The importance of milk has been pretty apparent since…well…the day we were born.  We depended on milk during our infancy, and as time went on we kept milk as a staple in our diets, drowning our cereals in skim, 1%, 2%, or whole. And there was a time when we just couldn’t escape those “Got Milk?” ads with the murky milk mustaches.

These days, we are greeted with endless types of milk options, so we decided to put together a quick guide with a few of the most popular so you can decide which is the best for you.

Cow Milk

Our consumption of cow’s milk dates back 12,500 years ago to the Neolithic Revolution, when we found ways of domesticating animals to suit our massive agricultural growth. During the Medieval Period, it was called the “virtuous white liquor” since water was less safe to consume than alcoholic beverages. The U.S. is currently the biggest producer of cow’s milk, averaging over 2.9 billion gallons each year.

Pros:

  • While there have been medical studies debunking the link between the calcium from milk and the strengthening of bones, it is still seen as a very viable weapon against osteoporosis.
  • Cow’s milk also contains one of the largest sources of bioavailable calciums. It would take 8 cups of spinach to achieve the same amount of calcium for 1 cup of milk.
  • Vitamin D3 found in the naturally occurring milk fat is a necessary vitamin that produces antibiotics within your body to help battle diseases.

Cons:

  • Due to recent scientific studies of this beverage by prestigious educational institutions like Harvard, there are often opposing arguments to the benefits of drinking the milk of another mammal.
  • Lactose intolerance is a very relevant issue for around 75% of the world population (25% of the US).

Soy Milk

Soy Milk became more widely used in its home country of China during the 1800s when people discovered that heating it made it sweeter and easier to digest. Soy milk is now commonly used in vegetarian and vegan cooking, and is seen as having a positive effect on agriculture, since the effort it takes to make it is far less than maintaining a dairy farm full of hungry cows.

Pros:

  • Has a substantial benefit of 7 grams of protein (unsweetened/plain) and all 9 essential amino acids, as opposed to other plant-based milk products that only offer a few. Once ingested, the amino acids create new proteins and antibodies that aid in the proper functioning of your immune system, connective tissues, as well as enzymes for energy.
  • Thankfully, the American Cancer Society has found no links for the estrogen in soy causing or escalating breast cancer. In fact, a recent 2013 Japanese study found that soy could be preventative of the disease, as well as postmenopausal symptoms.

Cons:

  • There are a few drawbacks if you drink Soy Milk exclusively or without moderation. Soy allergies go without saying. It is said that the added synthetic D2 and A vitamins are known to be either poorly absorbed into human bodies (D2) or toxic in mild overdoses (A).
  • While soy milk can also help prevent prostate cancer, a 2014 study claims the potential diminishing effects of fertility in men.
  • Soy milk is less effective at forming lean muscle mass than cow’s milk.

Almond Milk

Journeying back to the Middle Ages, almond milk was primarily used over cow’s milk since there was no adequate refrigeration at the time. Shelf life was a huge winning factor as well as being allowed by the Church during restrictive Christian diets that forbade meat, eggs and dairy for 2-3 days of every week. It has become the new king of plant-based milk products, outselling soy milk and comprising two-thirds of its market by 2013.

Pros:

  • Almond milk is very low in fat, and a cup of the unsweetened version is a guilt-free way to stock up your body on the highest quantities of essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
  • It contains 3 grams of fat per serving (the good kind!) that promote a healthy heart and a proper functioning brain.

Cons:

  • It is not the greatest alternative for people with tree nut allergies, and unless the milk is fortified, the calcium content is insufficient as well as the amount of protein.
  • Some almond milk brands contain thickening agents such as Carrageenan which can cause digestive issues.

Rice Milk

The process of creating rice milk is similar to that of the traditional Japanese fermented rice drink known as Amazake, when the carbohydrates in rice are broken down by enzymes into unrefined sugars that naturally sweeten over time.

Pros:

  • It is a great option for those with lactose intolerance, soy and nut allergies, as well as PKU which is a genetic metabolism disorder that decreases the body’s ability to process a necessary amino acid (phenylalanine).
  • It is often fortified with calcium, Vitamins B12 and B3, and Iron.
  • The complete lack of cholesterol and saturated fats presents a healthy benefit for anyone on a cardiac-friendly diet.

Cons:

  • Since rice milk is very high in carbohydrates (33 grams), it is not recommended for anyone with diabetes.
  • Contains less protein and calcium than other milks

Each type of milk has its own set of benefits and drawbacks. Since everyone has individual nutritional needs and fitness goals, the best kind of milk suited to them will depend on their personal requirements. Keep in mind that you can usually find a dairy-free option for most foods and supplements.