If you need to remove dairy, or specifically milk, from your diet there are plenty of alternatives that don’t contain lactose or casein. A quick refresher: people who have an intolerance to dairy milk may react to the lactose (milk sugar) as it is a short-chain carbohydrate that is part of the FODMAP family and can be difficult to digest, causing abdominal and digestive discomfort.
It may also be that they are intolerant or allergic to the protein casein that is present in dairy products. However, regardless of whether you choose soy, almond, coconut, rice or oat milk, they aren’t as nutritionally complete as dairy milk.
Milk naturally contains protein, carbohydrate and calcium, three nutrients that are in negligible amounts in most alternatives. Milk is also a source of vitamins A, B2 and B12 and, with blue milk at 3.3 per cent fat, is naturally low in fat compared to other foods.
Most milk alternatives contain very little of these nutrients unless they are added (a process known as fortification). However, nutrients naturally present in food are typically more bioavailable compared to those added as part of the production process.
While you might expect a nut-based milk to be higher in fat, given the fat content of nuts, most commercially available nut milks have a very small percentage of actual nuts. For example, the highest content of almonds I’ve found in brands available in supermarkets is 7 per cent. Homemade nut-based milks can be a lot higher. The low fat content makes these milks very low-calorie too.
Across the board, most supermarket milk alternatives are little more than thinners to add to smoothies, hot drinks or to use in baking or chia-style puddings. The exception to this is soy milk, the only milk alternative on the market for years, which does have a higher fat content than almond, rice or oat milk.
Soy, however, contains phytoestrogens — similar in chemical structure to the hormone oestrogen — which has been the topic of some controversy over the years with regards to its effect both in men (in high doses, it has been linked with low sperm count and infertility) and women (with fertility issues, thyroid conditions and breast cancer risk).
In reality, plant-based phytoestrogens are not the concern when it comes to our health, it is the environmental xenoestrogens (again, similar in structure to oestrogen) found in plastics and pesticides that we are exposed to that can cause hormonal disruption and adverse health outcomes.
Despite that, soy milk may not be a good alternative to dairy for a lot of people. It does have a similar allergenic effect to dairy, which means that people who react to dairy may not tolerate it. The phytic acid in soy can bind other nutrients (such as iron, zinc and calcium), inhibiting our absorption of them, and industrially grown soy is heavily sprayed with pesticides.
A soy latte a week is neither here nor there, however these factors do give me pause before recommending it as the first go-to dairy alternative. Another factor to consider when purchasing milk alternatives is the presence of other ingredients.
My brand of choice, Pure Harvest, is made from organic almonds and just a handful of ingredients, none of which have been found to cause concern for most people unless they experience significant digestive problems.
Others deliver some questionable ingredients such as canola or sunflower oil, both heavily processed vegetable oils that are high in omega 6 fats, which promote inflammation, and additives such as carrageenan (also known as red seaweed extract).
This is added as an emulsifier to thicken yoghurts and milks and it has been linked to gastrointestinal inflammation in human scientific trials, as well as glucose intolerance, insulin resistance and the growth of cancer cells in animal trials. It is banned in some countries in Europe.
Opt for the unsweetened varieties as many have added cane sugar or glucose syrup, as do the varieties that have flavours added.
- Don't look at milk alternatives as a healthier addition to your diet. Think of them as useful, more than anything, and nice for a change if you're after a different flavour profile in your hot drink.
- They aren't a better choice than milk for anyone who can tolerate dairy, and the substitution of dairy for children could also reduce the availability of nutrients important for growth and development.
- Check the ingredient list for the addition of ingredients that you don't recognise, and opt for the unsweetened and unflavoured ones.
If you want to try your hand at making a milk alternative at home, try my recipe for nut milk