Growing up, cow’s milk played a pivotal role in many of our diets—and for good reason. Dairy milk contains one of the highest levels of calcium as well as potassium, b12 and Vitamin D. It’s also a rich source of protein and has even been shown to assist in weight management.
In recent times, however, the popularity of regular cow’s milk has certainly taken a bit of a hit. Whilst some blame it for their acne woes, others steer clear due to dietary restrictions, allergies, intolerances and digestive discomfort. Whatever your reasoning behind opting for non-dairy milk alternatives, one thing is for sure; the world of milk substitutes can be pretty damn confusing.
To find out what the experts had to say, we consulted two Sydney-based dietitians to share their views on some of the most popular non-dairy milk options on the market. The biggest takeaway message here is that by replacing regular milk with other milk substitutes, we as consumers have to be mindful that they do not offer the same nutritional profile, and consequently, you could be missing out on key nutrients, vitamins and minerals.
Not only that, many milk alternatives contain additives such as stabilisers, emulsifiers and other flavourings, so your best bet is to check the label on the back and ensure the ingredients list is as short as possible and free from any nasties.
Loved for its slightly nutty flavour, oat milk, when heated, is both warm and comforting, making it a popular choice for coffees and breakfast cereals. And although oats in their original form come with a plethora of health benefits, its milk counterpart is not as impressive. “Oats are a great source of slow burning-energy, fibre which is beneficial for gut health and beta-glucan which can help reduce cholesterol,” says dietitian, Rebecca Gawthorne. “However, oat milk is often only around 15% oats, with the majority of oat milk just being water.” Furthermore, “if you are relying on milk for calcium, you will need to ensure you choose a calcium-fortified one.” Dietitian, Chloe McLeod also adds that oat milk does contain small amounts of gluten, so it’s not suitable for coeliacs.
The deliciously creamy, thick consistency of coconut milk makes it a desirable option for both coffees and smoothies, however, Rebecca explains that it’s important to keep in mind that coconut milk is high in calories and saturated fat. Furthermore, it lacks the calcium and protein that regular milk contains, so it shouldn’t be relied on as a source of either.
“Some are calcium-fortified and there are unsweetened, low-sugar versions,” says Chloe. “It’s another appropriate option for those needing soy and dairy-free, [however], it’s very low in protein compared to cow and soy milk, coming in at less than 2 grams of protein per 200ml.” Rebecca says: “While nuts are a good source of healthy fats, fibre and minerals like iron, usually less than 10% of the milk is actually made from nuts, with the main ingredient being water and then often additives like oils and sugar. “If you have made the switch from dairy to nut milk, ensure you choose a calcium-fortified version. A good goal is 120mg calcium /100ml milk.”
“Hemp is a great non-dairy alternative in that it naturally contains calcium, protein and has the added benefits of omega 3 and 6 essential fatty acids in the ideal 1:3 ratio that promotes brain and heart health and is anti-inflammatory in the body,” says Chloe. Get the recipe to make your own hemp milk here.
Slightly sweet in taste, rice milk is lactose-free and suitable for vegetarians and vegans, however Rebecca stresses that if you are opting for rice milk, again, ensure that you’re choosing one that has been fortified with calcium and protein. It should also be noted that rice milk is not recommended for children due to its low protein and calcium content.
The macadamia nut in itself is very calorie-dense which makes its milk counterpart a high-fat option. It is creamy in texture and can taste great in a number of recipes and can be an appropriate option for those needing soy and dairy-free, however as Chloe reiterates, it is quite low in protein, so you’ll need to ensure you’re hitting your quota in other areas.
With a similar nutritional composition to macadamia milk, Chloe says that cashew milk is an “okay choice” for those not able to tolerate dairy. As always, sure to choose an unsweetened and calcium-fortified version.
When it comes to soy milk, many people are often concerned about its effects on the body due to the fact that is contains large amounts of isoflavones, which can affect estrogen receptors in the body and in turn, disrupt the functioning of hormones. But as Healthline states, “there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that moderate amounts of soy or soy milk will cause harm in otherwise healthy adults.” “In my opinion, soy is nutritionally the best alternative to cow’s milk,” advises Rebecca. “It’s a great option for those with lactose intolerance, those following a plant-based or vegan diet or those choosing to not consume dairy. Soy milk is naturally higher in calcium than other plant milks, but is still often fortified too.”
On the other hand, those who suffer with IBS may find that soy milk causes digestive issues such as gas or bloating. “Soy milk that is made from soybeans tends to be high in the FODMAP galacto-oligosaccharide (GOS),” says Rebecca. “In contrast, soy milk that is made from soy protein extract tends to be low in FODMAPs. This is because the carbohydrate component (GOS) has been removed during processing. If are on a low FODMAP diet, opting for soy milk and soy milk products made from soy protein extract is better.”
What about camel’s milk?
Although not dairy-free, Chloe explains that camel milk has lower lactose in comparison with cow’s milk, and may be tolerated by those with an intolerance to lactose. “Camel milk is the closest to a human mother’s milk and has low sugar and cholesterol, high minerals (sodium, potassium, iron, copper, zinc and magnesium, and vitamin C).” “There isn’t much data available on the competition of camel’s milk, which can differ quite significantly depending on the camel’s diet,” explains Rebecca. “For the data we do have, it appears similar to cows milk with protein and calcium, however it is usually expensive.”