Updated: Jan 6, 2022
There are a huge number of dairy milk alternatives on the shelf these days and it can be confusing to decide which is the one for you – oat, rice, coconut, almond, soy, hemp? Have I missed any? This article isn’t designed to sway you from drinking dairy milk (I know there's a good chance you already aren't drinking it) but if you’re curious in understanding which milk alternative to have, keep reading.
Dairy milk has long been celebrated for its’ vitamin D, protein, and calcium content. It’s important to firstly recognise that every single one of these nutrients can be found elsewhere on a plant-based template… yes, even calcium.
Protein: so long as a source of protein is being included with most main meals, it’s very easy to achieve protein goals.
Calcium: great plant based sources include chia seeds, almonds, dark green vegetables, tahini, sesame seeds, tempeh, tofu, figs and even some fortified mils alternatives.
Vitamin D: dietary sources of vitamin D such as dairy, oily fish and eggs only provide very small amounts of vitamin D. This means that regardless of whether you consume dairy or not, you should be testing vitamin D levels and using sun exposure or supplements accordingly. Check out this article for the details on vitamin D.
A 2017 study showed that soy milk was the most comparable to cow’s milk from a nutrient perspective, yet what you’ll learn as you keep reading is that most soy milks don’t fare well in my view. It’s a matter of food quality.
We can so easily achieve nutrient intake requirements on a whole food template, which means the most important criteria for a dairy milk alternative must be food quality.
How does the milk alternative fare against this quality control list?
Does it contain processed seed oils?
Does it contain unnecessary additives or preservatives?
Does it contain high fructose sugars?
Does it contain much of the hero ingredient?
If the answers to these questions are yes, yes, yes and/or no then that product ideally wouldn’t feature frequently in your day-to-day nutrition.
Let’s look at some of the most common milk alternatives I get asked about in clinic:
Bonsoy Organic Soy Milk
It contains organic, non-GMO soy which is a big must when choosing a soy milk and soy beans are the number one ingredient after filtered water. It’s sweetened using Tapioca Syrup and Hato Mugi (also known as jobs tears) and unlike many soy milks, processed seed oils aren’t used for texture’s sake.
It does contain small amounts of calcium and a decent amount of protein. This is a good choice as far as soy milks are concerned. If you’re a soy milk drinker, make it this one.
Milk Lab Almond Milk
Almond milk is essentially blended almond and water that’s been drained and had a form of sweetener added. In the case of Milk Lab, pure sugar is the third most used ingredient, behind water and almonds, followed by sunflower oil. It also contains acidity regulators and stabilisers. It’s been made popular because of its creamy and barista friendly texture, but unfortunately, it’s for the exact same reasons that Milk Lab is also a poor choice for health.
Pure Harvest Coco Quench Coconut Milk
Made from just four ingredients, organic water, organic coconut milk, brown rice (for sweetening) and salt. It contains 20% coconut which is a high percentage in comparison to many nut milk offerings. I personally love the flavour, it makes a good coffee and it’s quality ingredient list make it a very worthy milk alternative. It’s not fortified with calcium or vitamin D and it’s low in protein, but as we discussed, those can be found elsewhere in the diet. It is higher in carbohydrates, so does need to be consumed accordingly. It features in this Miami Vice Smoothie.
Pure Harvest Organic Almond Milk
Made from just five ingredients, organic water, organic activated almonds, organic rice malt syrup (for sweetening), plant calcium and salt. I don't love the flavour of almond milk so it'll never be my first choice. In saying that, I love this product for anyone who struggles to obtain enough calcium on a plant-based template (300mg/serve is decent) and I respect the quality ingredients being used.
Oat-ly Oat Milk
On the plus it contains 10% oats, which is a greater percentage oat then most nut milks and their nuts however, this also makes it somewhat high in carbohydrate. To get the beautiful barrister quality texture it is high in vegetable oils and because it's oat based, it’s also not gluten free. Not to say that everyone needs to avoid gluten, but in clinic I find most people are better without it. It’s fortified with small amounts of vitamin D, B12 and calcium which might suit those on a plant-based diet, but due to the inclusion of vegetable oil this milk is a ‘no’ from me.
Nutty Bruce Activated Almond Milk
Mostly filtered water with 10% of the products being activated almonds and the rest being brown rice syrup and salt. It doesn’t contain vegetable or seed oil which means it’s a healthier choice, but not great if you're after a creamy cappuccino. For those that prefer almond over any other nut milk, I’d recommend this product.
If you choose to drink dairy milk alternatives please remember that food quality is key! Your milk choice needs to be part of a nutrient dense diet that supports your daily protein, calcium and vitamin D requirements.
Vanga SK, Raghavan V. How well do plant based alternatives fare nutritionally compared to cow’s milk?. J Food Sci Technol. 2018;55(1):10-20. doi:10.1007/s13197-017-2915-yT