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. So what do you need to consider when choosing an alternative?
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.
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're after a direct nutritional substitute for cow's milk, then protein and calcium are good nutrients to focus on. Look for milk alternatives with 3g or more protein and 120mg or more calcium per 100mL.
If you're after a direct nutritional substitute for cow's milk … look for alternatives with 3g or more protein and 120mg or more calcium per 100mL
If you follow a vegan diet, then choosing a substitute that's high in protein and calcium should be a priority.
If you're removing cow's milk and its products from your diet completely, consider consulting a dietitian to make sure you choose the most suitable alternative for your needs. Visit the DAA website to find one near you.
The most suitable alternative depends on your overall diet or reasons for avoiding cow's milk.
We've collated the ingredient and nutrition data for more than 100 different milk alternative products (not including flavoured varieties) and found some general 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 also contains a moderate amount of protein, but many products aren't fortified with calcium.
Almost half of the almond products we looked at are sweetened – look out for sugar, maltodextrin, agave or rice syrups in the ingredients list.
Cashew milk and macadamia milk
Cashew and macadamia milks are low in kilojoules, fat and sugar, but are also low in beneficial nutrients such as protein.
One of the two brands of cashew milks we looked at was calcium fortified, but the three brands of macadamia milk we came across weren't.
Macadamia milk is, on average, more expensive than any of the other plant-based milk alternatives.
Coconut milk is low in carbs and kilojoules, but is naturally higher in saturated fat than other non-dairy alternatives and is lacking in protein and calcium – although a few of the products we looked at are calcium-fortified.
Oat milk is relatively low in fat and saturated fat and offers a moderate amount of protein. It also contains cholesterol-lowering beta glucan.
But not all oat milk products are calcium-fortified, and it may not be suitable for people with gluten intolerance.
Pea protein milk
Pea protein milk's selling point is its likeness to cow's milk in terms of beneficial nutrients such as protein and calcium. On average it has more of these nutrients than other milk alternatives, as well as a higher fat content.
Rice milk is the most hypoallergenic of all the milk substitutes, and on average is the cheapest of the plant-based milk alternatives.
It's low in fat and saturated fat, but it's also low in protein – and only half of the products we looked at are calcium-fortified to levels similar to cow's milk.
None of the products we looked at were sweetened, but rice milk is naturally high in sugars – it's twice as sugary as soy milk on average.
Similar to almond milk, the options for soy milk are numerous and varied.
Soy milk has more protein on average than most other alternatives, so it's good for vegans and those looking for alternative sources of protein.
Most products are also calcium-fortified to a level similar to cow's milk. On the flipside, most soy milk products contain added sweeteners – look out for sugar, maltodextrin, barley malt and agave, rice or tapioca syrup on the ingredients list.
Regular soy milk has a higher fat content on average than most other milk alternatives, so it can be a good cow's milk substitute for kids under two who can tolerate it (soy is a common allergen).
Mix it up
Because the most suitable alternative depends on your overall diet or reasons for avoiding cow's milk, consider using different milk for different uses. For example, soy milk on your cereal for a little extra protein and calcium, rice milk for baking, or a glass of chilled almond milk for a low-kilojoule snack.
There has long been discussion about which plant-based milk alternative is best for coffee, so it's perhaps not surprising that many brands have released products specifically for this purpose.
Whichever type you choose, be prepared to pay a price premium for the 'barista' versions
Of the products we looked at, 19 were marketed as 'barista milks' – capturing all plant-based categories other than cashew, rice and pea protein.
Ultimately it comes down to personal preference, but whichever type you choose, be prepared to pay a price premium for the 'barista' versions made by some brands.
What about lab milk?
Lab milk, or synthetic cow's milk, is currently in development. It's essentially cow's milk that's created in a lab using modified microflora that produce both whey and casein (the protein components of milk) through a fermentation process.
While fully-formed lab milk isn't yet commercially available in Australia, it's likely to have wide appeal – particularly as it will be vegan and lactose free. So watch this space!
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.