Once upon a time, stopping by the supermarket for a gallon of milk was a simple affair. We could just hop out of our car, pop into the grocery store and grab a jug or carton from a refrigerated case or shelf featuring a tidy selection of dairy products.
The decision-making process wasn't particularly complex: skim milk or whole? Plastic jug or cardboard carton?
In the end, the stuff that we brought home was milk, a white liquid expressed by the mammary glands of some hardworking, generous bovine.
These days, modern supermarkets dedicate acres of refrigerated space to a seemingly endless lineup of brands and varieties. Many products masquerading as "milk" have never seen the inside of a cow.
With all the choices available, deciding which type of milk to bring home can lead to a major case of brain drain. It may be helpful to bring along a registered dietitian and a note from your doctor.
If you're in the mood for old-fashioned cow's milk, it's still on your grocer's shelf — it's just a little harder to find. For years, cow's milk has been the primary source of calcium in the American diet, and for many individuals, it remains an important source of the mineral.
Folks who are lactose intolerant have trouble digesting the old standby. Because they lack sufficient quantities of lactase, the enzyme required to break down the sugar in dairy products, drinking milk can lead to a number of unpleasant gastronomic consequences, including cramping, diarrhea and flatulence.
Fortunately, milk is now available in lactose-free varieties. Manufacturers simply add the missing enzyme — lactase — to cow's milk to break down the sugar, making the resulting product more digestible for lactose-intolerant individuals.
People with lactose intolerance can also enjoy a smorgasbord of nutritious, non-dairy plant "milks," derived from soybeans, rice, coconuts, almonds and even hemp. You don't have to be lactose intolerant to savor the unique flavors of these beverages — you just have to be a little adventurous.
Soy milk, once consumed only by hardcore health nuts, has become more of a mainstream beverage in recent years. Produced by soaking dry soybeans and grinding them with water, soy milk is an emulsion of oil, water and protein.
Unlike cow's milk, it's naturally cholesterol free and low in saturated fat. Because soy milk contains little digestible calcium, the mineral is often added during manufacturing.
Plant chemicals in soy beans, called isoflavones, are powerful antioxidants and have been credited with a number of health benefits, ranging from relief of menopausal symptoms to cancer-risk reduction. Research suggests that eating diets rich in soy may help lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease.
Even if you're lactose intolerant and allergic to soy, you're still not out of options. You'll probably be able to enjoy rice milk.
Typically derived from brown rice, this beverage may be naturally sweet or sweetened with added sugars. Compared to cow's milk, some brands of rice milk are lower in protein and calcium.
If the thought of rice milk doesn't make your mouth water, you might want to try almond milk. As its name implies, it's a milky drink made from ground almonds.
Although the nutrient content of almond milk varies from one manufacturer to another, the nuts themselves are naturally rich in fiber, protein, antioxidants and certain minerals. Numerous scientific studies have confirmed the cholesterol-lowering properties of almonds, as well as their potential to reduce the risk of heart disease.
If you're in the mood for a drink with a tropical flair, a coconut milk beverage may hit the spot. The sweet, milky liquid is derived from the meat of mature coconuts.
Coconut milk beverages are rich in medium-chain fatty acids, including lauric acid and capric acid, valued in many cultures for their powerful antimicrobial properties. Preliminary studies suggest that consumption of these beneficial fats may play important roles in body fat reduction and weight management.
Even after you've chosen the plant or animal that will serve as the originator of your milk, your work is far from done. You've still got a few important decisions to make: low-fat or fat free? Chocolate or vanilla? Regular or organic?
The next time you run to the store for a gallon of milk, you might want to schedule a little more time. Some decisions shouldn't be rushed.
Rallie McAllister, M.D. is a family physician, speaker, and co-founder of www.MommyMDGuides.com, a website featuring child-raising tips from trusted doctors who are also moms. To find out more about Rallie McAllister, M.D., and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.