More and more people explore alternative products to milk and dairy, either due to becoming more aware of the effects dairy can have on the gut (ranging from cow milk allergy up to lactose intolerance), or because they stick to more plant-based diets, or simply due to taste preference. Regardless of the reason behind seeking a milk alternative, let’s explore the most popular products, their health benefits and if there is anything we may need to consider before adding them to our nutrition.
Keep in mind whilst reading through:
Milk substitutes cannot match the nutritional value of cow’s milk; however they can provide a range of nutrients related to the promotion of health and wellbeing.
In a nutshell (Nut-based milk products):
Almond milk is made from ground almonds mixed with water and it is naturally lactose free.
The unsweetened version is low in calories, making it a great alternative for people looking to improve their body weight. It is also low in cholesterol and saturated fat, therefore can help maintain a healthy cholesterol profile in the blood. Great source of the powerful antioxidant alpha-tocopherol (Vitamin E), known for its properties as a protector against free radicals that can damage the skin surface, whereas new studies also show that it may be able to support a healthy gut by providing ingredients (prebiotics) necessary for the develo
pment and growth of our healthy gut bacteria.
Even though almonds are a great source of protein, almond milk is not (only 1 gram of protein in every glass). It is also low in calcium, a vital nutrient for maintaining healthy and strong bones (so should be carefully consumed from people with osteopenia or during childhood unless it is fortified with calcium). It can still trigger a response in people with nut allergies so finding a plant based alternative might be a better choice in that case. Its price can also be classified as a downside, as it seems to be on the high side of the price scale of the dairy alternative products.
Coconut milk as a dairy alternative is actually thinner than the ingredient found as a thickening base in currys and other sweet and savoury recipes. It is actually the liquid squeezed from the pulp of the coconut flesh mixed with water.
Coconut milk is a nutrient dense product, with most of its calories coming from a type of saturated fat called lauric acid. This specific fatty acid is related with promotion of brain development and boosting our immune system, as it is one of the fats found also in mother’s milk. Coconut milk is also rich in nutrients like vitamin C and E, a good source of fibre that can aid digestion and also contains minerals like iron, zinc, potassium and magnesium.
The amount of saturated fat it contains raise concerns regarding its effect on heart health and risk of heart conditions. Moreover, coconut milk is also rich in sugar so it should be consumed with moderation if you are following a low sugar or a calorie restricted diet.
Nut-free plant based options:
Soy milk is the extract of soaked and cooked soy beans and was the first plant based milk that has been used when dairy milk supply was not sufficient. Its creamy texture can be used as a great alternative to milk and other ingredients in recipes and beverages (as a matter of fact it can substitute eggs in preparation of mayonnaise).
Soy milk is possibly the most nutritious alternative to dairy, as it is rich in the essential monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (omega-3s) that can be beneficial for the heart health. One of the active components found in soy beans called isoflavones, are also present in soy milk. Isoflavones are gaining increasing attention in the current literature due to their protective effect against conditions like cancer, heart disease and osteoporosis.
Its beanie flavour may be slightly stronger compared to the other milk substitutes Also, this product should be avoided by populations who are allergic to soy proteins.
Rice milk is a grain milk derived by the combination of cooked rice and water with enzymes that turn the starch from the rice to natural sugar.
Rice milk is lactose free and can be used safely by people with lactose intolerance, in addition to containing a small amount of lipids and fat. Its protein content is low so it is often mixed with other milks like almond or coconut that can increase its protein content.
A great discussion is currently led on how safe it is to be consumed by more sensitive populations, as it can be high in arsenic, which can affect heart health.
Oat milk is the vegan dairy alternative made simply out of combining soaked oats and water. It receives increasing interest as it is a highly nutritious product with creamy texture (can easily be used within coffees and beverages instead of cow’s milk) and even though it has a more earthy taste it is generally easier acceptable compared to other options like soy milk.
Oat milk has a high nutritive value based on the presence of dietary fibres it contains. More specifically it contains a group of soluble fibres called β-glucans, which has been related to reducing blood glucose levels in addition to cholesterol lowering properties. Oats are an excellent source of a quality plant protein which offers a good balance of essential amino acids (the building blocks of proteins that our body cannot synthesise and can only find from food). One major advantage of oat milk is that it is also free of allergens like soy and nuts and naturally free from gluten, though it is advised to check the product label anyway if diagnosed with a coeliac disease.
Despite its health benefits and nutrition value, oat milk lacks calcium which is important for bone health and growth, so make sure you choose fortified oat milk products.
There are currently many other products available like milk from quinoa, hemp, hazelnut, flaxseed and melon seed, however these products lack scientific data and research to support any potential benefits.
Personal opinion of the author: Having tried most of the trending dairy alternatives, I find oat milk one of the best alternatives based on its nutritional value and flavour that makes it easier to consume on its own or within beverages like coffees. As a second choice, almond milk is a great idea for people that want to reduce their calories and can be used within smoothies to control their caloric content, however it's texture might make it harder to drink on its own or to even add in coffee. Also, based on flavour alone, coconut milk and hazelnut milk are the absolute winners, however consume them with moderation as they contain a significant amount of calories and sugar.