The Health Benefits of Good Old Fashioned Cow’s Milk

How does cow’s milk compare to its alternatives?

Do you want regular milk with that? The question that accompanies every modern cafeteria order. Depending on how modern the establishment is, whispering “cow’s milk” may seem like an illegal act.

According to Starbucks, the UK is the “alternative milk” capital of Europe, and non-dairy alternatives will account for 16 percent of its beverage sales in 2023.

Reasons of taste, concern for the environment and animal welfare may be part of your decision-making process. But what about health?

In the northern hemisphere, where we have a long history of cattle farming, it is a key component of our diet.

“It’s not that we have to drink it or that we can’t survive without it, but if you were to eliminate it from the diet of a typical British person you would have to think carefully about where else you would get the nutrients that milk provides.” ” says nutrition scientist Bridget Benelam of the British Nutrition Foundation.

Little girl drinking a glass of milkLittle girl drinking a glass of milk

Drinking milk can be important for our development and health – Getty Images/Sam Edwards

These are nutrients that can be difficult to get elsewhere and are important for our development and health, “which is something to consider if you are going dairy-free,” says Benelam.

So what are the key vitamins in a glass of cow’s milk and how does it compare to the alternatives?


Milk is a rich source of two types of proteins: casein and whey. Casein makes up 80 percent of milk proteins and is noted for its ability to increase the absorption of minerals, such as calcium and phosphorus. Whey, which represents 20 percent, is characterized by being rich in amino acids such as leucine, isoleucine and valine.

“Compared to alternatives, it is generally a better source of protein; There are approximately 3.4 grams more protein per 100 ml,” explains Duane Mellor, a dietician at Aston University in Birmingham. “The only one that comes close is soy milk. Oats weigh about 2 g. Rice milk and almond milk are much lower.”


This nutrient is necessary to form and maintain healthy bones, but it also helps keep muscles, nerves, and teeth healthy. According to the British Nutrition Foundation, adults need around 700 mg of calcium per day.

“Dairy products are one of the main sources of calcium in the UK diet. A 200ml glass of skimmed milk, for example, will provide 34 per cent of an adult’s daily calcium needs,” says Benelam.


B12, one of the eight B vitamins, is also known as cobalamin and is key to a healthy metabolism. A B12 deficiency can also cause megaloblastic anemia, a blood condition that makes people tired and weak.

“This is also a vitamin that becomes more difficult to absorb as we age and that we can only get from animal foods,” says Mellor.

One glass (250 ml) of milk provides approximately 50 percent of the recommended daily amount.

Woman pouring milk over cereal in kitchenWoman pouring milk over cereal in kitchen

Drinking cow’s milk can add calcium to our body, excellent for keeping muscles and nerves healthy – Getty Images/Betsie Van Der Meer


The body needs iodine to produce thyroid hormones, which in turn control the body’s metabolism and many other important functions.

“In Southeast Asia, the iodine they get in their diet comes primarily from seaweed,” says Mellor. But traditionally, in the northern hemisphere, we have found it in dairy products. “Other countries add iodine to their salt, but we in the UK don’t,” adds Mellor.

A 200 ml glass of milk provides 34 percent of the daily iodine intake recommended by the World Health Organization for adults.


Remember the days of raw milk in glass bottles with a creamy yellow cap? “That color is riboflavin,” says Mellor. Also known as B2, it has several functions. Its main link is with metabolism and energy release.

“If you don’t have enough you can get ariboflavinosis, a condition that causes cracks in the corners of your mouth and can change the texture of your tongue. Riboflavin is the most abundant and bioavailable B vitamin present in milk.

However, it is very sensitive to degradation. Riboflavin content may vary depending on processing or type of milk; One study found that commercial summer milk contained about 20 percent more riboflavin than winter milk, due to a shift in feeding from corn silage to grasses.

How Plant Milks Compare

While calcium, B12, iodine, riboflavin, and vitamin D are often added to plant-based milks, fortification varies widely between brands. And if it is organic, then the law does not allow them to fortify it. “That’s a strange quirk,” says Mellor.

He recommends always scrutinizing the labels to see what levels of vitamins have been added.

“I would look for milks fortified with calcium, riboflavin, iodine and ideally vitamin D. To get as close as possible to cow’s milk in terms of replacing those vitamins, look for at least 15 to 20 percent per 100 ml ( of cow’s milk). amount in cow’s milk).

Cow’s milk is not, in general, a good source of vitamin D, which is added to some plant-based milks.

A 2023 study by the University of Minnesota found that, compared to cow’s milk, only 12 percent of milk alternative products contained comparable or greater amounts of the three nutrients studied: calcium, vitamin D and protein. .

Also be careful with added sugar. Lactose is the sugar found naturally in milk; It is the main carbohydrate in milk and provides the slightly sweet flavor that is present in natural unsweetened milk.

“In cow’s milk the sugar is just lactose, which is digested slowly, while alternatives to plant milks can be sweetened with fruit juice or added sugar,” says Mellor. “Added sugars tend to be digested quickly and are therefore thought to be less healthy.”

A common problem with vegan substitutes is that they are often functionally similar, but not nutritionally equivalent.

“Jackfruit is an example. In terms of texture it is a good substitute for meat, but in terms of nutrition it is not good at all. “Similarly, with vegan cheese, you get the functionality but not the protein or interesting fatty acids.”

In milk terms, this means that it is possible to achieve the same creaminess with an oat or potato milk, but not the same nutritional content, unless the milk is heavily fortified.

What happens if I am lactose intolerant?

Northern Europeans have adapted, by raising livestock and drinking milk for several thousand years, to retain the enzyme lactase that digests lactose. Still, in the UK, around one in 10 older children and adults are thought to have genuine lactose intolerance.

Someone adding milk to a cup of tea.Someone adding milk to a cup of tea.

Like everything, drinking cow’s milk should be part of a balanced diet – Getty Images/grandriver

However, a 2021 study from the University of Bristol found that thousands of babies are misdiagnosed as allergic to cow’s milk. “There are many things that can cause us to have uncomfortable symptoms,” Benelam says of misdiagnosis. “It could be that people are avoiding dairy when they don’t need it.”

“It is a bit complicated to specify the symptoms of lactose intolerance, since gastrointestinal symptoms vary from person to person and involve different amounts. It can be a subtle condition,” says Benelam.

Dairy negatives

But dairy, including whole milk, is relatively high in fat, so is that a concern? “Saturated fat is something we generally recommend people reduce and replace with unsaturated fats, but there is evidence to suggest that saturated fats in dairy products like milk and cheese may not raise cholesterol as expected.”

The fat content of milk is not so worrying for Mellor: “Most people consume about a third of a liter of milk a day, in tea or cereal. That’s not a significant amount of fat. “It’s the other foods in your diet that are higher in saturated fat that are worse.”

However, as in everything, moderation is key. Drinking three or more glasses of milk has been linked to an increased risk of bone fractures in women (the reason is not entirely clear, but d-galactose, a breakdown product of lactose, has been linked to oxidative stress and inflammation), while excess calcium from milk and other foods may increase the risk of prostate cancer, along with concerns about saturated fat.

“The overall health benefits of drinking milk are probably neutral,” Mellor says. “Where you definitely get the most benefits is with fermented dairy products, yogurts and some cheeses.”

Which cow’s milk is better?

Even the nutritional content of cow’s milk can vary greatly. “The data shows that the time of year can affect the nutritional value of milk,” says Mellor. “It tends to contain more fat when the cows are better fed; “You get richer milk when there is more grass in early summer.”

It also varies from one cattle to another. “We know that Jersey milk is higher in fat and creamier than Holstein milk. Although the health benefits have not been proven.”

Pasteurization is used on milk to extend shelf life and reduce the risk of foodborne illness. “Nutritionally, there is no difference between pasteurized and unpasteurized,” says Benelam.

Milk bottles in a boxMilk bottles in a box

Milk varies depending on the cattle – Getty Images/Johnny Greig

However, when choosing between whole, semi-skimmed, and skimmed milk, there are slight differences. “You get a little less vitamin A with skimmed milk, as it is fat soluble and will also be soluble in the fat component of the milk.”

The other key vitamins are found in the water component of milk: “So you don’t miss out on nutrients by choosing low-fat milk,” says Benelam.

Whole cow’s milk has more calories and saturated fat compared to semi-skimmed and plant-based alternatives.

Switching from whole milk to semi-skimmed milk in tea (up to five cups a day) is likely to save the average person less than 50 kcal per day. This means that, even considering calories and energy, the effect of reducing fat is minimal.

Quantity is key. “Certainly, if you drink dairy drinks like lattes and hot chocolates, there will be a difference in terms of calories and fat. Choosing low-fat milk is a good idea for most people,” says Benelam. In contrast, skimmed milk may increase blood sugar levels due to faster absorption. “Like so many things related to diet, it’s all about balance.”

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