Almond, soy, rice or oat milk - are they better than dairy?

Milks-a-plenty! But which ones are the best for healthy ageing?

Choosing from the vast array of milks at the supermarket has become more complex than decoding the human genome. From regular cow’s milk to A2 and soy to oat, Sabrina Rogers-Anderson investigates the pros and cons of each type of milk.

By Sabrina Rogers-Anderson 

Remember when there was only one type of milk available at the supermarket?

Those days are long gone with the dairy fridge and boxed milk aisle now stretching as far as the eye can see. While you may prefer the taste of good old full-cream milk, it’s possible that you’ve started to experience gut symptoms such as gas, bloating or diarrhoea when you drink it.

That’s because many of us produce less lactase - the enzyme that breaks down lactose (sugar) found in milk - as we age. You may even be allergic to cow’s milk or prefer to avoid it for ethical or environmental reasons. But choosing an alternative that tastes nice and is as nutritious as regular cow’s milk can be tricky.

Here’s the lowdown on the pros and cons of different types of milk available in Australia.

Types of dairy milk

With a good balance of high-quality protein, fat, carbohydrates and essential nutrients (including calcium, B vitamins and vitamin D), cow’s milk is considered a complete food.

In Australia, almost all milk is homogenised to prevent the cream from rising to the top and pasteurised to kill bacteria and prevent spoilage.

There are several different types of dairy milk with different nutritional benefits. 

Full-cream milk

Also known as whole or full-fat milk, this is the traditional cow’s milk we know and love. In Australia, full-cream milk must contain at least 3.2% milk fat.

While the Australian Dietary Guidelines currently recommend reduced-fat milk for people aged two and over, an increasingly large body of research has found no evidence to support the long-held belief that the saturated fat in full-cream dairy increases the risk of obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

In fact, several studies have found that eating dairy products, including full-fat versions, may even lower blood pressure and the risk of developing obesity and type 2 diabetes.

If you’re unsure whether full-cream milk is right for you, talk to your GP or a dietitian.

Low-fat milk

Reduced-fat, low-fat or light milk has between 1% and 2% milk fat.

While a large proportion of the milk’s vitamins (including A, D, E and K) are removed with the fat, many companies add vitamins in their low-fat milk to make it as nutritionally sound as full-cream milk.

The main disadvantage of reduced-fat milk is that it doesn’t have the same rich, creamy taste as the full-fat version.

Skim milk

Skim or fat-free milk contains less than 0.15% milk fat.

Like low-fat milk, skim milk often has added vitamins to replace those lost in the fat. Some fat-free milks also contain powdered milk to make it creamier.

Some people dislike the thin texture of skim milk.

Lactose-free milk

For people who are lactose intolerant but love the taste of cow’s milk, this type of milk has been treated with the enzyme lactase to remove the lactose and is gentle on the gut.

Lactose-free milk is available in full-cream, low-fat and skim versions.

A2 milk

Cow’s milk contains 2 beta-casein proteins: A1 and A2. Research suggests that the A1 variant causes digestive discomfort in some people whereas A2 is generally well-tolerated. 

If regular cow’s milk gives you gastrointestinal symptoms, you may want to try A2 milk to see if it’s easier on your stomach.

But beware of claims that A2 milk provides protection against everything from autism to schizophrenia as they aren’t substantiated.

Enriched milk

There are a variety of different milks that are fortified with extra nutrients, including calcium and vitamin D.

These milks can be helpful if you don’t get enough of these nutrients in your diet (which is often the case with calcium after menopause) or you have a deficiency (such as when you don’t get enough vitamin D from sunlight).

Some milks are also enriched with plant sterols, which lower levels of LDL “bad” cholesterol.

But sometimes these health claims are just marketing stunts designed to charge consumers more, so read labels to make sure they actually contain higher levels of these nutrients than regular milk.

Organic milk

Organic dairy farming doesn’t use synthetic pesticides, fertilisers or antibiotics, and cows are free to graze or have minimum space requirements for their housing.

Although organic milk is more expensive than regular milk, it may be worth the price tag if you care about animal welfare, sustainability or reducing your exposure to chemicals. 

Flavoured milk

Beyond chocolate and strawberry, the flavoured milk market is growing.

Sales of coffee-flavoured milks are booming, and the next category to keep an eye out for is flavoured milks with functional ingredients including proteins and bioactive peptides that have a range of health benefits.

But beware of the amount of sugar in flavoured milks. On average, they contain 1 teaspoon of added sugar per 100ml.

Long-life milk

This shelf-stable milk is also known as UHT (ultra-high temperature) milk because it’s pasteurised at much higher temperatures than regular milk.

You’ll find it in the boxed milk aisle and it can be stored unopened and unrefrigerated for up to 9 months.

Nutritionally, long-life milk is very similar to regular milk.

Goat milk

Goat milk is higher in kilojoules and fat than cow’s milk, but it also contains more protein, calcium, magnesium and potassium.

Research has shown it has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Although it contains lactose, some people find it easier to digest than cow’s milk.

The downsides are that it isn’t widely available and the taste can take some getting used to.

Plant-based milks

The plant-based milk market has been growing steadily and sales are forecast to increase by 50% in the next 4 years.

Milk made from plants, nuts or grains are a great choice for people who are allergic or intolerant to cow’s milk, follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, or want to avoid cow’s milk for environmental or other reasons.

While many plant-based milks are fortified with vitamins and minerals, some can fall short when it comes to calcium.

The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend choosing alternative milks that are fortified with at least 100g of calcium per 100ml. You may also want to look for a milk enriched with vitamin B12 if you’re vegan.

Plant milks often contain added sugar, so choose unsweetened varieties if you’re watching your sugar intake. There are also organic versions, as well as barista blends that are designed to blend and froth well when making coffee.

Choosing the right plant milk for you requires trial and error. Some people love the taste and texture of soy milk, for example, while others can’t stomach it. 

The following plant milks are available in supermarkets, but you can also make your own at home from a variety of nuts, seeds and even hemp.

Soy milk

Soy milk is the most commonly used milk alternative. It’s a complete protein with roughly the same amount of total protein (3.5%) as cow’s milk. 

Most soy milks are fortified with the same amount of calcium found in dairy milk and with other nutrients. 

While soy is a good choice for menopausal women because it can help reduce symptoms, people with certain medical conditions should avoid it. Talk to your doctor or dietitian if you have any questions.

Almond milk

Commercial almond milks generally contain between 2 and 14 percent almonds, which are chock-full of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats.

Almond milk has fewer kilojoules and less saturated fat than dairy milk, but it’s low in calcium and protein (less than 1g per 100ml). Look for calcium-fortified versions and you can even find some with added protein.

Oat milk

A good source of beta glutacan, which helps control blood sugar levels and lowers cholesterol, oat milk is naturally low in saturated fat.

It only contains half the amount of protein of cow’s milk and is low in calcium, so choose one that is fortified in both nutrients.

Oat milk is naturally sweet and creamy, so it’s a good choice for cooking. But keep in mind that it isn't gluten-free.

Coconut milk

Coconut milk is high in saturated fat and low in carbs, kilojoules, calcium and protein.

It isn’t the healthiest alternative milk, but some people love the taste. Make sure to choose versions that are fortified, especially with calcium (100mg per 100ml).

Rice milk

Rice milk is generally the most affordable plant milk and the least likely to trigger an allergy.

It’s naturally sweet and low in saturated fat, but it’s also low in calcium and protein. Not all rice milks are fortified, so read labels carefully.

Macadamia milk

Low in kilojoules, protein and calcium, macadamia milk is generally more expensive than other plant milks. 

The only real advantage is its creamy texture that can be good for cooking. Choose a macadamia milk that’s enriched with calcium at a minimum.

Pea milk

Pea milk is made from pea protein and has similar protein and calcium levels as cow’s milk.

While this makes it nutritionally superior to many other plant milks, it can be harder to find in supermarkets.

Whether you prefer traditional dairy or a plant-based milk, you’re spoiled for choice. Get taste tasting!

The information on this page is general information and should not be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease. Do not use the information found on this page as a substitute for professional health care advice. Any information you find on this page or on external sites which are linked to on this page should be verified with your professional healthcare provider.

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