The choices used to be simple: full-fat, semi-skimmed or low-fat, but now it’s almond, coco, oat, flavoured, without added sugar, without lactose… the options are almost endless. As always though, more options mean more decisions and more to consider.
When you are looking at traditional (dairy) milk versus its plant-based alternatives, it is important to first be clear on the purpose of your change.
There are many factors to consider such as health, allergies, environmental impact, price, but also what you are using it for and if you want a direct milk replacement or if you are willing to adapt your meals. (Think of a vegetarian sausage or steak versus a veggie meal prepared without copying the meat element.)
Why we drink milk
Babies are obviously born to drink milk – it provides them with all their nutrition, but as we grow older, do we need milk? Milk and dairy products provide us with calcium for our bones and muscles, but also with amino acids, potassium and B12 and it’s a great source of micronutrients.
Over the last decade or so however, milk alternatives have emerged: partly because certain people are lactose intolerant, partly because some people want to avoid the fat naturally contained in milk, and partly because of the growing number of vegans.
Nowadays the alternatives are endless: soy, rice, almond, oat, coco, hemp, cashew, flax…
Each of these non-dairy choices has its pros and cons, and which one you choose for yourself depends on what you are using it for, your taste buds, and why you are opting for non-dairy milk.
The oldest milk alternative is soy milk. By now it exists in every flavour imaginable and most coffee shops offer it as well. The reason it is the leader so to speak is that it’s higher in protein than cow’s milk and protein is key to a healthy diet. So soy milk can provide you with a good protein source that is also low in unsaturated fat. The downside is not everyone likes the taste (unless it’s sweetened or flavoured) and it can be a little grainy.
In terms of texture and creaminess, almond milk is the favourite. It contains less calories than cow’s milk, is low in fat and sugar (unless added for taste) and contains good amounts of magnesium and Vitamin E, but less protein (than cow’s milk). Another big downside of almond milk is the environmental impact. It requires a fair amount of almonds to make milk and almonds require a lot of water to grow, which means it is quite bad for the environment.
Coconut milk also has a creamy texture, which is great for cooking and low in cholesterol. It is however, very high is saturated fats and due to its coconut taste, it doesn’t work for every type of cooking. It is however easily available now and a great source of Vitamin B12 and potassium.
If you are allergic to nuts, rice milk is a good nut-free, gluten-free and soy-free option, and you could even make it yourself at home. The nutrients from the brown rice will be in the milk you drink, but the advantages end there. Because it’s rice based, it contains carbs rather than being high in protein, and it is high in calories even though it’s quite watery. In this case though, it depends on why you are switching from cow’s milk.
Flax seed milk
An environmentally friendly option – though low in protein – is flax milk. It is full of fiber (just like oat milk), but watch out for any added sugars and sweeteners.
Other nut milks
Cashew milk is higher in calcium than cow’s milk but it contains little protein and can be expensive. Also low in protein in Macadamia milk. It is however a good source of Vitamin A and E. So again, it depends what your body needs and why you are looking for alternatives. Hazelnut milk is relatively new and not easy to find. It is low in protein but high in Vitamin E, B1 B2 and B6 and Omega 3 whilst being low on calories and contain zero cholesterol.
There are advantages – and disadvantages – to every milk you choose and as always, the key lies in balance. Think about why you want to cut out or reduce your milk intake and then decide which option works best for you, or if maybe you can have a mix to get numerous benefits.
You can also look at simple ways to replace milk in some common day-to-day uses so as to reduce your need for milk overall, making it easier to then choose the right dairy or plant option for you.