bryan said in recent months some studies associating consumption of whole milk with lower body weight have received media attention.
"The thought behind that is that you actually, supposedly, will lose weight drinking whole milk - this is what some folks are saying - because you're getting satisfied; that fat in there is making you feel full," Bryan explained.
The dietitian expressed skepticism of that concept. She said the fat in whole milk is not "the good fat that we need," and fat is not necessary to achieve fullness. Bryan suggested eating fiber, fruits and vegetables to achieve fullness.
"You're still drinking some saturated fat," Bryan said of whole milk, "And for that reason the American Heart Association and the American Pediatric Association is still recommending lower fat milk."
Other varieties of milk Bryan discussed were organic and lactose-free cow's milk and goat milk. She explained that lactose-free milk is, as the name suggests, cow's milk with lactose removed so folks with lactose intolerance can consume it without enduring digestive symptoms. Goat's milk, she said, is an alternative people with milk allergies sometimes consider - despite containing slightly less protein - because it contains less lactose than cow's milk, and about the same number of calories and amount of fat.
Bryan said there currently isn't evidence that organic milk is more nutritious than conventional milk, but some studies have shown that grass-fed cattle produce milk with higher levels of vitamin E and omega 3 fatty acids than grain-fed cattle. However, the current U.S. Department of Agriculture standards don't require organic milk to have come from cows that are solely fed grass.
The dietitian said cows do have to graze on pasture grass for a minimum of 120 days per year for their milk to be considered organic. Bryan said other standards dairy farmers must follow for their milk to be certified organic include using feed grown only with organic fertilizers, organic pesticides or no pesticides, and the cows can't be treated with antibiotics or supplemental growth hormones. She said that the stringent regulations are the reason organic milk is pricier than conventional milk.
Regarding supplemental growth hormones, Bryan explained that the Food and Drug Administration approved recombinant bovine somatotropin - a growth hormone said to increase milk production - for use by dairy farmers in 1993. She said the FDA determined there's no significant difference between cows treated with growth hormone and cows not treated with it, but some brands of conventional milk advertise whether they contain milk from hormone-treated cows.
"And, actually, there are some farmers who have looked at their milk production - Is there a benefit from how much it (the hormone) costs to how much more milk they're getting? - and they're not even seeing a difference," Bryan added. "And so a lot of them are not even using this hormone anymore, and what they've found out the best thing to do is just good animal husbandry: just making sure those animals are fed well, taken care of, they're relaxed, and that is the best way to get the most amount of lactation from cows."
Milk alternatives Bryan discussed were soy milk, rice milk, almond milk and coconut milk.
Bryan said the number of calories in soy milk - which is made by grinding soybeans with water - varies by brand, but it contains no saturated fat, cholesterol or lactose. While it can be a viable alternative for the lactose intolerant, Bryan said it can worsen gout because it contains an natural substance called purine. She recommended that folks who drink soy milk buy a brand fortified with calcium and vitamin D, because those nutrients aren't naturally found in it. She also recommended shaking the container before pouring to counteract settling.
The dietitian said rice milk - made from processed, milled rice - "is a little tricky" because it isn't a good source of protein, is high in carbohydrates and is low in calcium unless fortified with it. Coconut milk - the liquid that comes from the grated meat of brown coconuts - is also a less-than-ideal milk alternative. Bryan cautioned that it spoils more rapidly than cow's milk. She said although it comes in a variety of thicknesses and fat contents, it is generally high in cholesterol and saturated fat.
While Bryan said the saturated fat in coconut milk is mainly in the form of medium-chain triglycerides, which "actually has some heart health benefits," she added that one cup contains 445 calories.
"So this is not something we need to be drinking every day. This might be something good to cook with," Bryan advised.
Of the plant milks, Bryan voiced a personal preference for almond milk, which she noted can be made at home by combining almonds and water in a blender.
Bryan said almond milk contains fewer calories than cow's milk, is not high in carbohydrates and contains no cholesterol or lactose. She said it's naturally "very high" in calcium and contains potassium and magnesium. However, she said it does contain some fat, is not a good source of protein, and recommended buying vitamin D fortified varieties.
Contact Leanne Fuller, a Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8653.