Plant milks have become very popular and I am often asked which one I recommend. Cow’s milk is actually my preferred milk. It is a great source of minerals (including calcium) and protein. It also has a good balance of electrolytes which makes it great for re-hydration. Dairy products also help protect our teeth, which is a benefit we don’t see in plant sources that have been fortified with calcium.
Obviously, not everyone is lucky enough to tolerate regular cow’s milk. Some people don’t like the taste, some don’t consume animal products and others like a bit of variety. So luckily we are spoilt for choice with plant-based milks in Australia. But nutrition myths and marketing hype can make choosing a plant milk very difficult.
Types of Milk
Plant milks are often promoted as a healthier alternative to cow’s milk. This is only the case if you have trouble digesting cow’s milk. These milks are not a natural wholefood. They’re not pressed extract straight from the plant. They’re manufactured, mostly water and often contain added sugar, oil, thickeners and gums.
Made from raw almonds and water, almond milk contains no lactose or animal products. While this milk is a source of vitamin E, selenium and manganese, it depends on how much is actually almonds. Almond content varies from 2-10%, so it pays to read the labels. The rest is water and sometimes thickeners, flavour and mineral salts. It contains hardly any protein or calcium naturally. Home-made almond milks contain more almonds (around 18%). Even with a higher amount of almonds it is still very low in calcium and is not as beneficial as actually eating almonds. Most almond milks are not suitable for toddlers under 2 years as they do not contain enough protein or fat and many are unfortified. Almond milk is low GI.
Coconut milk is made with water and 10-15% coconut. Coconut cream made by grinding dried coconut, boiling it in water and then straining it. Coconut milk for drinking (in carton, not the cans for cooking) is made by diluting coconut cream with water. Usually vegetable oils, mineral salts and thickeners are added too. The end product contains 5-20% of the original coconut cream or milk. Some also have flavour added to enhance the coconut taste. They don’t contain lactose or nuts. Look for one with the least amount of added ingredients and that is fortified with calcium.
Oat milk is made from water and around 15% oats with some oil, thickeners and salt. They are lactose and nut free but may gluten. Oat milk has a medium GI and contains a little bit of fibre. Look for one with no added sugar and that is fortified with calcium. Oat milk doesn’t have any protein or fats so isn’t a good choice for toddlers.
Rice milk is made from water and 10-15% brown rice. It is made by cooking rice in water and blending it so they they tend to high carbohydrate and very by high GI. They are lactose and nut. Look for one that’s made from brown rice and not rice protein and that is fortified with calcium. Rice milk isn’t a good option if you’re diabetic, have insulin resistance or are trying to lose weight. Rice milk is also unsuitable for toddlers as it does not contain any protein or fats.
The most common alternative milk, soy milk is made from soybeans or soy protein isolate. There lots of soy milks available, many of them fortified to create a milk similar to cow’s milk. They’re naturally higher in protein than other plant milks and have a low GI. Soy products contain phytoestrogens. These compounds act a little bit like estrogen, but not enough to cause problems for men or women who have soy products every day. In fact, soy may actually reduce our risk of some cancers (you can read a little more about that here). Soy milk is the preferred plant milk for toddlers and children who cannot have cow’s milk.
Pea Protein Milk
A newcomer to the plant milk market is the AO Like Milk pea protein milk. It is made from 4% pea protein isolate that is, the protein has been extracted from peas – it doens’t contain peas. The rest is water and added vitamins and minerals. It has some protein, but no fat. This could be one to try if you don’t like soy milk, but as it again, this isn’t good for toddlers as it has no fats.
Choosing a milk
Choosing a plant milk based on the ingredients list is a good start – the shorter the better and without added sugars and oils. Most plant milks are low in protein (except soy). They do not naturally contain Vitamin B12 and only trace amounts of minerals like calcium. So, you also need to make sure it is fortified or enriched with calcium. Some varieties are also fortified with phosphorus and vitamin D which go hand-in-hand with calcium for healthy bones. Plant milks that have been fortified with Vitamin B12 are great if you don’t eat dairy or meat often. Vitamin B12 is essential and is only found in animal products or fortified vegan products like tofu and plant milk.
The added calcium is less important for you if you only have small amounts of plant milks sometimes and regularly consume dairy. If you rarely or never consume dairy then it’s important you choose one that is fortified with 120mg calcium per 100g*. I’ve included a full-cream, a hilo and a skim cow’s milk too for comparison. The sugar you see in cow’s milk isn’t added sugars, it’s lactose (naturally occurring milk sugars) whereas in the plant milks it is mostly added sugars. The higher amount of lactose you see in skim milk is simply due to fat being removed. It means there is more milk that contains the minerals and lactose!
Comparison of Plant Milks per 100ml
|Sat Fat |
|Almond Breeze Unsweetened||$2.50||67||0.5||1.2||0.1||0.1||75|
|Australia's Own Organic Almond Milk||$3.80||150||0.6||2.8||0.2||2.0||70|
|Australia's Own Organic Almond Milk Unsweetened||$3.80||92||0.6||2.1||0.2||0.1||0|
|Australia's Own Organic Rice Milk||$2.75||272||0.6||1.0||0.1||4.2||120|
|Australia's Own Organic Soy Milk Unsweetened||$2.75||180||2.0||3.0||0.4||2.0||0|
|Browne's Full Cream Milk||$1.89||267||3.2||3.6||2.4||4.7||120|
|Browne's Hilo Milk||$2.05||195||3.3||1.5||1.0||4.9||120|
|Browne's Skim Milk||$2.15||97||3.8||0.1||<0.1||5.5||141|
|Calafia Unsweetened Almond Milk||$5.32||67||0.5||1.3||0.1||0.1||189|
|Coles Almond Milk Unsweetened||$2.30||75||0.7||1.4||0.1||0.1||70|
|Inside Out Almond Milk Unsweetened||$5.95||130||1.6||2.6||0.2||0.4||0|
|Inside Out Almond and Coconut||$5.95||149||0.9||3.2||2.2||0.9||0|
|Nutty Bruce Activated Almond Milk||$5.00||202||<1||2||<1||0.02||0|
|Nutty Bruce Coconut Milk||$5.00||101||2||2||2||<1||0|
|Nutty Bruce Almond and Coconut Milk||$5.00||284||4.6||4||1.1||2||0|
|Pure Harvest Activated Almond Milk||$3.40||123||0.3||0.8||0.3||2.4||0|
|Pure Harvest Aussie Dream Rice Milk Unsweetened||$2.20||236||0.4||1.1||0.1||5.8||1|
|Pure Harvest Coco Quench Coconut Milk||$3.85||262||0.6||3.2||2.3||3.8||5.1|
|Pure Harvest Oat Milk Unsweetened||$3.14||237||2.1||1.8||0.3||3.7||0|
|Pure Harvest Unsweetened Activated Almond Milk||$3.40||121||0.65||1.78||0.2||1.1||0|
|So Good Almond and Coconut Milk Unsweetened||$3.30||72||0.5||1.5||0.3||0.2||120|
|So Good Almond Milk Regular||$3.30||123||0.1||0.6||1.4||3.4||120|
|So Good Almond Milk Unsweetened||$3.30||69||0.6||1.4||0.1||0.1||120|
|So Good Coconut Milk Unsweetened||$3.30||142||0.2||3.4||2.2||0.6||75|
|So Good Soy Milk||$1.80||273||3.2||3.5||0.4||2.0||160|
|So Good Soy Milk Unsweetened||$1.80||183||3.3||3.4||0.4||0.0||120|
|So Good Soy Milk Fat Free||$1.79||143||3.1||0.0||0.0||2.0||120|
|Vitasoy Almond Milk Unsweetened||$3.80||84||0.7||1.8||0.2||0.1||120|
|Vitasoy Oatmilk Bone Essentials||$3.00||256||1.0||1.0||0.2||1.5||120|
|Vitasoy Oatmilk Original||$3.00||298||0.9||2.0||0.3||1.8||120|
|Vitasoy Rice Milk Original||$3.00||209||0.3||1.2||0.1||5.8||120|
|Vitasoy Rice Milk Enriched||$3.00||231||1.5||1.2||0.1||5.8||120|
|Woolworths Select Rice Milk||$1.75||201||0.3||0.4||0.1||3.6||0|
|AO Like Milk||$4||120||3.5||0||0||3.2||120|
|AO Like Milk Unsweetened||$4||68||3.5||0||0||0.1||120|
RRP correct as of September 2017 from Coles and Woolworths online.
Plant milks with vitamin B12
Of the products in the table above, these ones are fortified with extra vitamins and minerals for bone health:
- So Good Almond and Coconut Milk Unsweetened – Vitamin B12: 0.4ug + Phosphorus: 73mg
- So Good Almond Milk Regular – Vitamin B12: 0.4ug + Phosphorus: 100mg + Vitamin D: 2.0ug
- So Good Almond Milk Unsweetened – Vitamin B12: 0.4ug + Phosphorus: 75mg
- So Good Soy Milk Fat Free – Vitamin B12: 0.4ug + Phosphorus: 100mg + Vitamin D: 0.5ug
- Vitasoy Oatmilk Bone Essentials – Vitamin B12: 0.5ug + Phosphorus: 78mg
I highly recommend one of these with the added B12 if you follow a vegan diet or don’t eat much meat and dairy. Otherwise, have your B12 levels checked by your GP a few times a year to make sure you don’t need a supplement.
*You do not need to have dairy or fortified milk in your diet to meet your calcium requirements. Most adults need 1000mg of calcium a day, which requires careful planning to achieve with plant foods alone. Calcium is also found in dark green leafy greens (like collard, kale and broccoli), legumes including soy beans, tofu, almonds, sesame seeds, dried figs, dried apricots and oranges. Eating a lot of protein can cause more calcium to be lost in urine. Check your requirements here and you’ll probably find you don’t need to be striving for more protein in your diet after all.
Sarah Moore is a mum, and university qualified Registered Nutritionist. She has 10 years’ experience working with families to improve their health and well-being. Sarah has a simplistic and practical approach to family nutrition and wants you to know that activated unicorn berries are not the answer to your health and wellness. You can find her on Facebook and Instagram for more healthy tips and tricks.