Walking through any supermarket these days, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of different plant-based milk options available on the market. Plant based milks have increased hugely in popularity in recent years as many people turn away from cows milk due to allergies, intolerances, personal, ethical, environmental or health values or even taste preference reasons. In the average western adult diet, cows milk provides a significant amount of energy, protein, calcium and other micronutrients (Poppitt, 2020).
If you choose to steer away from cows milk for whichever reason, there’s a lot to consider when choosing a milk alternative. We’ve asked Accredited Dietitian, Kelsey Hutton, to weigh in and outline the key tips you need to help you choose the best plant-based milk alternative for you.
Soy, almond and oat milks have been around for many years, there are more and more varieties popping up in stores now too, from hemp milk, to pea, cashew, macadamia, rice, flax and more. When we look into these milks from a nutritional perspective, it is essential to compare the nutrition benefits of each milk, as well as cost, availability and also flavour. For comparison, the key nutrients in dairy milk that are required in our diets are calcium, as well as protein.
• 270mg of calcium
• 8g of protein
Note: You might notice that some of these milks are spelt differently on their packaging, such as “mylk”, however we will refer to all of them with the spelling of “milk”.
Almond milks come in different flavours, sweetened or unsweetened, organic varieties, and fortified varieties too. On average, almond milks are much lower in energy (kJ) than cows milk as they are made with mostly water, they are also very low in protein. Calcium content of almond milks is variable between brands, however on average most are similar to dairy milk with around 300mg of calcium per 250ml serving. Almond milk has a light nutty taste, it is a great option in smoothies for flavour and calcium, however is not a good source of protein.
Compared to other plant-based milks, soy milk is an excellent source of protein containing all essential amino acids and around 8-9g of protein per 250ml serving. Calcium content is also on-par with dairy milk. Soy is a common allergen, so is best avoided for those who are allergic. It has a light nutty taste and is nutritionally balanced with carbohydrates, protein and fat, however unlike cows milk, the fat in soy milk is not a saturated fat. For those interested, there are low fat varieties of soy milk that can be chosen as well. Soy milk is a great tasting, nutritionally balanced plant-based milk that ticks all the nutrition boxes.
Oat milks are becoming increasingly popular in Australian cafes, with many baristas’ claiming that oat milk helps to lower the bitterness of coffee! With that fun fact aside, how does it compare to dairy milk and other plant milks?
Compared to dairy milk, oat milk has a quarter of the protein yet is similar in energy and calcium content (300mg per 250ml). Oat milk has a mild taste that is not too overpowering, so it does work really well in coffees as well as smoothies where you want the flavour of the fruits and other ingredients to shine. However, oat milks are low in protein so keep that in mind. Note: most oat milks aren’t suitable for those with Coeliac disease, so take care to always check the labels.
Rice milk contains similar energy (kJ) and calcium per serve as soy and dairy milks, however is very low in protein. The energy in rice milk comes from its higher carbohydrate content compared to other milks and its high glycaemic index means it can raise blood glucose levels quickly and therefore is not a good choice for diabetics. Rice milk is also a slightly nutty, mild tasting milk so can be suitable for smoothies, but keep in mind the protein content if that’s needed in your meal.
Hemp milk is not as widely available in Australia as the previously mentioned plant-based milks, however it can usually be found in health food stores. Hemp milk has a creamy taste. Hemp is generally considered a good source of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, however the fat content in hemp-based milks is not particularly high, so large amounts would need to be consumed for the omega-3 benefits. Per 250ml, hemp milk contains similar energy, carbohydrate and calcium content to dairy milk, however is low in protein. Given the lower availability and higher price tag of hemp milk, it is unlikely a great option for most people to consume every day, and other plant-based milks can provide similar nutritional value anyway.
Cashew milk is available in Australian supermarkets, but there is a much smaller range when compared to almond or soy milks. Cashew milk provides similar energy, carbohydrates and fat as regular dairy milk, however it is slightly lower in calcium, and is very low in protein. Although it provides a lovely nutty flavour that can add to smoothies or muesli, it isn’t nutritionally complete so calcium and protein do need to be consumed from other foods if choosing cashew milk as your alternative.
SO WHICH ONE IS THE BEST TO CHOOSE FROM?
Keep these 3 key tips in mind when choosing your milk:
- Dairy milk contains 300mg calcium per serving (250ml). Always look for a similar amount of calcium in a milk alternative to ensure adequate amounts of calcium are consumed in your diet to support bone health.
- Dairy milk contains around 8-9g of protein per serving. Look for similar numbers in a milk alternative to help increase protein in your diet for longer-lasting satiety and appetite control across the day.
- Look for milk alternatives with the lowest added sugars.
Overall, soy milk is the most nutritionally complete milk alternative that provides essential nutrients in the diet that our bodies need. Look for soy milks that have low added sugar, and choose lower fat varieties if that is your preference. Soy milk is a great way to boost the protein of your Zestee smoothies, while meeting your nutritional needs, and adds a subtle nutty flavour to your meals and drinks!
If you choose to use other milk alternatives, most are low in protein, so ensure that protein is consumed in adequate amounts in the rest of your diet.
Article written by:
Accredited Practicing Dietitian & Sports Dietitian - Australia, 2022
Note: all nutritional data is relevant and correct at time of writing. These can change over time.
1. Poppitt, S., 2020. Cow's Milk and Dairy Consumption: Is There Now Consensus for Cardiometabolic Health?. Frontiers in Nutrition,7.
2. Calorieking.com. 2022. Calories in Whole Milk (3.25% fat) | CalorieKing. [online] Available at: <https://www.calorieking.com/us/en/foods/f/calories-in-milk-flavored-milk-whole-milk-325-fat/zcQQ9zFNTCaxo59nc66KWw> [Accessed 15 July 2022].