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Five healthy alternatives to cow’s milk

5 minute read
A family at a breakfast table with a father pouring milk on his son's cereal

Despite the health benefits of cow's milk, the number of people who are opting out of drinking it has never been higher with one in six of us now choosing to go dairy-free – and for most of us, it’s not because of a medical diagnosis.

But, before you order your macadamia milk latte or you dig into your soy ice-cream, it’s a good idea to ask yourself, is it healthy to stop drinking dairy? And which non-dairy option is best?

Why do we drink cow’s milk?

Nutritionally, milk is hard to beat. Known as a ‘complete’ food, milk is rich in protein, calcium, vitamin A, D, B2, B12, iodine and zinc. It’s also cheap and convenient, and its creamy texture makes it an ideal comfort food (warm milk before bed, anyone?).

As good as its nutritional profile is, however, there are many reasons some choose to avoid it, such as:

  • Lactose intolerance
    For many of us, the enzyme (lactase) we need to digest lactose, the sugar found in milk, starts to drop soon after weaning. For people who are lactose intolerant, drinking milk causes symptoms such as bloating, stomach pain and constipation.

  • Environmental and ethical concerns
    Animal agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas in the world. New research found that going vegetarian or vegan is the single biggest change an individual can make to improve their carbon footprint. Many people also avoid milk because of animal suffering within industrialised dairy manufacturing.

  • Potential health risks
    Many people avoid milk because of the antibiotics, pesticides, steroids and hormones used in production. While only a small amount of these additives can be passed onto the person consuming it, and it is deemed safe by food regulators, many people choose to avoid it nevertheless.

What are plant-based milks?

Plant-based milks like soy, almond and rice milk are used as a dairy alternative, but not all plant-based milks are nutritionally equal. Australian dietary guidelines recommend we include two or three serves of dairy each day; substituting a glass of milk with a glass of plant-based milk will not necessarily meet our requirements.

A couple looking at the nutritional information on a carton of milk in a supermarket.

Healthy dairy milk alternatives

Here is a list of the five most popular plant-based milks and how they compare nutritionally to cow’s milk.

To give you a baseline of comparison, a 240 ml cup of whole cow’s milk has 610 kilojoules, 8 grams of fat, 8 grams of protein and 13 grams of carbohydrates.

1. Rice milk

One 240ml cup of rice milk contains 256 kilojoules, 2–3 grams of fat, 1 gram of protein and 27–38 grams of carbohydrates.

Similar to cow’s milk, rice milk is low in energy, however it is also very low in protein. Rice milk has three times the carbohydrates of cow’s milk. Although it usually doesn’t have added sugar, it has high glycaemic index (GI) of 79–92 so may not be the best choice for diabetics.

2. Soy milk

One 240ml cup of unsweetened soy milk contains 259 kilojoules, 4.5 grams of fat, 7–9 grams of protein and 4 grams of carbohydrates.

If you’re looking for the closest nutritional match to cow’s milk, you can’t go past soy. A 2017 study published by the Journal of Food Science and Technology found that soy had the highest protein content and was most similar to cow’s milk among the alternatives.

Soy also comes closest to mimicking milk’s creamy texture, which may take the sting out of making the switch in your morning coffee.

3. Almond milk

One 240ml cup of unsweetened almond milk contains 375 kilojoules, 2.5 grams of fat, 1 gram of protein and 1–2 grams of carbohydrates.

While almonds pack a mighty nutritional punch, almond milk, however, is mostly water and has barely any protein. Almond milk has a sweet, nutty flavour although make sure you check it for added sugar. Low in kilojoules, fat and carbohydrates, it could be a good choice for those wanting to limit their energy intake.

4. Coconut milk

One 240ml cup contains 188 kilojoules, 4 grams of fat, no protein and almost no carbohydrates.

Sweet and creamy, yet low in calories – could coconut milk be a match made in ‘plant-based milk heaven’? Taste-wise, yes! Nutritionally, mmm… perhaps not. Coconut milk is high in saturated fats and very low in protein and calcium. Keep in mind that coconut milk sold in cartons is more diluted than the coconut milk sold in cans, which is typically used for Southeast Asian cooking.

5. Oat milk

One 240ml cup contains 745 kilojoules, 4.5–5 grams of fat, 2.5–5 grams of protein and 19–29 grams of carbohydrates.

Oat milk has a very light, sweet flavour. Similar in energy to cow’s milk, it has half the fat and more than double the carbohydrates. Alas, it’s also very low in protein.

Manufacturers also tend to use a lot of additives like oil, salt and guar gum. The good news is that oat milk contains the soluble fibre beta-glucan which is great for lowering cholesterol.

The same type of milk will vary nutritionally from brand to brand, depending on additives

What to look for when choosing a dairy milk alternative

The same type of milk will vary nutritionally from brand to brand, depending on additives. Here are things to look out for:

  • Calcium
    As dairy is the richest and most convenient source of calcium, ensure you choose a brand that is calcium fortified with at least 120mg per 100ml.

  • Sugars
    In order to match milk’s natural sweetness and mask the subtle beany taste, some manufacturers pile in the sugar. Look for unsweetened and unflavoured milk, and make sure sugar isn’t one of the first three ingredients listed.

  • Vitamin B12
    Most animal products are high in Vitamin B12, so if you are vegan or vegetarian, seek a vitamin B12 fortified milk alternative.

  • Additives
    Many plant-based milks have additives like vegetable gum to enhance the texture. While they’re not necessarily bad for you, look out for them in the ingredients if you prefer to keep things super natural.

With so many things to consider, it may take a bit of trial and error to find the type (and brand) of plant-based milk that suits you best.

If you’re keen to incorporate a non-dairy milk into your diet, try adding a soy or nut-based milk into this gut-healing chia and cinnamon oats recipe.

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