Which milk alternative is the healthiest?

By Danika Heslop

Which milk alternative is the healthiest?
What alternatives are there to dairy milk - and which is the healthiest?

Whether you have an allergy, intolerance, or don’t drink milk for ethical or environmental reasons, there is a large variety of non-dairy milks to choose from these days – each with their own taste and health benefits. Danika Heslop explains the different options – and their health benefits.

Soy milk really is the mainstream pioneer of plant-based milks. Its creamy flavour and high protein make it an excellent vegan option. It’s also available in a range of varieties such as high fibre, reduced fat, and barista quality, so suits a range of tastes and preferences. Soy is generally regarded as the best plant-based milk alternative for nutritional purposes. There has been conflicting information about soy (and controversy over hormonal imbalance), with some research advising it’s best consumed in moderation. Some varieties can have large quantities of added sugar so be sure to read nutrition labels.

How to try it: Soy milk has a distinct taste that can be affronting to an unexpectant palette. Try it in a smoothie with bold flavours such as raspberry and white chocolate to mask the flavour.

Almond milk is definitely having its moment. Naturally, almonds make a great snack; they are high in ‘good’ monounsaturated fats and low in calories. So, having them as a non-dairy milk alternative is a great way of getting the benefits of almonds along with your daily smoothie, or coffee. Almond milk is a particularly great option for people with high blood pressure. It is rich in vitamin E, and low in cholesterol due to its naturally lower fat content. Most plant-based milks have fewer calories and lower fat content because of the way they are produced. Almond milk is a great example: almonds are blended, soaked in water and drained through. While fat remains present in the final process, it’s a much smaller amount of saturated fat than compared to full cream milk. While low in saturated fat, almond milk does lack the protein and calcium of its dairy counterpart, and can often contain unsweetened additives and sweeteners, so read labels carefully.

How to try it: Deep flavours go well with almonds or nut-based milks, which is why coffee works so well (being quite rich and full bodied). Anything with cinnamon, caramel, and chocolate is well worth a try with almond milk.

Coconut milk is definitely trickling into the coffee scene. It’s naturally sweet, but considerably higher in saturated fats than other non-dairy milk alternatives. Nut-based milks do tick a lot of boxes (catering to vegans, vegetarians and those lactose intolerant) and are naturally rich in fibre. Be sure to look out for varieties that are unsweetened to keep calories low. There is a lot of conflicting information out on the market about which is the healthiest alternative to dairy milk. What the dieticians are saying, and what the consumer trends think is healthy, can be two different things. Coconut milk is the perfect example, dieticians and nutritionists are advising to drink coconut milk in moderation because of its high fat content and lack of protein. But consumer trends point to coconut milk being a popular milk alternative. The industry debate on health benefits is ongoing.

How to try it: Think about what goes naturally with coconut: chocolate, pineapple, mango and passionfruit (all those tropical flavours!). Smoothies are a great, non-confronting way to try alternative milk varieties. After all, a Green Kiwi or Cardamon and Mango smoothie is a lot more risk-averse than a coconut cappuccino. In warm beverages, coconut milk is enjoyed in Chai and Turmeric lattes.

Oat milk is a milk-alternative growing in popularity. We’re slowly starting to see an increase in suppliers and barista blends featuring oat milk. It’s low in saturated fat and is a source of fibre. Oats are naturally rich in beta-glucan, a compound linked to lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Oat milk is generally low in additives, but do read the nutritional label as every brand formula differs. The downside is oat milk is low in protein. Be sure to go for the unsweetened option.

How to try it: There’s huge potential for oat milk, it’s just a matter of finding where it fits – be it cooking, coffee or smoothies.

Rice milk is low in protein, naturally high in sugar, and very high in carbohydrates. It has little nutritional value in comparison to other milk alternatives, so it’s best to use sparingly. However, it is a low-fat, non-dairy option and can be a great source for vitamin B and fortified source of calcium. It’s known to be the least allergenic of milk alternatives.

How to try it: Rice milk can be too watery for tea and coffee, but it is great for cooking. Start by trying it in your next baking dish if you’re exploring milk-alternatives.

Dairy milk is high in calcium and great for bone support, making it a great addition to a balanced diet, if permitted. It’s praised for its balance of protein, carbohydrates and fat. When consumed in high amounts, be wary of the calories and saturated fat. Try to alternate with plant-based milk in cereal, coffee or smoothie to keep intake balanced.

Any new/unusual milk alternatives you’ve come across?
Macadamia Milk is certainly on the rise and in consumer and supplier demand. It could be the next big thing!

Last words
Choosing the right milk comes down to what you want out of the product, be it taste, nutritional value, environmental friendliness or other reasons. Each option has its benefits and downside. We’ve gone from a culture of being either full cream or skim milk drinkers, to a whole new category of milk types. It comes down to personalisation and variety: you might have coconut milk with your smoothie, a skim latte and an almond piccolo. It’s important not to over-indulge in any specific milk or food product – but it’s easy to interchange between milk alternatives.


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