Of all the topics I get asked about (or reluctantly pulled into a debate about) milk is, surprisingly, one of the most emotionally charged. People have very strong opinions about milk—and that's okay. But opinions are one thing, and facts are another. There's an awful lot of confusion and misinformation out there about milk. Whether you serve cow's milk, plant-based milk, or none of the above to your family, it's important to have the correct information. Here are five milk myths I hear the most (and the truth):
1. Myth: Only whole milk is healthy.
Truth: Emerging research is showing that full-fat dairy may have some health benefits, particularly because it's more filling than lower-fat or fat-free dairy. But I see this message twisted (especially online) to say that only whole milk is nutritious—and that fat-free milk is void of nutrients or somehow unhealthy. All varieties of dairy milk have roughly the same amount of essential nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, protein, and potassium—only the fat content is different. There's also a rumor floating around that the fat is removed for fat-free and low-fat milk with "chemicals". It's actually taken out of all milk by centrifugation (spinning at a high speed) then added back into the different varieties in varying amounts.
2. Myth: Plant-based milks are nutritionally the same as cow's milk.
Truth: According to market research, some consumers buy plant-based milks because they think they're more nutritious than cow's milk. But that's not the case. Soy milk is the closest to cow's milk in terms of nutrition, with the same amount of protein (8 grams per cup) as cow's milk. But other non-dairy milks have little to no protein: Almond milk has just one gram of protein per serving, and coconut milk even less. (There are now nut milk options with protein added and protein-rich pea milk varieties available.) Other nutrients vary too. For instance, rice milk has about one-fifth of the potassium found in cow's milk. If you're buying these beverages, be sure you're getting the kind fortified with calcium and vitamin D (and keep in mind that homemade plant-based milks will not be rich sources of these nutrients).
3. Myth: Humans can't digest cow's milk.
Truth: It's true that some people have trouble digesting lactose, the natural sugar in milk. But this varies widely by ethnic groups, affecting as many as 90 percent of people of East Asian descent but only five percent of those with Northern European roots. Even among those with lactose intolerance, some people are still able to digest small amounts of dairy without issue.
4. Myth: Kids need a lot of milk.
Truth: To get the calcium and nutrients they need, toddlers only need two cups of dairy a day. Kids ages 4-8 should get 2.5 cups, and older kids and teens need three. But keep in mind that one cup of dairy equals either a cup of milk, a cup of yogurt, or 1.5 ounces of cheese. So kids don't need to be chugging milk all day. In fact, over-consuming milk can be a problem among young kids, whose appetites may be blunted by milk, resulting in iron-deficiency if they're not eating enough food.
5. Myth: Chocolate milk contains the same amount of sugar as soda.
Truth: There is sugar listed on the Nutrition Facts Panel of all types of cow's milk because it contains the natural milk sugar lactose. About half the sugar in chocolate milk is the natural kind, so it's not accurate to say that chocolate milk has the same amount of sugar as a soda. Flavored milk tends to have 2-3 teaspoons of added sugar, compared to about 10 teaspoons in a can of soda. There is no added sugar in plain, white milk.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.