Are Plant-based Milks Better for You?

For anyone who doesn’t want to drink cow’s milk there are many alternatives available. Are these healthier than traditional milk, and should we all be making the switch?

First it was soy, now there’s almond, cashew, hazelnut, oat, rice and coconut. Plant-based milks are increasingly popular, with no shortage of people promoting their supposed health benefits over regular milk.

Plenty of us don’t drink cow’s milk, and there’s no reason why you have to, says nutrition researcher Dr Tim Crowe.

“If you don’t like milk, or if you’re intolerant to it, or have ethical issues with it, then seeking out an alternative that some of these plant-based milks may offer seems a logical step.”

That said, continues Dr Crowe, if you’re happy drinking cow’s milk, then there’s really no reason to switch to a plant-based option. Milk contains important nutrients including protein, vitamin D and A, and many micronutrients. It also plays a significant role in bone health, being a particularly rich source of dietary calcium.

And for anyone concerned that milk promotes inflammation in the body, a number of review studies have shown the opposite – that diary acts as an anti-inflammatory.


How to choose a healthy milk alternative

None of the plant-based milks naturally contain enough calcium to rival cow’s milk, which is why many of them – but not all – are fortified. Whatever one you choose, read the nutrition label. This will tell you if it contains added calcium and any sweeteners. Vegans may also want a milk that has added B12.

Soy: If you’re after the closest match nutritionally with diary milk, then choose soy. Soy typically contains more protein than other plant-based alternatives (and like milk it’s a complete protein, containing all the essential amino acids), along with carbohydrates and B vitamins. Most soy milks are fortified with calcium and contain healthy unsaturated fats and fibre.


Almond: You may have heard that almonds contain calcium, so it makes sense to assume almond milk is rich in calcium, doesn’t it? Not unless it’s fortified.

A 2017 survey conducted by consumer group Choice found almond milk contained only two to 14 per cent almonds, with water being the predominant ingredient. Almond milk is also low in energy and protein but as a bonus does contain heart-healthy monounsaturated fats.

Other nut milks like cashew, hazelnut and macadamia have a similar nutrition profile, although tend to be more expensive.


Oat: Blend oats and water, strain off the liquid, and you have oat milk. Low in fat but also low in protein, oat milk is naturally sweet, contains fibre (including the cholesterol lowering beta-glucan), vitamin E, folate and riboflavin.


Coconut: There’s little advantage to choosing this, as it’s low in protein and carbs, and high in saturated fats.


Rice: Produced from milled rice and water, rice milk is naturally high in carbs and sugars, but low in protein and calcium, unless fortified.


Are any plant milks good for children?

If you want to give your children plant-based milks, it’s a good idea to discuss the best options with a dietitian first as many may not be suitable.

Of all the plant milks, soy milk comes out on top for children as it provides similar nutritional benefits to diary milk. Protein is an important part of a child’s diet, essential for normal growth and development, and soy provides a similar amount of protein to diary milk.

For children, look for a soy milk that is full fat and fortified with calcium, ideally at least 100mg per 100ml.

Rice milk is the plant milk least likely to trigger an allergy but it is still not a suitable milk substitute for children because of its low protein content.