Cow's milk is a staple part of our diet and our cooking – from morning coffee to creamy sauces. But it seems an increasing number of people either have an allergy or an intolerance to dairy and thus can't drink it, or they give it a miss for ethical and/or environmental reasons. Thankfully, for the non-dairy crowd, there's a booming range of alternatives, including "milk" made from soy, rice, almond, oat and coconut milks, many with flavoured options. But how do they stack up nutritionally?
Which milk alternative is best?
Cow's milk is usually seen as the benchmark for liquid nourishment. It's recognised as a good source of many nutrients, including protein, iodine, vitamin A, vitamin D, riboflavin (vitamin B2), vitamin B12, zinc, and – importantly – calcium. Australian dietary guidelines recommend we include two or three serves of milk, its products or alternatives each day.
When cutting out cow's milk, Tania Ferraretto from the Dietitian's Association of Australia (DAA) says you need to consider your overall diet when choosing an alternative, and the reasons why you don't want to drink cow's milk.
"If you're avoiding milk because you just don't like it – but you're still eating other dairy products such as cheese – then you can probably base your choice purely on taste and cost," says Ferraretto.
Watching your weight or worried about your cholesterol? Then add low-kilojoule and low-fat to your buying criteria. But don't share with the littlies – alternatives with 2.5% or less fat aren't suitable as a substitute for cow's milk for children under the age of two.
If you follow a vegan diet, then "choosing a substitute that's high in protein and calcium should be a priority," Ferraretto says.
Looking for most nutrients?
In terms of nutrients, calcium-fortified soy is the best substitute for cow's milk.
If you're removing cow's milk and its products from your diet completely, consult a dietitian to make sure you choose the most suitable alternative for your needs. Visit the DAA website to find one near you.
Mix it up
Because the most suitable alternative depends on your overall diet or reasons for avoiding cow's milk, you could consider keeping more than one type for different uses – soy milk on your cereal for a little extra protein and calcium, rice milk for baking, and a glass of chilled almond milk for a low-kilojoule snack, for example.
Comparing milk alternatives
Our 2012 review of 71 different milk alternative products found some pros and cons for each type.
- Almond milk contains the same heart-healthy fats as olive oil, and is naturally low in kilojoules and saturated fat. It contains a moderate amount of protein but only one of the five brands we found was fortified with calcium. But many products have added sweeteners – look for sugar, or syrups such as agave, cane or rice, on the ingredients list.
- Coconut milk is low in carbs and kilojoules, but is significantly higher in saturated fat than other non-dairy alternatives and is lacking in protein and calcium.
- Oat milk is relatively low in fat and saturated fat, and offers a moderate amount of protein. It also contains cholesterol-lowering beta glucan. However, some products aren't calcium-fortified, and oat milk may not be suitable for people with gluten intolerance.
- Rice milk is the most hypoallergenic of all the milk substitutes, and many products are calcium-fortified to levels similar to cow's milk. It's low in fat and saturated fat, but it's also low in protein. It's not usually sweetened, but rice milk is naturally high in sugars – it's twice as sugary as soy milk on average.
- Soy milk has more protein on average than other alternatives, so it's good for vegans and others who don't get protein from meat sources. Most products are calcium-fortified to a level similar to cow's milk, and you may find that some are sweetened. Regular soy milk has a higher fat content on average than the alternatives, so it's a good cow's milk substitute for kids under two who can tolerate it (soy is a common allergen). Soy milk contains isoflavones, a class of phytoestrogens thought to have a protective effect against some cancers, although it's recommended that women with oestrogen-dependent breast cancers limit soy foods. Soy milk is available in a range of varieties including organic, high fibre, 'barista quality' and 'milky tasting'.