Which type of milk is best for you?

Soy, oat, coconut, almond, hazelnut, macadamia, rice, pea, dairy… popping out for milk is no longer the grab-and-go task it used to be.

With a mind-boggling array of dairy and plant-based milks available, it can feel like you need a degree in nutrition to work out which is best for you.

So what do experts recommend when it comes to healthy milk choices?

Firstly, is there any benefit in dairy-free milk?

“Plant-based milk alternatives have gone mainstream and are no longer just for the hipster café crowd,” says Swinburne University of Technology dietetics lecturer Leah Dowling.

“A general shift towards more plant-based eating is likely a contributing factor.”

And sometimes it’s about health, adds dietitian Rebecca Flavel.

“Dairy-free alternatives can be suitable for people who find cow’s milk hard to digest or who have allergies,” Rebecca says.

Health pros and cons of different types of milk

Dairy milk

Figures from Dairy Australia show Aussies consume 98.6 litres of fresh milk each per year.

Both our experts agree milk is an excellent source of protein, vitamins and minerals, particularly calcium, and is recognised for its important role in bone health.

“Although dairy foods do contain some saturated fats, these don’t seem to be overly problematic for heart health,” Leah says.

A large 2018 study found dairy consumption was associated with lower risk of heart disease and death.

Soy milk

Love a soy latte?

A 2017 study found that nutritionally, soy beverages fare better than alternatives including almond, rice and coconut milk.

“Most soy drinks are fortified with calcium and typically contains more protein than other plant-based milks, as well as healthy unsaturated fats and fibre,” Leah reveals.

She says speculation around potential adverse effects of phytoestrogens (natural compounds contained in soy) on men’s reproductive hormones following early animal studies weren’t supported in human studies, while a 2019 review found soy to be more beneficial than harmful.

Rice milk

Rice milk is a popular choice for vegetarians and vegans.

“It can be good for those who are lactose intolerant or have allergies to dairy milk, soy or nuts,” Rebecca explains.

However, it’s naturally high in carbs and sugars and has a high glycaemic index (meaning glucose is quickly released into the blood), therefore it may not be suitable for diabetics.

“It’s also particularly low in protein and needs to be calcium fortified,” Leah cautions.

“So it’s not suitable for young children or those with high nutritional requirements such as adolescents and the elderly.”

Almond milk

On the plus side, almond milk contains some healthy unsaturated fats as well as vitamin E, manganese, zinc and potassium.

“However, nut drinks such as almond consist mainly of ground nuts and water,” Leah says. “Despite almonds being a good source of protein, almond drink is significantly lower in protein and calcium – unless fortified – than dairy.”

Oat milk

Another popular dairy-free and vegan-friendly milk substitute, oat milk is a source of fibre, vitamin E, folate and riboflavin and is low in fat and naturally sweet say our dietitians.

“Some oat drinks can contain up to double the carbs of dairy so may not be suitable for diabetics and tend to be low in protein and calcium, so make sure it’s fortified,” Leah says.

Coconut milk

Coconut milk is not made from the liquid inside the nut, but rather the extract of freshly grated flesh.

“Coconut milk is low in protein and carbohydrates and high in saturated fat,” Rebecca says, adding that, in a similar way to nut drinks, it doesn’t naturally contain calcium.

Take-home milk tips

Look for fortified and preferably unsweetened brands if possible, our experts recommend.

“If you are looking to replace cow’s milk with a plant-based alternative, look for a calcium content as close to 115-120mg per 100ml (or 300ml per cup) as possible, as this is similar to dairy,” Leah advises.

Written by Liz McGrath.