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Milk 101: Here's Everything You Need To Know

How to get your calcium and protein from cow, goat and sheep milk.

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Neal Grundy/Gallery Stock
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I complained when my mother insisted that I drink a glass of plain milk every night at dinner. I disliked the taste but never turned down ice cream or cheesy pizza. Now, I have her to thank for my bone density, as calcium plays an important role in adolescence.

Buying milk used to be simple: whole, low-fat or skim. Today, we have a variety of choices between non-dairy and animal-based milk, with an even wider assortment that includes cow, goat, sheep, water buffalo, reindeer, elk and, in some parts of the world, even camel.

The U.S. produces more milk from mammals than anywhere else in the world. Each cow can produce seven gallons of milk each day! Women under 50 need 1,000 mg of calcium daily, and women older than 50 should get 1200 mg. One cup of milk averages 300 mg of calcium. The protein in dairy can protect against the loss of muscle mass and strength as we age.

Before diving into a huge block of cheese, remember that a balanced diet is best: dairy and calcium-rich foods like leafy greens and nuts. The American Heart Association recommends fat-free or low-fat dairy products, although research reported by Harvard Health suggests “full-fat dairy might not be much of a threat to heart health.” Research studies remain mixed on whether milk is good or bad for us, so moderate consumption is advised.

A Millennia of Milk

Thousands of mammal species can be milked, but Americans get 97 percent from cows. Sheep milk might have preceded cow milk as far back as 10,000 B.C.

Cows are easier to milk and produce high outputs. Since it separates into cream and milk, we can drink it as a beverage and also transform it into ice cream, yogurt, kefir and thousands of varieties of cheese.

Milk proteins build bones, as our mothers told us, and may strengthen teeth, improve blood sugar balance, raise HDL (the good cholesterol) and regulate blood pressure. But it also has a higher amount of lactose than other forms of milk, according to "Pros and Cons of Drinking Cow's Milk" by Dr. Shilpa Amin in Healthline. Some 60 percent of us have some form of lactose intolerance, and if you can’t drink cow’s milk there are other ways to receive its health benefits.

Do You Drink Ewe?

In Greece and the Pyrenees in Spain and France, sheep milk cheeses are much more common, including Manchego, Roquefort, Pecorino and Feta.

Sheep milk has twice the amount of calcium and zinc than cow milk. According to The National Institutes of Health, it’s an important source of bioactive substances that have health-promoting properties, with “antibacterial, antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties.” It’s also full of protein, iron, vitamins B6 and 12 and all 10 essential amino acids. Researchers believe these substances may also prevent type 2 diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s.

You’re not likely to down a glass of straight sheep milk, as the taste is quite rich, but that’s what attracts cheese- and yogurt-makers. Sheep are not easy to raise, so prices for sheep milk products are higher. But once you taste the creaminess of sheep yogurt, you’ll fall in love with its tangy, subtle, sweet taste and appreciate that, for many, it’s easier to digest than cow milk.

Goat Milk: A Go-To for Some, But Not All

Those who are allergic to cow milk find it easier to digest goat milk with its different forms of proteins and less lactose. If you have a dairy intolerance, check with your doctor to see if goat milk is for you.

Goat milk is thick and creamy, with more Vitamin A and protein than cow and plant-based milk. “It has less risk of milk allergies and is potentially better for heart health,” writes Michael Metzger in “The Nutritional Value and Health Benefits of Goat Milk Components,” Michigan State University Extension.

Nearly three-quarters of the world’s population drinks goat milk. Its gamey taste does not please everyone’s palate. Begin with a mild, soft, fresh goat cheese, known as chèvre in France. Spread it on whole-grain bread topped with sliced avocados.

Kick Back Kefir

Kefir is a fermented drink from cow, goat, or sheep milk. It’s gut-friendly and tangier than traditional yogurt. Dating back thousands of years, it is similar to yogurt and has probiotics and little or no lactose. Its probiotics “help break down food, synthesize vitamins, prevent bacteria that cause illness from getting a foothold, and may even bolster immunity,” writes Larissa Zimberoff in “What to Know About Kefir, One of the Original Gut-Friendly Foods” in The Washington Post.

Unsweetened plain kefir has less sugar than flavored varieties. Pour it over morning cereal, use for any overnight-oats recipe, or blend into a smoothie: equal amounts of plain kefir and mixed berries, ½ banana, ½ tsp vanilla extract and 1 tsp nut butter. I can’t think of a better way to begin the day or end it as a nightcap. I wouldn’t have complained if my mother had served my milk as healthy smoothies.

What type of milk is YOUR favorite? Let us know in the comments below.

Follow Article Topics: Health