Your guide to milk alternatives

We are the only species that drinks the milk of other species. It’s a bit weird when you think of it that way, yet throughout history — and still in many parts of the world — milk and its products from the cow, goat, sheep, camel, buffalo, horse, reindeer and yak have been important sources of calcium, vitamins A, C, D and E, as well as B vitamins, CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), healthy fats and complete protein.

There are strong arguments against drinking animal milk, however. Apart from those related to veganism and the question of whether it’s natural to drink milk past infancy, most come down to the effects of pasteurisation and homogenisation on the natural food.

For example, people who are lactose intolerant might be able to drink raw milk because it contains lactase, which helps to digest lactose. If raw milk was legal, that is — which it is not. The treatment processes destroy many of the vitamins and important enzymes, oxidise the fats and denature the proteins, causing allergic responses. However, while raw milk remains illegal, people will seek alternatives. These include soy, coconut, almond, oat, hemp and rice milks.

Which you choose depends on how you want to use it — on your porridge, in your tea or coffee, for cooking or guzzled from a glass — as well as nutritional considerations and taste preferences. Soy milk is a subject on its own, as is coconut milk. Hemp milk is not so widely used as the others but looks promising for its nutritional value and good flavour. Let’s look at those made from nuts and grains.

Almond milk

The basic unflavoured almond milk is made by soaking and grinding the nuts, mixing with water and straining. Almonds are rich in magnesium, potassium, manganese, copper and the antioxidants vitamin E and selenium, so it’s reasonably nutritious. According to a 2012 Choice comparison of non-dairy milks, “Almond milk contains the same heart-healthy fats as olive oil and is naturally low in kilojoules and saturated fat.” It has a moderate amount of protein but, despite its naturally nutty, sweet taste, is often sweetened with sugar or agave or rice syrups. While almonds do contain some calcium, their milk needs to be fortified to offer the same level cow’s milk would provide. Almond milk is popular on taste alone but is likely to be unsuitable for those with a nut allergy.

Oat milk

Oat milk is made in a similar way to almond milk, by soaking oat groats in water and straining. Oats contain calcium and iron as well as phosphorus, manganese, potassium and vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B6 and B12. The Choice survey found oat milk to be “relatively low in fat and saturated fat and offering a moderate amount of protein”. It also contains cholesterol-lowering beta-glucan, a type of soluble fibre that helps to fight diseases such as cancer, heart disease and stroke. However, oat milk may not be suitable for people with gluten intolerance and, again, it is usually fortified with calcium.

Rice milk

Rice milk, the most hypoallergenic, is made from boiled brown rice that’s blended and strained. Unsweetened, it contains sucrose but no fructose. It’s also low in fat and saturated fat, but is poor in protein, fibre and calcium, unless fortified. It often has added niacin, vitamin B12, vitamin A, vitamin D and iron. Rice milk is naturally high in sugars, so many people like the taste, but really it’s pretty much just a source of carbs and probably rates lowest for nutrients in its unfortified state. It’s rather watery — less creamy than almond or oat milk — so thickening agents are sometimes added as well. This milk is fine for cooking, on cereal or in smoothies (bearing in mind the sugar content).


Given that all these drinks need fortifying in some way or another to match the stuff from the cow, it can be argued that in their basic state they don’t deliver the nutritional benefits of natural dairy milk. There is also some concern over the polyunsaturated vegetable oils present in them, which may upset the balance of essential fatty acids in your body and perhaps be worse for you than healthy, omega-3-rich fats from organically raised, pasture-fed animals. Plus, you need to look out for added sugar and, surprisingly, salt.

In short, you need to read the labels to find the good and the bad of alternative milks. For some people, that fact in itself doesn’t speak well of a food. All of them can be made at home, but then they won’t have the benefits of fortification. Finally, they won’t work that well in your tea or coffee — but they will make a nice smoothie or cereal milk and can be used in soups and other cooked dishes.

Kerry Boyne

Kerry Boyne

Kerry Boyne loves good food and is the managing editor of WellBeing.

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