From hemp to cow’s: Which type of milk is best for you?

By Margaux Anbouba

Photo: Irving Penn

Which type of milk is actually healthiest for you? One thing is certain: there’s a clear worst milk out there

Milk is a strangely polarising topic. The OG version (from a cow) and plant-derived varieties have been the topic of starry magazine advertising campaigns (who could forget ‘Got milk?’) and takedown investigations. I experienced it first hand a few years ago after posting on social media about my return to whole cow’s milk after a Goldilocks journey through the alternatives. The number of responses — and the uproar I faced for confessing that I favoured whole milk – was beyond anything I had experienced.


These days everybody wants to know: Which type of milk is actually healthiest for you? And while it’s a trending term on Google, the experts warn: The answer isn’t quite so one-size-fits-all.

“In the past, places had ranked different types of milks based on calorie content or saturated fat, but today’s literature and research stress the importance of insulin and blood-sugar management over calories and fat,” says Taz Bhatia, an integrative-wellness physician and author The Hormone Shift. “When it comes to rating different kinds of milks on their nutritional quality, it is actually tough because each has unique and distinctive properties.”

When your blood sugar is out of whack (also called hypoglycemia), you may experience cravings, lack of energy and fatigue, acne, poor sleep and brain fog.

The Food and Drug Administration urges label literacy when it comes to choosing the best milk for you, whether you’re drinking it straight, adding it to your morning coffee, or mixing it into your breakfast. At the end of the day, though, one thing is certain: There’s a clear worst milk out there. Read on for some advice.

Cow’s milk

Within the world of traditional milk, there’s a variety of options, from whole and 2% to non-fat and lactose-free. The nutritional profile is comprehensive: calcium, potassium, magnesium, zinc, iodine, and vitamins A, B, and D. The FDA also adds that cow’s milk contains three nutrients (calcium, potassium, and vitamin D) that many Americans are lacking, which makes it a great choice…for those who can stomach it. Around 36% of Americans have some an issue digesting lactose, the natural sugar found in milk.

“When we strip it of its fat, we reduce the calories, but we also worsen its impact on our glucose levels,” says French biochemist Jessie Inchauspé, who is known online as the Glucose Goddess. If you don’t fall into the lactose-intolerant camp, Dr. Bhatia urges you to go for cow’s milk in your diet. “If I had to pick one, this is it because of its protein content – but make sure you always choose organic,” she says. It’s a favourite of Inchauspé’s too.

Alternative milks

Regardless of why somebody might prefer alternative dairy options, there are a few rules to follow. “When choosing a nut milk, select an unsweetened variety to lower the overall sugar load that many of these nut milks already naturally have,” Dr. Bhatia says. “Remember nut milks don’t have a lot of protein to begin with, so when sugar is added to it, we are impacting the glycemic index – or rise in blood sugar – in response to what we’re eating.”

Photo: Irving Penn

Soy milk

Made from the same legume as edamame and tofu, soy milk is typically fortified, or has additional nutrients added during the production process, like calcium and vitamins A and D. While it’s a great option for those with a dairy intolerance, Dr. Bhatia warns, “Soy milks are typically more processed than other alternative milks, which means they have more sugar. I like to limit overall soy consumption, especially processed soy, to under three servings per week.”

Almond milk

Recently demonised because of the toll it has on the environment (a study found it comes second in the amount of water it uses, after cow’s milk), almond milk is made from waterlogged almonds – and leaves behind the by-product of almond meal. This is one of the alternative milks that Inchauspé recommends because it has a “normal glucose response” after consumption. Dr. Bhatia, on the other hand, says it’s “lower on [her] list” of milk choices.

Oat milk

This darling of indie coffee shops may not actually be as good for you as you hoped. “My least healthy pick is oat milk,” Dr. Bhatia says. Inchauspé agrees and has spoken to Vogue in the past about the perils of the choice. “While it does have fibre, it also has a lot of sugar and very little protein, so it will spike your blood sugar. Honestly, there are much better sources of fibre.”

Coconut milk

Different from the liquid found inside a coconut (that’s electrolyte-rich coconut water), coconut milk comes from pressing the white meat. And while it does have a distinctly sweet taste, Dr. Bhatia says that’s okay: “Coconut milk may be [the] second best alternative milk choice because it simply has saturated fat, which does not allow blood sugar to rise dramatically, and has medium-chain triglycerides to support the gut microbiome.”

Hemp milk

Dr. Bhatia hit us with a surprise suggestion at the end of our interview: “The best milk for someone who is vegan is hemp milk,” she advises. Made from the seeds of the cannabis sativa plant, it is more earthy than other varieties. “It actually has a decent amount of protein, some dietary fibre, and is very gentle on the gut.”