The word “milk” hasn’t been affiliated with solely cows for some time. A number of science-backed concerns about cow’s milk (i.e., evidence linking it to type 1 diabetes, allergies, obesity, and hypertension) have driven many people to turn to seemingly safer alternatives. And with about 65 percent of the human population having trouble digesting lactose, according to the National Institutes of Health, an ever-growing number of nondairy substitutes—including almond, coconut, hemp, rice, soy, and sunflower seed milk—are increasingly in demand. Almond milk is currently the top-selling nondairy milk alternative in America, beating out soy milk with more than double in sales.
While plant-based milks, like almond, may seem like a healthier option that’s lower in calories compared to other milks (as long as they’re unsweetened), it’s missing key nutrients, says Carlo Agostini, M.D., a professor of Internal Medicine and Clinical Immunology at the University of Padova in Italy. “Even though almonds are a good source of protein, almond milk is not,” he explains. It’s relatively low in protein (unless fortified) and contains no calcium or saturated fats. More scientific evidence is needed to support that almond milk is a viable milk alternative for young children, Agostini adds.
Related: How to Make Fresh Almond Milk
If you do not have a dairy allergy and simply prefer plant-derived milks for its low calories and nutty flavor, you may want to consider a more nutritious milk from another animal source: goats.
“Goat’s milk is nutritionally very similar to cow’s milk. So you will get protein, calcium, potassium, and several vitamins,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Tamara Melton, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “[It also] naturally contains higher levels of some nutrients than other non-dairy milks,” she adds. Goat’s milk is a rich source of vitamins A (more than cow’s milk!) and C, thiamine, riboflavin, and pantothenic acid. However, it is deficient in vitamin D, cyanocobalamine, and folic acid.
Milk from this hollow-horned, bearded mammal is not a new beverage. Goat’s milk is the most commonly consumed milk worldwide, according the USDA, and it’s finally gaining traction in the states. “[It’s taken off among] Americans who are adventurous with their food choices and those who are looking for alternatives to the products offered in large, regional or national grocery chains for various reasons,” Melton says. Dairy goats are now found in almost every state with more than 360,000 milk goats grazing on U.S. grass in 2013, reports the USDA. Already capitalizing on this trend are New York City coffee shops, which are promoting goat’s milk-infused drinks. And brands like Kabrita and Meyenberg Goat Milk are introducing goat’s milk food products, such as milk, cheese, and yogurt.
Drinking goat’s milk has many perks. For starters, you don’t have to worry about ingesting potentially harmful synthetic hormones that farmers inject in cows to increase milk production. Goat’s milk, at the moment, is hormone-free. And while goat’s milk is slightly fattier than cow’s milk—10 grams of fat versus 8 grams per 8-ounce cup—it contains more essential fatty acids. For example, it has linoleic and arachnodonic acid as well as short- and medium-chain fatty acids, which can aid with digestion. Because these fats do not cluster together as they do in cow’s milk, goat’s milk may be easier to break down, Melton says. The same is not true for unsweetened nondairy milk alternatives, like almond, soy, or coconut. Generally loaded up with food additives for flavor and texture, nondairy milk substitutes can be hard on the digestive system, according to U.S. News and World Report.
One major caveat for those who are allergic to cow’s milk: You may have a similar reaction to goat’s milk. “In classical IgE-mediated forms of cow’s milk allergy, children reacting to cow’s milk also react to goat’s milk in at least 96 percent of cases,” says Alessandro Fiocchi, M.D., the director of Allergy at the Pediatric Hospital Bambino Gesù in Rome and the editor-in-chief of the World Allergy Organization Journal. In other words, the risk of developing or inducing allergy is present in both milks—one is not safer than the other. Same goes for those who are lactose intolerant. Goat’s milk isn’t the answer.
A better alternative for this crowd, especially kids, may be soy milk. “It’s nutritionally adequate from 6 months of age,” Fiocchi says. Because soy contains less than 10 percent of the proteins found in milk, it’s important to make sure you have a protein- and nutrient-rich diet.