Updated: Oct 2, 2018
With a myriad of milk alternatives on the supermarket shelves, the concept of once popping to the shops for some milk has become a minefield. We are now faced with so many choices, each competing with each other to get your attention. So how do you know what is the best choice for you?
Cow's milk contains important nutrients for good health including protein, calcium, vitamin B12 as well as vitamins A, D and other B vitamins. One serving of cow's milk provides around one third of the vitamin B12 and one quarter of the calcium an adult requires each day. For most people cow's milk is the best choice.
For some people choosing cow's milk is not an option due to allergy or an intolerance. For those with a dairy allergy, sheep and goat's milk are highly likely to also cause a reaction so should be avoided. Choosing a milk alternative that is close to the composition of cow's milk is the best option. Soy milk has similar levels of protein, calcium and vitamin B12 therefore is what is recommended as an alternative to cow's milk as long as you are not allergic or intolerant to soy.
Rice milk and oat milk contain very little nutritional value although most are fortified with calcium. They are very low in protein and other nutrients. Almond Milk is sometimes fortified with calcium, however not always to the same amount found in cow's milk. It is also low in protein and other nutrients. Although almonds are a nutritious food in their whole state, interestingly enough, 100mL of almond milk only contains the protein found in just two almonds. It should not be consumed if you have an allergy to almonds. Coconut milk is also a poor source of protein and other nutrients, most often does not contain added calcium and can cause stomach upsets. These milks often also contain high levels of added sugar.
It is important to note that dairy free yoghurts contain little or no added calcium, therefore are not a sufficient dairy replacement. Many dairy free yoghurts also lack the probiotics found in dairy based yoghurt. New research is indicating that probiotics may have a positive role to play across a wide range of health conditions.
What About Milk For Children?
Children up to the age of one year should consume breast milk or a suitable infant formula as their milk drink. From the age of one year, children can include other sources of milk as a drink. Cow's milk is best as it contains high levels of protein and calories needed for rapid growth as well as other important nutrients. If your child has an allergy to cow's milk, then a calcium fortified soy milk is the best alternative as its nutrient content is similar to that of cow's milk. If your child has an allergy to dairy and soy or if there is concern about your child's growth, I recommend you seek advice from a Registered Dietitian.
Is Soy Safe?
Many people ask this question. Soy has been rigorously investigated over the past years. It is a rich source of isoflavones including phytoestrogens which bind to oestrogen receptors in our body. Due to this effect, there have been concerns that soy may have a negative effect on health.
A meta analysis (a big study that reviews all the studies, dismissing research whose study methods are too poor to make accurate conclusions) has found that soy has a positive or neutral effect on human health including heart disease, certain cancers, depressive symptoms and thyroid function.
The Bottom Line
Removing an entire food group from your diet, such as dairy, requires a great deal of thought to ensure that lost nutrients are safely replaced. If you can not consume dairy products, it is important that you ensure your milk of choice is fortified with calcium to the same level as cow's milk (approx 120mg/100mL). Extra consideration needs to be made for children due to their high nutritional needs for growth and development. Seeking advice from a Registered Dietitian can help you ensure your diet contains all the nutrients you need for good health and well being.
Nutritional information per 100ml of milk
Oat milk: Protein: 1.0 grams, Calcium: 120 mg, Vitamin B12: 0 or not stated Rice milk: Protein: 0.3 – 0.8 grams, Calcium: 110 – 120 mg, Vitamin B12: 0.4 ug Almond milk: Protein: 0.4 – 0.7 grams, Calcium: 68-120 mg, Vitamin B12: 0.4 ug Coconut milk: Protein: 0.2 – 0.6 grams, Calcium: 0 – 120 mg, Vitamin B12: 0 or not stated Soy milk: Protein: 3.0 – 3.3 grams, Calcium: 120 – 160 mg, Vitamin B12: 0.5 ug Standard cow milk: Protein: 3.6 grams, Calcium: 124 mg, Vitamin B12: 0.4 ug *May not include all milk brands as information was collected from one supermarket. **Information for whole milk is an average from different sources.
Table source: Rosemary Law, Dietitian, 2018