The Best Milk For Your Health

Milk is an important component of the Indian diet. From daily consumption of milk in our formative years to habituated tea- and coffee-drinkers, we have a lifelong relationship with this white liquid. I say "relationship" because we choose to keep it going. Adults don’t need milk. Experts from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health explained that milk is not necessary for adults, who can get nutrients from other food sources, but is beneficial for children since their diets are not as varied. For adults, they recommend lower-fat milk varieties in the long-term.  

That said, milk is one of our country’s primary sources of protein and calcium. Milk and dairy products are also a significant presence in desserts, sweets, curd, beverages, and curries. Thanks to our large population, we produce and consume the most milk (in total) in the world. The average Indian consumes 85 liters of milk per year, which is middle of the pack in per capita terms. It comes as no surprise that milk now has various avatars in the country: regular, skim, high-fat, lactose-free, almond, soy, A2, etc. This abundance of choice can get confusing.

In general, any type of milk is healthy as a balanced addition to your diet. In India, the packeted ("toned") milk we buy in our cities is a mix of cow and buffalo milk, with 3% fat and 8.5% solid non-fat content. Double-toned milk contains 1.5% fat, standardized milk has 4.5% fat, and the full-fat variety has 6% fat. The new favorite in Indian cities, skimmed milk, contains just 0.5% fat.

The type that suits your life and health best, with its balance of nutrients, depends on your diet, requirements, etc. A typical 300-ml mug of milk provides around 10 grams of protein and over 300 mg of calcium. Here's a look at the most popular and widely available types of milk to help you understand the one that’s best suited to your requirements.

Cow milk:  

This remains the most nutritious. And its nutrition profile is hard to beat. A glass of regular 2% cow milk provides 8 grams of protein, 12 grams of carbohydrates, 12 grams of sugar, 4 grams of fat, 310 mg of calcium, over 375 mg of potassium, and 50% of your daily vitamin B12 requirement. Most commercially sold milk is fortified with vitamin D, so you’ll get that from the better brands as well. The sugar levels may concern some people, but they come from naturally occurring lactose. For most people, cow’s milk is still the best bet, especially if you can get it in non-plastic containers.

A2 Milk:  

The A2 variety of cow's milk, which is gaining popularity, is a premium offering of cow’s milk that’s claimed to be free of a harmful chemical called BCM-7. A2 is a type of casein (the main protein in milk) that, some studies say, is better for health while A1 is more problematic. The distinction? A2 occurs more naturally in Indian cows (which are bred more carefully), while A1 comes from foreign breeds of cows, like the Holstein, which have been interbred with other breeds to yield twice as much milk as desi breeds. Some studies claim that BCM-7 is a harmful opioid peptide that is released when our body digests A1 milk and "affects the immune and GI systems," causing symptoms similar to lactose intolerance. Hmm. Experts are yet to come to a consensus on the larger A1 vs. A2 issue. But A2 milk might be worth a shot if regular cow's milk has been giving you trouble. It has the same nutritional value as cow's milk.

 Soy Milk:  

If you’re keen on plant-based milk, this is a great option. A glass of unsweetened soy milk contains 90 calories. It has 9 grams of protein, 5 grams of fat, 3 grams of carbohydrates, and just 1 gram of sugar. You’ll also get 250 mg of calcium and 380 mg of potassium, in addition to 40% of your daily vitamin B12 requirement. So, yes, soy milk seems pretty close to cow’s milk in terms of nutrients, making it a great pick—as long as you avoid the flavored varieties, which have added sugars. Regular consumption of soy foods has also been associated with health benefits like improved cholesterol and blood pressure levels.

 Almond Milk:  

Almond milk has grown in popularity over the last 5 years but has had limited success because of its high price. Making almond milk is easy: soak almonds in water, then blend and strain away the solids. It's from almonds, so it’s bound to taste very good. It’s a safer option for people who have a low tolerance for dairy milk. But almond milk is already tasty, so it’s best to avoid the packets that add flavors or sugar—stick to unsweetened almond milk. One glass of almond milk contains 41 calories, 1 gram of protein, 3 grams of fat, 3 grams of carbs, and 2 grams of sugar. It also contains 50% of your daily vitamin E requirement. Like most modern milk, the packaged varieties are fortified with calcium and vitamins A, D, etc. This is a great solution for people who want to include low-fat, low-carb, low-calorie milk in their diet.

Oat Milk:  

Oat milk is increasingly appearing on such lists, though you'd be hard-pressed to find it on the shelves of a store near you. It’s a new entrant and, relatively speaking, may not be as nutritious as a bowl of oats. But the milk from oats is filling: a glass of oat milk has about 115 calories, with 3 grams of protein, 5 grams of fat, 13 grams of carbs, 6 grams of sugar, and a healthy sprinkling of vitamins and minerals. The higher fiber in oat milk is a plus point. You could, of course, make your own oat milk at home, but it won’t be fortified with vitamins and nutrients, unlike commercially produced oat milk. But do keep an eye out for this as it grows in popularity.

Lactose-free milk:  

For people living in a culture that prioritizes milk and dairy, lactose intolerance, or lactose malabsorption, is a major source of discomfort. People with this condition are unable to fully digest the lactose (a form of sugar) in milk. Their bodies produce too little lactase, which hinders the absorption of lactose. When they ingest milk or milk products, they suffer from diarrhea, gas and bloating, or even vomiting. Lactose intolerance is usually harmless, but the symptoms are quite disruptive to normal living. It’s more widely prevalent than you think: some estimates claim over 50% of South Indians and over 30% of North Indians suffer from lactose intolerance.

Lactose-free milk is basically milk that contains no lactose, which is the component that the body is struggling to process. Manufacturers produce lactose-free milk by adding lactase to cow’s milk. This lactase breaks down the lactose in the milk into two simpler sugars: glucose and galactose. That’s why lactose-free milk does taste a bit sweeter than regular milk.

The lactose-free milk that comes from this process has similar nutrients to cow’s milk: protein, calcium, micronutrients, vitamins, etc. That makes it easy to use as a replacement in almost every recipe that requires milk.