Long gone are the days when the only questions we had about milk were whether to choose low fat or full fat. Now, you’ll find both the refrigerated and long-life shelves stocked up with almost every variety of milk (or ‘mylk’) you can think of!

 

 

So with so many options out there, what actually is a nutritious choice?

Ultimately it comes down to what your goals, priorities and values are. If you are looking to improve your cholesterol levels, a milk choice with a low saturated fat level is what you want to opt for. If you are trying to manage dietary intolerances, you’ll want to pay attention to the ingredients list and look out for triggering ingredients. For those who are looking to prioritise ethical consideration and have minimal environmental impact, the sourcing and production of the milk may influence your choice.

Here we have broken down the most common milk/mylk varieties you’ll find on the supermarket shelves to help you make an informed decision on the best milk for you. FODMAP levels, protein, calcium and environmental factors are all explored.

Cow’s milk: The original

Top points for:

An A-grade nutritional profile! Traditional cow’s milk is where you’ll find an excellent source of good quality protein, a decent amount of carbs and a good variety of micronutrients such as calcium and B vitamins (including vitamin B12).

Who can benefit drinking it?

Anyone who tolerates dairy well and wants to prioritise their protein and calcium intake. This would include children, people looking to gain muscle and those looking to prevent muscle loss and loss of bone mineral density in older age.

Low-fat or full-fat?

This choice is up to you and depends on your goals and personal taste preference. Full-fat milk contains 3.5g fat per 100mL, most if which is saturated fat. Low or reduced-fat milk contains 1.3g fat per 100mL. Then there is also skim-milk, which contains virtually no fat (0.3g per 100mL). Infants under the age of 2 years are best to have full-fat milk, to support their nutritional needs and growth. Children over this age can drink either full-fat or low-fat milk. It is worth noting that the fat content of full-fat milk, is likely going to be more satiating and filling, which may be a benefit to those who find themselves getting hungry and snacking often.

The Australian Heart Foundation recently updated their recommendations regarding dairy. The previous restriction on full-fat diary for all individuals was removed. Now the gudelines recommend that healthy individuals can include unflavoured full-fat milk, cheese and yoghurt as part of a balance diet. However, people who are at risk of heart disease (ie. those with high cholesterol levels) are advised to stick to low-fat dairy over full-fat. Unflavoured and unsweetened dairy products are best to opt for.

When to make a different choice? More and more people are turning away from dairy as they find it triggers signs of poor tolerance. There are a few reasons why diary milk can trigger symptoms (from gut discomfort to skin flare ups) in people. If you think this is you, before completely eliminating all dairy, it’s important to understand what compound in dairy milk is causing you to react.

Tips for a sensitive gut:

A common culprit is lactose, the carbohydrate in milk, although some people are more sensitive to the protein component in dairy (such as the A1 beta-casein protein). When people experience symptoms from these compounds, they are generally considered to have an intolerance, rather than an allergy. This means they may be able to tolerate small amounts (such as a dash of milk in tea) before experiencing symptoms. Options for people with these sensitivities that enable them to still drink cow’s milk include lactose-free milk and A2 cow’s milk.

People with a diagnosed dairy allergy should opt for an alternative milk choice. However, individuals who are intolerant to lactose can still consume dairy products that are low in lactose or lactose-free. If you’re following a vegan diet or are looking to prioritise environmental concerns with food choices, keep reading to learn about the best alternative milks from a nutritional perspective.

Soy milk: The plant-based champion

Top points for:

Providing a pack of plant protein. Soy milk has similar macronutrient profile to cow’s milk and some varieties are fortified with micronutrients such as calcium, making them a great alternative option to cow’s milk. 

Who can benefit drinking it?

Anyone who wants to consume a more plant-based diet, while also ticking boxes for protein and calcium (when fortified) intake. There are many claims around soy being bad for hormones but in reality the studies that indicate side effects from soy have involved consuming very large amounts and unrealistic amounts (up to 12 servings of soy per day).

When to make a different choice? If you have a soy allergy or intolerance. It’s also worth mentioning that some people (particularly those with Irritable Bowel Syndrome) can experience digestive symptoms from galacto-oligosaccharides, the FODMAP found in soybeans. For these people, it is best to opt for soy milk made from soy protein which is low FODMAP, compared to those made from whole soy beans. Soy milk ranks quite well in terms of relatively low emissions, land and water used to produce it. If the soy beans used are grown locally it makes for an even better environmental choice.

Almond milk: The versatile favourite

Top points for:

Becoming so popular that you can find almond milk at almost any café now. Despite the name, most almond milks generally contain a large amount of water and only a very small amount of almonds (around 2.5%). So drinking almond milk is not quite the same as eating a handful of almonds. It doesn’t offer a lot in terms of nutritional value and is a low-calorie option, however some varieties are fortified with calcium, vitamin B12 and more recently, added soy or pea protein powders. If choosing this as your main milk, opt for an unsweetened version that is fortified with calcium but remember you won’t be able to rely on it as a protein source unless you choose one of the added-protein varieties.

Who can benefit drinking it?

Those who have dairy or soy intolerances or allergies and prefer the taste of almond milk. It’s also an option for a plant-based milk on the low FODMAP diet.

When to make a different choice?

If you have a tree nut allergy, steer clear of almond milk. If you want your coffee, post-workout smoothie or creamy porridge to provide you with some protein, you may be better off with a different milk and munching on whole almonds for a snack. Environmentally, there are some concerns about the large amount of water used to produce almonds.

Oat milk: The newer kid on the block

Top points for:

Being an environmentally sustainable option with a nice creamy taste. Compared to other varieties like almond, soy and dairy milk, oats use less land, water and greenhouse gas emissions to grow and produce. Oat milk contains a form of fibre called beta-glucan which has beneficial effects on lowering cholesterol, yet this fibre can be obtained from oats on their own. Nutritionally, oat milk is low in protein and high in carbs.

Who can benefit drinking it?

For the environmentally-focused plant-based advocate oat milk might be up your alley, particularly in coffee as it goes well there. If you want to mix up your milk choice and get a good hit of carbs to fuel exercise, you may like to try oat milk. Be aware that many oat milks are sweetened, so aim to opt for an unsweetened, calcium-fortified one.

When to make a different choice?

Oat milk is not a good choice for anyone with coeliac disease, as oats are not considered to be gluten free in Australia and there is a risk of gluten contamination in the production of oats. Oat milk is only low FODMAP at half a cup, so if you are on the low FODMAP diet, it’s better to choose an alternative for your primary milk. Again, if protein is your priority in milk, then soy would make a better choice.

Pea milk: The one none of us were expecting

Top points for:

A plant milk that is designed to be very similar in the nutritional makeup to dairy. The pea milk we’re referring to here is “Like Milk”. While pea milk may sound weird, it’s made of water, pea protein (which you’ll find in many vegan protein powders) and some added nutrients and stabilisers. It’s a great source of protein, containing all nine essential amino acids, including a good dose of leucine (an amino acid particularly important for maximising muscle protein synthesis). It also ticks boxes of being fortified with calcium, phosphorus, vitamins A, D, B2, B12.

Who can benefit drinking it?

Anyone following a vegan diet (you’ll get a nice hit of protein + B12) or those needing to go for a lactose, nut or soy -free choice to manage food allergies or intolerances. It’s also likely to be well tolerated for people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome as it uses contains an isolated pea protein.

When to make a different choice?

It probably comes down to the taste and price here. If it’s not your cup of tea, other options described above might be more suitable. In terms of sustainability, pea milk gets lots of ticks as peas use less water to produce than almonds or dairy. Pea crops can also be used to nourish soil and reduce the need for artificial fertilisers which is great, especially if they are locally-grown peas.  

Coconut milk: The flavoursome choice

Top points for:

A flavour that makes you feel like you’re on holidays in the tropics. Aside from flavour, coconut milk doesn’t offer a whole lot nutritionally. It has quite a high amount of saturated fat and calories without providing much protein.

Who can benefit drinking it?

Enjoy coconut milk from time to time to make a fresh tropical smoothie, a coco-nutty flavoured latté or add drinking coconut milk to a homemade Thai or Indian curry for a lighter dairy-free alternative to coconut cream.

When to make a different choice?

If you looking to move away from dairy due to an intolerance, allergy or environmental reasons, coconut milk isn’t really the “superfood” choice it might be made out as. For a regular go-to plant milk, there are more nutritious varieties to choose (see above).

Rice milk: The allergen friendly option

Top points for:

Being possibly the safest milk choice for all food allergies, intolerances and sensitivities. You won’t find the most common allergens in rice milk, so it ticks the boxes for anyone needing a milk free from dairy, nuts, soy, gluten, lactose or a low FODMAP option. Many rice milks are fortified with calcium, which is great, but make sure to check the label to confirm. For a milk it’s very high in carbohydrate and low in fat and protein, so you’ll need to rely on other foods for protein.

Who can benefit drinking it?

It’s a good option for people with allergies to dairy, soy or nuts. Opt for an unsweetened rice milk and make sure to choose a calcium fortified variety and if drinking regularly, consider adding a protein powder to your drink or fill up on protein sources from other foods in your diet.

When to make a different choice?

If you don’t need to drink rice milk, then you’re better of choosing something else. For those with diabetes, rice milk is less favourable due to its high carbohydrate content. If you think you are intolerant to dairy or soy, always check with your doctor and a dietitian with expertise in food sensitivities, as there may be a simple swap you can make before jumping to rice milk. For example, choosing a lactose-free milk or soy-protein based milk if your sensitive to the FODMAPs found in whole soy beans, which will still provide a nutritious option. Similar to almonds, rice requires a lot of water to grow, which puts a dent in its environmental ranking.

Shake the bottle!

Studies on fortified drinks, suggest that the fortified nutrients, such as calcium, can separated and settle to the bottom of the container.[1] For this reason, it’s always a good idea to shake containers of calcium-fortified plant based milks very well before pouring.

Endless milk varieties

The growth in plant-based milks is undeniable. There are a number of new varieties frequently appearing on the shelves. We’ve focussed here on the most common options, but you may have come across others such as hemp, macadamia and even quinoa milk. Nutritionally, these generally stack up similarly to almond milk, being mostly composed of water. If choosing these on the regular, check the ingredients and nutrition information panel for fortified nutrients.

So there we have it, your complete guide to milk and milk alternatives. As you can see, there are numerous varieties to choose from. The best milk choice for you will depend on your body’s individual dietary needs while taking into account dietary intolerances and the environmental impact where relevant.

References:

  1. Rafferty K, Walters G, Heaney RP. Calcium Fortificants: Overview and Strategies for Improving Calcium Nutriture of the U.S. Population; J Food Sci; 2007 Nov;72(9):R152-8.

Written by Rebecca Ponsford, Accredited Practising Dietitian from FODMAP Nutrition & Dietetics.

Which is the Best Milk Choice? – A complete review on FODMAPs, protein and environmental factors
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