As surprising as it may seem, considering I’m a dietitian and nutrition editor of EatingWell Magazine, my preferred variety of milk is the chocolate kind, especially after a workout. It delivers the mix of protein and carbohydrate our bodies need to recover energy supplies after an intense workout. (Find out how milk stacks up against water, sports drinks and more when it comes to staying hydrated. )
But at the grocery store, my choices don’t just stop at plain versus chocolate milk. There’s also fat content to consider and milk labeled organic, RBST-free and lactose-free. And beyond the grocery store, there’s the raw milk versus pasteurized milk debate. With so many choices, how do you know which one you should buy? This guide will help you cut through the confusion.
Whole, reduced-fat, low-fat or nonfat? Consider whole milk—which delivers 150 calories and 8 grams fat (5 grams saturated) per cup—a once-in-a-while treat. Nutrition experts recommend drinking low-fat (1%) milk (100 calories, 2.5 grams fat) or nonfat milk (80 calories, 0.5 gram fat) to limit intake of the saturated fats that boost risk of heart disease. Infants under age 2, however, who need extra fat to support a developing brain, should drink whole milk.
And don’t be fooled: reduced-fat (2%) milk is not a low-fat food. One cup has 5 grams fat, 3 of them the saturated kind. (Check out these 6 other surprisingly unhealthy foods. ) You won’t miss out on milk’s nutritional boons when you opt for low-fat or nonfat milk (sometimes called “skim”): per cup, all varieties deliver about one-third of the recommended daily value for calcium and at least 20 percent of the daily value for riboflavin, phosphorus and vitamin D.
Organic or not? Polls suggest people associate organic milk with superior nutrition, better treatment of animals and a healthier planet. But there’s no evidence that organic milk is more nutritious. While preliminary research has suggested that grass-fed cows produce milk with more vitamin E and heart-healthy omega-3 fats than cows fed grains, organic standards don't require that cows be solely grass-fed. (Farmers must use organic fertilizers and pesticides and may not give cows preventive antibiotics or supplemental growth hormones; animals must have access to the outdoors year-round and at least 120 days per year of grazing.)
rBST-free or not? The claim “rBST-free” indicates milk produced without using the artificial growth hormone recombinant bovine somatotropin, or rBST. Giving this hormone to a cow boosts its milk production by about five quarts per day. Some consumers believe that treating cows with the supplemental hormone is inhumane, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains that treating cows with rBST does not harm the animals—or significantly affect the hormone content of milk. In fact, all milks—even from cows not treated with rBST—contain naturally-occurring hormones. Note: All organic milks are rBST-free, but not all rBST-free milks are organic (i.e., farmers may use pesticides, fertilizers, etc.).
Lactose-free? This type of milk is basically regular cow’s milk minus lactose, the natural sugar in milk. It provides all the same healthful nutrients (e.g., protein and calcium), just not the sugar that stokes digestive problems for up to 50 million Americans.
Raw vs. pasteurized? During pasteurization, milk is heated to high temperatures (>161°F) then rapidly cooled to kill harmful bacteria, including salmonella, E.coli 0157:H7 and listeria. While raw-milk enthusiasts claim heating milk destroys its natural enzymes and beneficial bacteria, studies show that the nutritional differences between pasteurized and raw milk are slight. What’s more, public health experts warn that drinking raw milk is like playing Russian roulette. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that raw milk accounted for 1,007 illnesses and two deaths between 1998 and 2005. And when USDA scientists collected raw milk samples from 861 farms in 21 states, nearly a quarter of them contained bacteria linked to human illness, including 5 percent that tested positive for Listeria—a bacterium that results in a foodborne illness, listeriosis, and has a 30 percent mortality rate.
Don’t like milk? Don’t have a cow: milk can come from many sources. Though you may drink these plant-based milks in place of what Elsie produces, “Technically, these drinks aren’t really milk,” says Catherine W. Donnelly, Ph.D., of the University of Vermont. Regardless, here’s a milk/“milk” comparison* per cup:
Related:Ditching Dairy? Read This First. 
Cow’s Milk: 80-150 calories (nonfat to whole), 0.5-8 g fat, 0-5 g saturated fat, 8-9 g protein, 12-13 g carbohydrate, 0 g fiber, 30% DV calcium, 25% DV vitamin D
Nutrition notes: One cup provides a third of the recommended daily dose for calcium and 16% of the daily value for protein. It’s a good source of vitamin D (through fortification) and phosphorus, which build strong bones, as well as the B vitamin riboflavin.
Goat's Milk: 90-150 calories (nonfat to whole), 2.5-8 g fat, 1.5-5 g saturated fat, 7-8 g protein, 9-12 g carbohydrates, 0 g fiber, 30% DV calcium, up to 30% DV vitamin D
Nutrition notes: Like cow’s milk, goat’s milk contains lactose, just a tad less. Many suggest that people who are allergic to cow’s milk can tolerate goat’s milk, but immunologists often advise those allergic to cow’s milk to avoid goat’s milk, too, because of cross-reactivity risks.
Soy Milk: 60-130 calories, 2-6 g fat, 0-0.5 g saturated fat, 4-12 g protein, 5-15 g carbohdyrates, 0-4 g fiber, 4-30% DV calcium, up to 30% DV vitamin D
Nutrition notes: Studies link soy’s protein and phytoestrogens with a reduced risk of cancer and heart disease. (But when it comes to breast cancer, is soy safe? Find out here. ) Choose a soymilk fortified with calcium and vitamin D (30% DV and 25% DV, respectively)—and shake before you pour, as added nutrients can settle to the bottom of the carton.
Rice Milk: 110-120 calories, 2.5 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 1 g protein, 20-24 g carbohydrate, 0 g fiber, 2-25% DV calcium, up to 25% DV vitamin D
Nutrition notes: Rice milk is lower in protein and higher in carbohydrates than cow’s milk and soymilk. It’s also a poor natural source of calcium so choose one that’s fortified with the mineral.
Almond Milk: 60-80 calories, 2.5-4.5 g fat, 0-0.5 g saturated fat, 2-9 g protein, 5-11 g carbohydrate, 0-4 g fiber, 20-30% DV calcium, up to 25% DV vitamin D
Nutrition notes: Almond milk is naturally high in calcium. Buy one that’s fortified with vitamin D, too, for a nutrition profile similar to cow’s milk.
Hemp Milk: 110-130 calories, 3-7 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 4-5 g protein, 6-20 g carbohydrates, 1 g fiber, 2-46% DV calcium, up to 25% DV vitamin D
Nutrition notes: Hemp milk supplies high-quality protein (i.e., a good mix of amino acids) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acid.
*Data reflects a sample of 20 readily available milks/“milks.” For plant-based “milks,” we included only plain varieties—both sweetened and unsweetened, when available.
Which milk do you buy—and why?
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