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What’s in your glass? The health benefits and concerns of milk and milk alternatives

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NEW ERA, Mich--It's considered one of the most successful ad campaigns of the early 90's: Got Milk?

Decades later, the answer for many raises another question: what kind?

Walking through the dairy section at your local grocery store, you definitely notice traditional cow's milk has a lot of competition.

It can be confusing knowing what kind of milk, or milk alternative, is best for you and your family. Stir in the rising concerns about GMOs and hormones and things get soggier.

From cow to cashew, each type of milk has its advantages and disadvantages, depending on a person's diet, health nutritional needs and taste preferences. FOX 17 is breaking down the health benefits and concerns of milk, giving you a closer look into what's truly in your glass.

Whole Cow's Milk

With so many other non-dairy choices battling for your cereal bowl, why choose cow? According to farmers, milk is one of the most tested and regulated foods on the market.

"There’s been a big push for whole milk," Troy Westendorp said from Mooville Farms in Nashville, MI. "Your body can break down fat from milk way better than it can from any other food. Cow milk has a complete package."

With whole cow milk, you're getting about 150 calories per glass. Though there are eight grams of fat, Kristi Veltkamp, a registered dietitian at Spectrum Health, says there are huge benefits to drinking whole milk; it's high in protein, calcium, vitamin A and D.

New research finds that those who drink more whole milk are lower in weight, especially children. Plus, they're finding those who drink whole milk have lower risk of diabetes, according to Veltkamp.

"If you’re looking for something with a lot of protein, standard milk will give you a good balance of protein, carbs and fats. It also has a lot of natural nutrition in it so that’s probably the healthiest choice," Veltkamp said.

Usually for kids, you want to give them whole milk at ages one to two.  After age two, you can switch to two percent or skim milk.

If you're looking for a good post-workout drink, whole milk or chocolate milk is going to be your best option, according to Joshua Anderson, the assistant marketing manager at Country Dairy.

"Scientists call it natures recovery drink," Anderson said. "It's best for supplying nutrients after a hard workout: carbohydrates, sugars, protein good combination of those in the right ratios."

FOX 17 asked both Veltkamp and those working on farms about the possibility of growth hormones and antibiotics.

"Every single time we bottle milk, we test it. Before we bottle it, we also ship it to another lab in the state and they test it," Westendorp said.

Jeff Swanson, the marketing manager of Country Dairy in New Era, agrees. He says no milk in the U.S has antibiotics in it.

"That's a big myth...If a cow is given an antibiotic, she’s separated out. She's not allowed to give milk."

Country Dairy has gone above and beyond in an effort to make their customers happy. They're now free of both growth hormones and GMOs.

RBST is a synthetic growth hormone created in the 80’s and early 90's that the FDA approved in 1994. Farmers started using it, injecting their cows with it to produce more milk.

"Should people be concerned?" Swanson asked. "That’s something they have to decide on their own. They have to do their research." He says that some milk companies, do in fact give their cows growth hormones, which then end up in your milk.

For that reason alone, customers are trying milk-alternatives, especially those who can't do dairy.

Soy or Pea Protein Milk

Veltkamp says your next best option would be soy or pea protein milk.

With pea, or 'Ripple' milk, you're looking at 100 calories per glass, 8 grams of plant-based protein and 50 percent more calcium than cow's milk. Plus, it's low in sugar, vegan, nut, soy and is GMO free.

Soy contains B12, potassium and vitamin A. It has the same amount of protein as milk, but it's lower in calories and easier on the Fit Bit.

"Soy milk has a complete protein in it and also has natural omega 3’s in it, fiber and magnesium," Veltkamp said.

The problem is, soy is a common allergen.

Rice Milk

That's where rice milk comes in. It's a good choice for those with lactose intolerance or allergies to soy or nuts. A glass contains around 110 calories. However it is high in carbs and not the best source of protein.

"Rice milk is actually low in nutrition. It can be high in sugars from the starches in rice. They add sugars to the rice milk and they add different types of vegetable oil," Veltkamp said.

Other Alternative Milks

If you're looking to cut calories, you can do an unsweetened almond milk or unsweetened coconut milk.

Almond milk has far fewer calories than cow milk, 50 percent more calcium and is an excellent source of Vitamin E. Plus, it's vegan, lactose free and there is no saturated fat. However, there is little protein.  There are both sweetened and unsweetened versions of almond milks.

Coconut milk has around 80 calories per glass, is high in saturated fat and is a good source of vitamin B12 and D. Coconut milk is very low in protein.

Original cashew milk has around 60 calories, unsweetened has around 25, there's no sugar and lots of vitamin E.

And then there is banana milk, which is high in potassium, calcium, sugar and saturated fat.

All of the alternative milks have sweetened and unsweetened options.  Obviously, the unsweetened options are healthier for you. Also, milk alternatives go through a lot of processing. The grain or seed is blended with water, filtered out, and then nutrients or gelling agents get added back in.

If you are worried about hormones or pesticides, experts say to buy organic versions of whatever milk you may choose.

Veltkamp says the best option depends on what you're looking for.

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