A trip to the supermarket presents shoppers with an overwhelming number of milk choices. And far from just being the domain of the modern hipster, plant-based milk alternatives are going mainstream.
These alternatives may be suitable for people who are intolerant to dairy milk, or have ethical or other personal preferences. They tend to be lower in saturated fats and energy than dairy milk, but also lower in protein (except soy) and calcium (unless fortified). Some are also high in added sugars.
Milk provides us with important nutrients including calcium, protein, vitamin B12, vitamin A, vitamin D, riboflavin (B2), zinc, phosphorus and iodine. The quantity and quality of dairy proteins is high, with both whey and casein containing all nine essential amino acids. Milk plays an important role in bone health and is a particularly rich source of dietary calcium.
If you’re seeking a dairy-free alternative, then soy is a good choice (though some people may be intolerant to soy). It’s made from ground soy beans or soy protein powder, water and vegetable oils and is usually fortified with vitamins and minerals including calcium.
Nut drinks such as almond consist mainly of ground nuts and water. Despite almonds being a good plant source of protein, almond drink is significantly lower in protein and calcium than dairy. Consumers should take care with almond drink to ensure essential nutrients are met elsewhere in the diet.
Oat milk is made by blending oats and water and straining off the liquid. It’s a source of fibre, vitamin E, folate and riboflavin. It’s low in fat and is naturally sweet, containing double the carbohydrates of dairy, so it may not be suitable for people with diabetes.
Coconut milk is low in protein and carbohydrates, and high in saturated fat. Some brands have added sugars. Similar to nut drinks, it doesn’t naturally contain calcium and isn’t a suitable substitute for dairy milk nutritionally.
Rice drink is produced from milled rice and water. It’s naturally high in carbohydrate and sugars, and has a high glycaemic index meaning the glucose is quickly released into the blood which may mean it’s not suitable for people with diabetes. It’s also particularly low in protein and needs to be calcium fortified.
Ultimately, when deciding which plant-based alternative to drink, you should choose fortified and preferably unsweetened varieties. Also, look for those with a calcium content as close to 115-120mg per 100ml (or 300mg per cup) as possible, as this is similar to dairy milk.