Natalie Digate Muth by Natalie Digate Muth

MilkThe U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend that adults and kids older than nine years drink three cups of milk per day, that kids ages four to eight drink two-and-a-half cups, and kids ages two to three drink two cups. But do we really need that much? And if so, what kind of milk should we be drinking—cow’s milk, almond, rice or soy? Whole, 2 percent or skim? Organic or conventional? Is chocolate milk O.K., or at least better than juice? And what’s this latest news about milk manufacturers putting artificial sweeteners in milk and no longer wanting to tell consumers when they’ve used them?

Shopping for milk used to be simple. Not anymore.

The Basics

Milk provides calcium and vitamin D, and is a good source of protein. The science is constantly evolving, but the current consensus is that kids and teens should consume 1300 mg of calcium and adults should consume 1000 mg of calcium, along with 600 IU of vitamin D, per day for bone strength and potentially many other benefits. The average child should get about 35 grams of protein (less for younger kids and more for teens), while adults should consume 50 grams of protein (less for women and more for men) to help maintain muscle mass and meet the body’s structural needs.

When choosing milk, start by reading the nutrition label to make sure that there is close to 30 percent of the recommended daily amount of calcium and 20 percent of vitamin D, and, ideally, at least 5 grams of protein per serving.

The Concerns

Many people have a variety of concerns about milk. Milk producers have devised a variety of solutions. Here’s a sampling:

  • Too much saturated fat and calories. Whole milk contains 150 calories and 5 grams of saturated fat per 8-ounce cup, while skim milk contains 90 calories and zero grams of saturated fat. Physicians and dietitians have long encouraged families to switch from whole milk to 2 percent, or better yet, skim milk to help reduce calories and better manage weight. But a recent study suggests that the switch may not cause enough of a calorie deficit to make much of a difference. In the study, kids on skim milk weighed no less than those who drank whole milk. The authors of the study speculate that this may be due to the fact that the overweight kids switched to skim milk after being identified as overweight.
  • Lactose. A large percentage of the population, especially among minority groups, suffers from some level of lactose intolerance, which is an inability properly digest and absorb the sugar found in dairy products. People with lactose-intolerance can typically tolerate small amounts of cow’s milk, but to meet daily calcium recommendations, lactose-free milk is a better option.
  • Vegan. For those who don’t consume any animal products, conventional milk is off-limits. Instead, they can opt for almond, coconut, rice, hemp or oat milk, or one of many of the varieties of milk you can now find at your local grocery store.
  • Pesticides and hormones. Most cows are fed grains that are conventionally grown and contain pesticides. Some cows are given hormones such as growth hormone (recombinant bovine somatotropin, or rBST) to help increase milk production. USDA-certified organic milk contains no pesticide or hormone contamination. A report from the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that there is no evidence that organic milk provides any additional health benefits for kids. At nearly double the price of conventional milk, organic milk is certainly a more expensive option.
  • Kids won’t drink it.While younger kids sometimes suffer from drinking too much milk (which can lead to iron-deficiency anemia since there is no iron in milk), many older kids (especially teens) don’t drink enough. To make milk more appealing to kids, milk companies have added various ingredients, mostly in the form of sweeteners. Chocolate milk, for example, contains varying amounts of sugar depending on the brand, but can contain as much as 29 grams per 8-ounce serving. This is 5 g more than orange juice and slightly more than an 8-ounce can of soda. With concerns about childhood obesity growing and the cracking down of sugary foods and drinks at schools, milk manufacturers sometimes include artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose to reduce calorie content. The safety of artificial sweeteners for kids is currently unknown. Although milk manufacturers have always had to label products containing artificial sweeteners, they recently petitioned the USDA to be exempt from this requirement. The comment period to oppose this petition is open until May 24, 2013.

The Solution
When it comes to buying milk, make an informed decision for your family based on nutritional value, taste preference and cost. The next time you puzzling over which milk to choose, this handy chart can help you make a decision that is just right for you and your family.



Nutrient Highlights
(per 8oz)



Cow’s milk (conventional)
(skim, 1 percent, 2 percent, whole)

80-150 calories
0-5g saturated fat
8 g protein
30% calcium
20% vitamin D

Skim milk is low in calories and fat, and high in protein, calcium and vitamin D

Lactose (problem for some);
may contain pesticides and hormones with uncertain impact on health; high carbon footprint

Organic cow’s milk
(skim, 1 percent, 2 percent, whole)

80-150 calories
0-5g saturated fat
8 g protein
30% calcium
20% vitamin D

Same benefits as conventional milk without the potentially harmful contamination and carbon footprint


Chocolate milk (1 percent low-fat)

150 calories
2 g saturated fat
8 g protein
29% calcium
18% vitamin D

More palatable than regular milk for some (especially appealing to kids)

11 grams added sugar per cup

Soy milk

100 calories
0.5 g saturated fat
7 g protein
29% calcium
16% vitamin D

Plant compounds may help decrease cholesterol

Too much soy could increase risk of breast cancer in premenopausal women

Almond milk

35 calories
0 g saturated fat
1 g protein
20% calcium
25% vitamin D

Lowest in calories; high in vitamin E and selenium

Highest in sodium (180 mg/8-ounce serving)

Hemp milk

100 calories
0.5 g saturated fat
4 g protein
10% calcium (30% if fortified)
25% vitamin D

High in omega-3 fatty acids (900 mg per serving)

Low in protein and calcium (unless fortified)

Oat milk

130-150 calories
0 g saturated fat
4 g protein
0% calcium (30% if fortified)
0% vitamin D

High in calcium and vitamin D, folic acid, fiber (2 g/serving)

High in calories and sugar; little to no calcium unless fortified

Coconut milk

80 calories
5 g saturated fat
1 g protein
10% calcium
30% vitamin D

Lowest in sodium; fairly low-calorie; fortified with vitamin B12 (especially important for vegans)

High in saturated fat

Rice Milk

120 calories
0 g saturated fat
1 g protein
1% calcium (30% if fortified)
25% vitamin D

Naturally sweet taste; low risk of allergic reaction

Low in protein

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