If you've browsed the dairy aisle recently, you may have noticed some fancy new milk products. Here's what you need to know.
If you consider yourself health-conscious, you probably know that dairy is controversial in the wellness world right now. On one side of the debate, people cite the fact that about 65 percent of people have a reduced ability to process lactose after infancy. That means that it can cause digestive symptoms like bloating, cramping, and diarrhea in a whole lot of people. Yikes. Plus, it's thought that dairy might contribute to acne, so it's possible that cutting it out could help clear up your skin. (Related: I Gave Up Dairy for a Year and It Changed My Life)
On the other hand, milk is *kind of* a nutritional powerhouse. And if you're not actually lactose intolerant, skipping dairy means you may be missing out on nutrients you could be getting quite easily from milk. Milk is high in calcium and vitamin D, plus it contains whey and casein, two types of protein that are helpful for supporting muscle growth. What's more, there's some evidence that following a dairy-free diet may increase your risk for osteoporosis later in life. Also yikes.
So what's the deal here? The truth is, if you're not lactose intolerant or allergic to milk, the science right now shows that the benefits of milk outweigh its potential downsides. Still, lots of people are giving it up. Perhaps that's why the dairy industry has quietly introduced a whole new category of milk products made especially for the nutrition-conscious consumer.
The New Milks on the Block
If you've browsed the dairy aisle recently, you may have noticed some fancy new milk products. Two especially of note are Fairlife and a2. These products are packed with many of the same nutrients as milk, but with a few potentially helpful differences.
"Fairlife milk is richer in protein and has half the carbohydrates of 'traditional' milk," says Christopher R. Mohr, Ph.D., R.D., nutrition consultant at Mohr Results. That's because it's put through a special filtration process that helps concentrate the protein and remove some of the carbohydrate content. The result is a rich-tasting product that's also low in fat (they have a 0 percent version) and high in protein. "It is also lactose-free, so for those who have an issue with lactose, this is beneficial," Mohr says. "I particularly like the protein boost—13 grams vs. 8 per cup."
But a2 milk is a little different. First, a little background: Milk contains protein, which can be either type A1 or type A2. These proteins are essentially the same, but they have slight differences. "Think of it as blue eyes versus brown eyes: they're both eyes, they both see, they just look a little different," explains Lauren Ross, R.D. "Just like eye color, whether a cow produces milk with A1 or A2 proteins is purely genetic." Some research suggests that people who are sensitive to the A1 protein may have symptoms that mimic lactose intolerance. "When you buy a bottle of a2 milk, you get milk that was produced only by A2 cows. The processing of this milk is the same as the processing of regular milk, but it is naturally devoid of A1 proteins. Because of this, many people who had sworn off milk have been able to drink it comfortably," Ross notes. The nutrition of a2 milk is pretty much the same as that of regular milk, though, so you won't get any added protein or lower fat with this product.
Are These Milks Actually Better?
So these milks are pretty fancy. But you might be wondering if they're actually better for you than regular ol' milk. The answer, according to experts, depends on whether or not you currently drink milk and why.
If you've been diagnosed as lactose intolerant...
If your doctor has done a test and told you that you're definitely lactose intolerant, listen up. You've got a green light on Fairlife, which is completely lactose-free. a2, on the other hand, contains the same amount of lactose as regular cow's milk, so it's best to skip it if you're 100 percent sure it's the lactose part of milk that produces your symptoms after drinking it.
If you *think* you're lactose intolerant...
"Lactose intolerance is often self-diagnosed, and many times due to a family history of lactose intolerance rather than actually experiencing symptoms," explains Ross. If you're not completely sure that you're lactose intolerant, both of these milks are worth a try, especially since it's possible that the discomfort you're experiencing comes from the A1 protein, which would be fixed by drinking a2 milk. There is one caveat, though: "There really isn't a ton of research out there about how/if humans handle the A1 and A2 proteins differently," explains Taylor Wallace, Ph.D., a professor in the department of nutrition and food studies at George Mason University. "The concept makes sense, but additional research is still needed." So basically, it's worth trying. And if it works for you, go for it!
If you're allergic to dairy...
There's a big difference between being lactose intolerant and being allergic to dairy. "Some people are allergic to certain dairy proteins, and the same symptoms (or worse) may occur as with lactose intolerance," says Wallace. "In that case, you should avoid all dairy." That includes these fancy milk products. Bummer.
If you just think dairy is bad for you...
If you have more wide-ranging concerns about what dairy may do to your health and that's your reason for not drinking milk, Wallace says these products are probably not right for you. They are still dairy, just modified. However, according to some experts, your stance on dairy could be worth reconsidering. "I disagree that cutting dairy from your diet is 'healthy,'" he says. "In fact, I think it's the exact opposite. Dairy provides a unique set of nutrients that you just simply can't obtain from other plant-food sources, or at least, it's extremely difficult to do so." So if you're not currently "doing" dairy, maybe these products can convince you to give it a try.
If you love milk...
If you don't have any problems drinking milk, there may still be some added benefit here for you. There's not much reason to drink a2 milk if regular milk doesn't bother your stomach. But Fairlife definitely has some advantages. "I think the Fairlife product is fantastic," says Wallace. "Data shows that a large portion of Americans don't get enough calcium. Suboptimal calcium intakes are associated with an increased risk of osteoporosis and fractures later in life." Fairlife has more calcium in it than regular milk, so you can drink less of it to reach your recommended daily intake. (More on that here: The Fit Woman's Guide to Getting Enough Calcium) Plus, higher protein may also help protect your bones. "Our new data suggests that higher protein intakes (above current recommendations) help to prevent hip fractures by about 16 percent. So again, this is another great way to get more protein into your diet." All around, it seems like a win-win.