If you have a lactose intolerance or cows’ milk protein allergy or you’re vegan, then dairy (or maybe lactose) free milks are undoubtedly for you. However, many people choose to avoid cows’ milk for other reasons. What are the alternatives and how do they compare nutritionally?
First things first: cows’ milk is great! It provides protein and calcium which help support bone and muscle health and it’s also a valuable source of iodine, which contributes to the growth of young children as well as supporting thyroid function. Given that there are few sources of iodine in the diet, if you can consume milk products, it would be advisable to do so regularly, particularly for young children. There is no evidence that avoiding dairy promotes health unless you have a lactose intolerance or cows’ milk protein allergy.
Even full fat milk is fairly low in fat at just 4% fat and there are plenty of lower fat alternatives in the form of semi-skimmed, 1% fat and skimmed milk. Furthermore, recent evidence suggests that consuming milk does not increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, so while cows’ milk is higher in fat and saturates than non-dairy alternatives, this may not be significant from a health perspective. Milk also provides a source of vitamins B1, B2 and B12 as well as potassium and phosphorus, so it’s a great all-rounder and including 3 portions of dairy in your diet each day can really boost your intake of all these valuable nutrients.
If you have an allergy or intolerance to cows’ milk or choose not to drink it for ethical or cultural reasons, what are the best alternatives? Take a look at the table below in which I’ve compared standard non-dairy milks with semi-skimmed cows’ milk (figures were taken from an online retailer’s website using brand leading products on 3rd Oct 2016).
|Calories per 100ml
|Sugars per 100ml
|Protein per 100ml
|Sat fat per 100ml
|Calcium per 100ml
|Iodine per 100ml
So you can see that soya milk easily wins the dairy-free milk contest with its protein content and it is also pretty low in saturates. Most milk alternatives come fortified with calcium and some will also have added vitamin B12 and vitamin D – make sure you look out for those fortified versions as avoiding dairy products means you could be missing out on vital micronutrients. There have been concerns over soya in the media recently, implying that the isoflavones in soya products can affect men’s health or thyroid function. This has only been shown in the lab and on rodents, at very high doses. Soya products are considered safe to eat under the UK’s Food Safety Act. For more information, check out the British Dietetic Association’s factsheet on soya.
It’s also best to choose unsweetened versions of dairy-free milks where possible. Some soya, almond and other alternative milks have added sugar which of course cows’ milk does not (the natural sugar content comes from lactose). Try to go for no added sugar versions to minimise your intake of free sugars (lactose is not a free sugar). And remember, rice milk should not be given to children under the age of 5.
Bear in mind though that many milk alternatives contain well over 90% water! An almond milk will usually contain only 2% almonds while a soya milk may be up to 8% soya beans. This means that you’re paying a lot of money for water and added vitamins and minerals! See my blog on The Truth About Almond Milk for more details.
In summary, if you’ve no medical or ethical reason to avoid cows’ milk, there’s no substitute nutritionally as it’s a great source of protein, calcium, B vitamins and iodine, with low fat and low saturated fat options available. If you need a dairy free alternative, unsweetened, fortified soya milk is the most nutritious option though you’ll still need to find alternative sources of iodine such as fish, shellfish or eggs.
Images downloaded from Unsplash.com: