The choice of milk seems endless. But what's the difference?
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  • Updated:28 May 2007

02.Non-dairy milk alternatives

If you follow a vegan diet or you’re allergic to cow’s milk — or just don’t like the taste of milk — there are several non-dairy milk alternatives you can use instead.

Soy ‘milk’

Soy beverage (or soy ‘milk’ as it’s commonly, if inaccurately, called) generally has less saturated fat than regular milk and it’s a good-quality protein. It also contains isoflavones (a class of phytoestrogens), which mimic the hormone oestrogen. Isoflavones have long been thought to ward off osteoporosis, relieve the symptoms associated with menopause, such as hot flushes, and protect against heart disease (by lowering cholesterol) and some cancers, including breast cancer.

In reality, there’s no evidence that soy protein and isoflavones reduce the severity or frequency of hot flushes, and results are mixed with regard to soy’s ability to slow osteoporosis. The impact of isoflavones on cholesterol levels is very small relative to the large amount of soy protein you’d need to eat or drink to achieve it. And there’s little evidence that isoflavones can prevent or treat cancer.

Soy milk can still be beneficial to cardiovascular and overall health because of its high polyunsaturated fat content and low saturated fat content, among other things. Most soy milk is fortified with calcium too, to levels comparable with the dairy version. Just don’t buy it for the isoflavones alone.

Cereal- and nut-based drinks

There are plenty of interesting non-dairy milk alternatives available, to suit any taste — take your pick from rice, oat, almond or hazelnut drinks for starters. But they differ from dairy milks in significant ways. Cereal- and nut-based drinks contain significantly less protein than dairy or soy milk. And although manufacturers are allowed to add calcium and other vitamins and minerals to make them nutritionally more like dairy or soy drinks, not all of them do.

It’s for these reasons that Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) recently issued a warning to parents that cereal-based beverages, such as rice milk and oat-based drinks, aren’t a suitable substitute for milk for children under the age of five. These drinks are now required to carry a warning that says as much. If children are drinking cereal-based drinks due to an allergy or intolerance to dairy or soy milk, parents need to ensure they’re getting sufficient protein from other sources to make up for what they’re not getting from milk.


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