It’s becoming more common for people to have alternatives to cow’s milk in their diet, with almost a quarter of Britons consuming the plant-based alternatives. We’re also seeing the impacts of this throughout modern society, from coffee shops offering an oat milk cappuccino to supermarkets stacking their shelves with an ever growing selection of dairy free alternatives. The market is expanding at quite a pace, with sales of alternative milks increasing 10% over the past two years. But there can also be some confusion as to what the differences between the varieties of alternatives are and which one would be best for you and your health and nutrition needs.
There are many reasons to switch from cows milk to a dairy free alternative, be that entirely or just to reduce the amount of dairy you consume. For some it’s a medical condition such as lactose or dairy intolerance that drives the change; for others, it’s an ethical decision or simply a matter of taste. Whatever your motivation, it’s important to find which suits you best, to ensure you meet your nutritional requirements.
Soya, almond, coconut, oat, rice, and hemp are the some of the most common dairy free milk alternatives, all offering various nutritional values. Anthony Glock, physiologist at AXA Health, guides us through some key aspects for you to consider when choosing an alternative.
“Cows’ milk is a great source of protein, which is an important component of the diet and essential for muscle repair and growth as well as keeping our bones strong,” says Anthony. Compared to plant-based milks, cows’ milk has the highest amount of protein (8g) per serving; soya comes in second with similar levels at 7g. The rest of the dairy free milks that are available don’t contain much at all; coconut, hemp, rice, oat and almond milk have very little to no protein, with a maximum of 1g per serving.
“It’s also worth mentioning that cows’ milk has a good amount of leucine, while soya has very little. Leucine is an amino acid, which is largely used for triggering the essential process of protein synthesis within the body”. Cows’ milk is, in terms of protein content, better for those who do a lot of strength training and are looking to enhance muscle growth, but if you want to remove cow’s milk, there are many alternative ways to meet your protein needs – including soya milk as a good alternative!
Most of the non-dairy alternatives, if unsweetened, are much lower in sugar than cows’ milk; however, the sweetened and flavoured varieties can have up to as much as 20g of sugar per serving, which is up to 80 calories from sugar alone. Rice milk is the most comparable to cows’ milk in terms of sugar content, before it is sweetened or flavoured. “The more sugar that is added and present in our diets, the increased risk we have of developing type 2 diabetes, due to greater increases in our blood sugar levels and insulin response after consumption” Anthony points out. So whichever you choose, try and go for the unsweetened version (and avoid the ones where sugar is listed in the first few ingredients!) and sweeten up your food in other, nutritionally beneficial ways, such as adding blueberries to your porridge.
Full fat cows’ milk is highest in fat content at 9g, while skimmed cows’ milk, at just 1g, has the lowest amount of fat compared to the other milks. 1% fat cows’ milk (which sits at 2.5g per serving) is similar in fat content to the other milk alternatives, other than soya which has the highest fat content of the plant-based milks, with 4g per serving. Soya does, however, contain Omega-3, which is known as a good fat (unsaturated) and is required for keeping our hearts healthy. While the unflavoured and unsweetened varieties are similar to the 1% cows’ milk, they are higher in fat when sweetened and flavoured. This contributes to an increase in the caloric content of the milk.
Cows’ milk is also higher in saturated fats than most dairy free alternatives, although coconut can have similar amounts – and sometimes more. It’s important to check the food labels on coconut milk to see if that particular brand is high in saturates. Saturates are the fat that have the potential to have a negative effect on our cholesterol and may lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. If you want to find out more about the different types of fats and what they mean as well as some quick and easy tips, take a look at our different types of fats article.
The calorie content of each of the milk alternatives varies considerably, so if you’re monitoring your calorie intake there are a few things to take into account. Not only does the main ingredient itself affect the calories, so does whether the drink is sweetened or unsweetened; we know that sweetened versions are higher in sugar and therefore calories. Almond milk is one of the lowest calorie milk substitutes, especially the unsweetened version which sits at around 13kcal per 100ml. If you opt for unsweetened versions, the calories will most likely be less than in full fat cow’s milk (which contains around 64 per 100ml) – but remember, taste is important in helping you make your decision. It’s no good going for the lowest calorie version if you really can’t stand it! Again, this depends on your preferences and relies on a bit of research.
Calcium is an important mineral for the body; it is involved in keeping bones and teeth strong, but it also plays a crucial role in muscle contractions. And while we know that cows’ milk is a great source of calcium and many other vitamins, you definitely don’t have to sacrifice this when moving to dairy free alternatives; you just need to make sure they are fortified with these. Anthony explains that “cows’ milk contains about 30% of our daily calcium requirement per serving and other milks, if not fortified, only have about 0.5-5% of the recommended daily amount. If they are fortified, they’ll have a comparable amount of calcium to cows’ milk. Fortification isn’t bad, it’s just the process of adding essential vitamins and minerals to foods to ensure that we’re achieving the recommended daily intake of these micronutrients.”
Cows’ milk contains naturally occurring vitamins such as vitamin A, D and B12 but the dairy free alternatives need to be fortified. When fortified, they all have a very similar number of vitamins, so cows’ milk can be swapped for soya, rice, oat, coconut or almond milk and still provide essential micronutrients. In fact, some of the dairy free milk alternatives have greater amounts of other vitamins, such as vitamin E, particularly present in soya and almond milk. Vitamin E is needed for healthy skin and eyes, but also is important in keeping our immune system working to prevent illnesses and infections.
Another factor to consider is that milk alternatives are, more often than not, more expensive than cows’ milk, with some brands racking up to nearly £3 for 1L. Long-life versions of the milk alternatives are available for the majority, so you can buy in bulk if they are on sale. Many supermarkets do their own ranges of the more popular varieties (soya, almond and coconut) which cost less than the branded alternatives, so there are ways to keep the cost down to help you on your way to better health. This may be something to consider when deciding which alternative to switch to.
This aspect of making a change to your milk or dairy product consumption is a bit of trial and error. They all have differing flavours; some of which are quite distinct, but the switch can really add something to your food, when added to smoothies or used in baking, for example. If you find several of the alternatives meet your health and wellbeing needs, you may need to try a variety to see which one you like best. You could find something you prefer to have with your morning cereal!
Some other factors to consider
Finlay Haswell, fellow physiologist at AXA Health, adds her thoughts on some other key things to think about when it comes to choosing your dairy free alternative.
Soya milk’s nutritional makeup is a close non-dairy substitute for cows’ milk, as it contains similar amounts of protein (although has around half the number of calories, fats and carbohydrates). It is one of the few plant-based sources of high-quality “complete” protein which provides all the essential amino acids.
If you are diabetic or pre-diabetic, “it’s recommended that you avoid rice milk, as it has a high glycemic index (GI), meaning that it’s quickly absorbed and rapidly raises blood sugar levels.”
Also, if you limit your animal produce intake or avoid it entirely, Finlay recommends opting for milk fortified with Vitamin B12, which is essential for a healthy brain and immune system. Vitamin B12 is mainly found in animal products, so if you’re excluding these from your diet, be sure to find other ways to get your B12!
If you’re also switching up your tea and coffee milk choices, this can add another layer of complication to the mix. Not only does it again depend on taste and personal preference, there’s the fact that some of the alternatives are at risk of curdling in the hotter liquid or that they just don’t pair so well. For the lowdown on coffee, we’d recommend having a read of this article on dairy free milk alternatives in coffee from Wellbeing publication Balance.
1. Be careful to make sure that, whichever alternative you choose to switch to, you go for one fortified with calcium and other vitamins to ensure you’re not losing vital nutrient intake.
2. Be mindful of sugar intake, which has potential to increase when switching to a dairy free milk alternative. Go for the unsweetened versions – the sweetened ones can have relatively high proportions of sugar added.
3. While cow’s milk does have the highest amount of protein, soya comes in at a close second. Some alternatives contain very little protein so be conscious of this, especially if you consume higher amounts of cow’s milk that you are switching out.
4. When it comes to taste, this is a trial and error situation!
It’s a lot to consider when thinking about a seemingly straight forward change, but with the right research and testing, you can find the best alternative for you, whatever your reason for wanting to change from cows’ milk.
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