Milk Alternatives – A quick review

There are many reasons these days why you may be unable or don’t want to drink cow’s milk – noting that contrary to the baloney spouted by many a ‘health and wellness guru’ – dairy does not cause inflammation in the vast majority of us!

So, which of the ‘milk’ substitutes may be best for you? Almond milk, coconut milk, soy, oat or rice milk – Are any of these better even than cow’s milk itself?

The short answer in terms of overall nutrition is no, as a stand alone liquid – cow’s milk is overall the most nutritious milk followed by soy. The main highlights in the nutrient profile of cow’s milk includes a good amount of quality protein, calcium, vitamin A, D, B vitamins (but notably B2, B12) and Zinc.

An important note on calcium – On average, adult and adolescent intake of calcium in Australia is below our recommended daily intake, and calcium is absolutely critical for bone health.  For most people, 60% of their calcium will come from dairy products and it is largely for this reason that it is recommended that adults should be consuming mimimally 2.5 serves per day of milk, other dairy or dairy substitutes and this rises to 3.5 for men over 70 and to 4 for post-menopausal women.

Some of these milk alternatives will add calcium phosphate, calcium citrate or calcium carbonate into their formulations to address the natural lack of calcium in these ingredients and this added calcium is generally around 10% less bioavailable than the naturally occurring calcium in cow’s milk. Not such a big deal. However, studies have found that these salts often settle towards the bottom of the container and are subsequently disproportionally discarded in the ‘dregs’.

*Note that if you have irritable bowel syndrome or tend to be susceptible to digestive issues such as bloating or gas – ensure you choose a substitute that is fortified with calcium citrate as this will tend to cause fewer side effects than the others.

So, without question, if you are going to drink these alternatives often or as a substitute to cow’s milk – you must make sure that your preferred brand is fortified to contain minimally 275-300mg calcium per 250ml and that you shake your container regularly (and drink those dregs!). (Note that the Oat and Soy milk considered below are not fortified)

Let’s get onto a quick snapshot comparison of the key nutrient values between unsweetened, fortified store-bought formulations of each – and against a reduced and full fat cows milk. This is not to say that other brands or your own homemade versions won’t have different nutrient profiles, but these are just the 7 randomly chosen ‘off the shelf’ milks that I chose to review today.

Products chosen (all unsweetened and options 3-7 are lactose free):

  1. Paul’s Smarter White
  2. Paul’s Full Cream Milk
  3. PureHarvest Oat Milk – note that this product contains gluten
  4. Vitasoy Coconut Milk
  5. PureHarvest Rice Milk
  6. PureHarvest Soy Milk (malt-free)
  7. Sanitarium, So-Good Almond Milk



Note: I have not attempted to score ‘taste’ as this is so personal – but perhaps you could all comment at the end of the article or share on facebook which of the substitutes you’ve found is best for different applications (Is one better for coffee, another for smoothies – are any of them any good at all in baking?)

If you are considering moving away from dairy for whatever reason – there are pros and cons of each milk type and aside from taste, and ensuring that your milk is calcium-enriched – your choice may depend on what key features you’re looking for or what eating plan you maybe following (check your brand as there maybe considerable differences between each!):

  1. Low-energy: Coconut or almond
  2. Low-sodium: Coconut or soy milks
  3. Low-fat: Rice Milk then almond milk
  4. Low-carb/low-sugar: Almond Milk then coconut milk
  5. Higher protein: Soy then oat milk
  6. Other: There maybe allergy or other reasons that you cannot consume soy or nut milks and this may restrict your choice. Note also that oat milk contains gluten

As each of these milks has specific nutritional highlights, often the best approach when substituting a nutritionally well-rounded product with less-nutritious substitutes is to mix it up so that they complement one another. Some of these features include:

  1. Almond milk has heart-healthy fats
  2. Rice milk tends to be the best milk for those with many allergies/suspected allergies
  3. Oat milk has beta-glucan with helps lower cholesterol
  4. Soy milk contains isoflavones or a type of phytoestrogens that may play a role in protecting against some cancers. However, there are certain medical situations where you may be advised to limit your soy intake (eg women with oestrogen-dependent breast cancer)

So, hope you enjoyed this mini-review and if you drink any such substitutes – don’t forget to go and check that you have a fortified version (min 275-300mg calcium/250ml) and try not to get stuck on the one option, but change it up for better rounded nutrition.