Nutritionist Rose Carr investigates the wide variety of alternatives when cow’s milk is off the menu.
If you can’t have, or don’t like, cow’s milk, there’s now a wide range of non-dairy milks to choose from. Soy is probably the most widely known option and there are regular or reduced-fat varieties, high-fibre or even flavoured soy milks. There are also other, lesser-known alternatives to dairy milk on the shelves. These include rice milk, oat milk and almond milk. Each offer a slightly different taste, as well as different nutrients. If you’re looking for alternatives to dairy milk, remember not all of them provide the vital nutrients cow’s milk does. Read on for what to look for to make sure you’re not missing out.
Milk and other dairy products are a rich source of calcium, which is vital for healthy teeth and bones as well as the prevention of osteoporosis. We need to get a minimum of 1000mg calcium every day depending on our age, which can be difficult to do unless you’re having three serves of dairy a day. One serve is 250ml milk, 200g of yoghurt or 40g of cheese. Fortunately, many of the milk alternatives available are fortified with calcium, but it’s important to read the label to make sure. Look for those with at least 120mg calcium per 100ml, this is a similar amount of calcium to cow’s milk.
Protein is important for muscle growth and it also plays a key role in making us feel full after a meal. Most soy milks contain a similar amount of protein to cow’s milk, with around 3g per 100ml. However, almond, oat and rice milks tend to be lower in protein with many containing less than 1g protein in a 250ml glass. Look for protein-enriched versions that will have around 1.5–2.5g protein per 100ml.
Fat and energy
Soy, almond, oat and rice milks are naturally lower in fat and kilojoules than regular cow’s milk, although there are still reduced-fat varieties available. They also contain ‘heart-healthy’ unsaturated fats rather than saturated fats. Reduced-fat soy milk, for example, has around half the kilojoules of its regular counterpart. Look for a milk alternative with less than 240kJ per 100ml if you’re watching your weight.
Soy and almond milk often contain added sugars to make them taste better. Most soy milks contain 1–2.5g sugar per 100ml, although some are higher at around 4g (or one teaspoon) per 100ml, which adds up to 10g (or 2.5 teaspoons) in a 250ml glass. Rice and oat milk are generally higher in sugars, but in many brands this is natural sugar from the grain the milk was made from, rather than added sugar. Try to avoid any with added sugar named in the first three ingredients listed on the label.
Can kids have plant-based milk?
Cow’s milk contains calcium, vitamin A, riboflavin, vitamin B and zinc, all of which are essential for a child’s healthy development. It’s also important for children under two years of age to consume full-fat milk. The higher fat content provides extra kilojoules required for growth. Plant-based milks including unfortified soy are not recommended as sole milk replacements for children under five years. If your child has a cow’s milk allergy speak with an Accredited Practising Dietitian.
Our dietitian’s picks
Sanitarium So Good Essential soy milk
>120 mg calcium per 100ml; >3g protein per 100ml (soy) or 1.5g protein per 100ml (non-soy); <240kJ per 100ml (if watching your weight)