Milk. It’s Complicated

It used to be the milk section at the grocery store was simple. Behind the glass refrigerator door was cow’s milk in whole, 2%, skim and chocolate. Today, the milk section is a complete aisle filled with an array of milk and milk alternatives. There is cow’s milk, goat’s milk, organic milk, lactose-free milk and milk alternatives such as soy, rice and almond. And, each variety has a unique set of health benefits.

Cow’s Milk

Cow’s milk is a mainstay. Children are brought up drinking cow’s milk and pouring it on their morning cereal. The best option for calcium is cow’s milk. A cup of cow’s milk supplies 30 percent of the daily value for calcium. Cow’s milk is also an excellent source of protein and vitamin D, both important in promoting bone growth and health. While parents tend to give their children whole milk when they are young (the AAP recommends weaned babies receive whole milk until they are 2), as children age, skim milk is a healthy nutritional option. Skim milk contains less saturated fat than whole milk and actually contains more calcium.

Organic milk labeling means the cows have not been treated with synthetic hormones to increase milk production and have not been injected with antibiotics to prevent illness. The cows are fed organic feed and roam freely and graze on pesticide-free grass.

Goat’s Milk

Goat’s milk is high in calcium and is an alternative to cow’s milk for children who suffer from milk allergies. John Gallaspy, Tulsa’s Whole Foods Market resident milk aficionado, said goat milk has become more popular with parents.

“It has an earthy flavor,” he said. “If you start your kids drinking goat’s milk when they are young, they will not give it a second thought. It has no added hormones and is very natural.”

Lactose-Free Milk

People with lactose intolerance lack adequate amounts of the enzyme necessary to digest lactose, a type of sugar found in milk and other dairy products. Tulsa Registered Dietician Sheri Stinson said makers of lactose-free milk add this enzyme directly to the milk and predigest the lactose for you, so you can enjoy milk without the unfortunate digestive aftermath.

“Lactose-free milk has the same amount of calcium and other vital nutrients as regular skim milk,” she said, “but tends to taste a little sweeter than regular milk.”

Stinson also warns that lactose can be in many unsuspecting products and food sources. “Look for lactose on the labels of all processed foods. Many vitamins and medicines contain lactose. Lactose is also hidden in many foods such as luncheon meats. Monosodium glutamate often contains lactose, so be careful to read the ingredient list.”

Milk Alternatives

Plant-derived milk alternatives such as soy, rice and almond have become popular to drink and put on cereal. While milk alternatives do not contain the high levels of calcium that are found in cow’s milk, milk alternatives are a good option for children with milk allergies or lactose intolerance.


Soy milk is derived from an extraction of mature soybean, water and sweetener.  It is low in saturated fat and cholesterol free. While soy milk does not have as much protein as cow’s milk, many manufacturers are fortifying their product with calcium and vitamin D.

“It is great that people are paying attention to all the milk alternatives. We now have options for kids and adults who might have issues with drinking regular milk,” said Gallaspy, who advises parents to pay attention to the sweeteners and flavoring added to milk alternatives. “They can have much more sugar and calories than regular milk.”

Rice Milk

Created by partially milled rice, water and flavors, rice milk is the least likely of all the milk products to trigger allergies. Rice milk does not contain protein and has no saturated fat or cholesterol.

Almond Milk

Almond milk is a blend of roasted almonds, liquid and sweetener. Like rice milk, it contains no saturated fat or cholesterol.

Calcium needs for children and teens:

1-3 yr old    500mg             2 cups milk

4-8 yr old    800mg            2-3 cups milk

9-18 yr old 1300mg            3 cups milk

Calcium Food Alternatives

If your child is not a milk drinker and you are worried that he or she is not getting enough calcium, you can find many other sources of foods that contain calcium. Stinson recommends calcium-rich foods such as calcium-fortified juices and cereals, green leafy vegetables, broccoli, brussel sprouts, pinto beans, oranges, shrimp and canned tuna and salmon.

Karen grew up in the great state of Texas and migrated or immigrated to Oklahoma in 2001. She is happily married to a man who likes music almost as much as she does. They have a son in college and currently is focused on  improving  her golf game and nabbing the best parking spot in the TulsaKids’ parking lot.

Categories: Health (Departments)