Milk substitutes are rapidly gaining popularity in the modern food supply. They’re chosen for different reasons by different people – allergies, intolerances, vegan diets, environmental concerns, and of course health benefits. Do you choose any plant based milks in your family diet?
Readily available plant based milks include almond, coconut, soy, oat, rice, as well as couple of other more obscure varieties like cashew, hemp seed and flax seed milks.
Home made milk substitutes are also becoming more popular, with people enjoying knowing where their food is coming from, exactly what goes into it, and the lower level of environment impact from food prepared in the home.
Like with all food selection there are lots of factors that will guide your individual choice, depending on what’s important to you – things like taste, nutrition, health conditions, availablilty, cost, and environmental sustainability.
I’m all for the availability of dairy milk substitutes. They’ve been a great source of nutrition for many of my clients, and I’ve personally included them in my diet over the last decade since having children with food allergies. Back then the choice available was much smaller, and asking for anything more exotic than a soy latte was unheard of!
These days I actually enjoy a variety of plant based milks in my coffee or with granola for breakfast, but I also drink cow’s milk regularly and eat other milk based products like cheese. Dietary variety is a key factor in meeting nutrient requirements after all!
If you want to make sure your milk choice is helping meet your nutrition needs, there are a few key factors you should look out for.
Energy – This varies widely between the type of milk you are choosing, and is dependant on the amount of fat, carbohydrate (sugar) and protein in each milk. Low energy milks include choices like skim cows milk, rice and almond milk, and higher energy choices include full fat dairy milks, and traditionally produced coconut milk. If you’re choosing you’re milk based on its energy content, look at the nutrition panel and compare brands for their 100ml serving. But don’t just look at energy content, by doing so you may be doing your body out of lots of important nutrients below.
Protein – Again this varies widely between milk sources and brands. Items like rice milk are typically very low in protein, as is the base ingredient of rice, but surprisingly to some people, so are most nut milks, as the protein portion of the nut is mostly thrown away. Cow’s milk tends to be the highest in protein at around 3.5-4g/100ml, and soy milk is typically the highest protein plant based milk, averaging around the same . While calcium fortified soy milk is nutritionally my plant based milk of choice, its important to note that it’s not the right choice for everyone (for example some children are also allergic to soy protein, and some soy milks are not good choices on a low FODMAP diet).
Fat – Full cream cow’s milk is often rejected by people due to its higher saturated fat content when compared to skim and reduced fat choices. However fat is an important source of energy in the diet, and children under 2 years (when not drinking breastmilk or formula) are encouraged to use only full cream milks. Fat also plays a role in satiety, or how full we feel after eating and drinking, so many people prefer to use full cream milk for this reason. Coconut milk for cooking has 16 g/100ml fat, where as coconut milks designed for drinking have less (eg Sanatarium coconut milk 2.1g/100ml), but be aware most of this is saturated fat too. The source of fats in other commercial plant based milks is mostly unsaturated fats, but may also be an added fat like sunflower or canola oil, added for texture and energy content, rather than a naturally occurring fat.
Calcium – Plant based milks like rice, soy, coconut and nut milks are not naturally high in calcium. This means to meet your calcium requirements you will either need to choose a fortified commercial variety, choose enough other sources of dietary calcium, or take a calcium supplement. My personal choice is to choose a calcium fortified variety, and we recommend those that contain at least 120mg Calcium per 100ml.
Sugar – Many ( but not all) commercial plant based milks are sweetened with sugar or sugar alternatives to improve flavour. Lactose is the naturally occurring sugar in cow’s milk (and in human breast milk ), and our body usually produces the lactase enzyme from birth to be able to digest this. If you are lactose intolerant, all plant based milks are suitable, however simply swapping to a lactose free cow’s milk could be your best nutritional choice. If making plant based milks at home, keep in mind that large amounts of added sugars will add extra energy to your diet.
Iodine – Cow’s milk and dairy products are a source of dietary Iodine – an important nutrient for thyroid hormone production – especially in pregnancy and childhood. However, milk is not the high source of iodine it once was, since dairy industry stopped using iodophores to clean milk storage vats in the 1960s, and should not be relied upon as the primary source of iodine in the diet.
Plant based milks however are significantly lower in iodine, and swapping these into your diet will mean you definitely need to look for another source to boost your iodine intake.
The good news is there are other great non dairy sources in the diet like fish, shellfish and seaweed and eggs, which all contain more iodine per 100g than milk. On top of this, commercial bakers in Australia must use iodised salt in bread making, so there is an additional source of iodine readily available. As dietitians we typically advocate for using less salt in the diet, but where salt is used, choose iodised salt (unless you have a medical reason not to do so!).
B12 – Cows milk can be an important source of B12, particularly for vegetarians who don’t eat eggs. Some commercial soy milks are fortified with B12 (like Sanitarium So good Essential). If your are vegetarian, it’s worth reading your food labels to check how you can best meet your needs.
So choose your milk wisely, as it is an important source of nutrition in your day. If cow’s milk is not for you, that’s ok, but it’s not always as easy as a simple swap. If your favourite milk choice is lacking in a certain nutrient, make sure you boost your diet with other foods to cover the gaps. For the best individually tailored dietary advice, see an Accredited Practicing Dietitian, particularly if you or your family have any additional health issues.