Remember the days when ‘”skinny” and “full fat” were the only milk options available when ordering your daily coffee brew? Fast forward a few years and now we are spoilt for choice with a myriad of non-dairy milk options to cater for vegans, vegetarians, coeliacs and pretty much every diet under the sun. All claim to be good for you, but how do you really know which milk is right for you and your diet? Whether you’re looking for a milk to put on your muesli in the morning, an ingredient in your baking or simply a delicious addition to your flat white, here’s a guide to help you work out which milk is right for you.
Soy milk, made from either soybeans or soy protein isolate, has been one of the most popular non-dairy milks in recent years. Known for its rich, creamy and slightly nutty taste, soy milk is extremely versatile. It tastes great in coffee, over cereal and is often used as a dairy substitute when cooking since it’s stable at high temperatures due to its texture and high protein content.
In terms of nutrition, soy milk has the closest profile to cow’s milk, with approximately half the fat, carbohydrates and calories associated with the latter. It’s also rich in antioxidants and naturally free of cholesterol, a great benefit for people suffering heart problems. Soy milk is also ideal for vegetarians since it contains “complete” protein, providing all the essential amino acids in our diet.
Sounds too good to be true right? Although soy foods are safe for most people, unfortunately soy is a common allergen. Studies have also found that soy is high in phytoestrogens, which are plant compounds that mimic estrogen in the body so may not be suitable for people with thyroid or hormone issues. Phytic acids in soy have also been found to reduce the absorption of minerals like magnesium, iron and zinc. When buying soy milk, it’s important to avoid mass-produced soy milks, which are usually thickened with canola or other vegetable oils that can have adverse inflammatory effects.
With its light texture, slightly sweet and nutty flavour, almond milk has surged in popularity in the last couple of years, giving soy a run for its money. Almond milk is made either using whole almonds or a combination of almond butter and water. It’s full of nutrients and is rich in monounsaturated acids containing the same heart-healthy fats as olive oil and is a natural source of vitamin E, which is great for protecting the body against harmful free radicals. Almond milk is ideal for those who are watching their weight since it is low in saturated fat and calories. On the downside, this milk is low in protein (unless is it fortified) and iodine.
Despite its nutritional benefits, it’s important to remember that almond milk is much less concentrated than whole almonds. This is because almond milk is watered down and is usually made from blanched (skinless) almonds and the skins contain most of its fibre. It’s best to avoid products that have added sweeteners and opt for brands that contain a higher content of almonds, or a fortified version which contains calcium and other vitamins. Or if you’re feeling game, it’s easy to make your own almond milk at home; all you need is a blender, water and almonds.
Since almond milk has a sweeter flavour in comparison to other non-dairy milks, it is best reserved for sweet dishes rather than savoury.
Rice milk is usually made by blending milled rice with water. Its mild, light and slightly sweet flavour make it ideal for coffee or pouring over your morning cereal. Since it has a slightly watery consistency and is thinner than other milks, rice milk has a low fibre content and often contains thickeners or binding agents to improve its texture and taste.
Unfortunately rice milk is low in protein and usually contains roughly three times the amount of carbohydrates of other non-dairy milks. Rice milk can be fortified to contain calcium, and vitamin D, but unlike soy and almond milk, it’s not a natural source of these.
Rice milk is great for people with allergies or intolerances to dairy, gluten and soy since it is the most hypoallergenic of all the milk substitutes. However since it is naturally high in sugars and has a high glycemic index, it may not be suitable for diabetics or people who need more protein in their diet like the elderly or athletes.
Many of us have been going crazy over coconuts for a while, so it was only natural that another darling of the non-dairy milk group is coconut milk, adored for its silky consistency and rich, creamy texture. Coconut milk is often made by boiling or soaking grated coconut flesh then straining it to different levels to get the desired consistency. Since it’s lactose free, coconut milk is the perfect milk substitute for those with a lactose intolerance, and like other plant-based milks is a popular choice for vegans.
As well as tasting great, coconut milk is full of medium chain saturated fatty acids including lauric acid which has been found to convert to monolaurin. This has unique antiviral and antibacterial qualities, helping to reduce the levels of viruses and bacteria which cause infections within the body. Some studies even suggest that coconut milk may benefit weight loss and overall metabolism for making you feel fuller for longer.
The creamy texture makes it a perfect companion in soups, rice dishes, curries, desserts and smoothies. But like most things, coconut milk (especially the thick kind) should be consumed in moderation due to its high calorie content. It also may not be suitable for people on a high protein diet due to its low protein content.
The humble oat is making a come back! Made with presoaked oat groats, which are hulled grains broken into fragments, oat milk has a mild, neutral and slightly sweet taste and is often used in coffee or as a cooking substitute for low fat dairy milk. Its texture makes it perfect for light cream soups and curries while its sweet taste makes it work in baked goods.
In terms of nutrition, oat milk is rich in vitamins and minerals including iron and fibre. Beta-glucan in oat milk has also been proven to help lower cholesterol.
If you’re looking for a boost of calcium, oat milk is the way to go, often containing more calcium than one serve of cow’s milk.
On the downside, oat milk is high in calories compared to other milks. Oats are grains and not suitable for people on the caveman or keto diet – sorry paleos! Oats are generally gluten free, but coeliacs should make sure they read the label before purchasing.
Quinoa has become one of Australia’s favourite superfoods in recent years, and for good reason – it’s incredibly nutritious. One of the newest milks to hit the market, quinoa milk has a slightly nutty and sweet flavour, and is made simply from water and quinoa (5 – 10%).
One of the best things about quinoa milk compared to other plant based milks is that it is rich in protein, so is a great option for vegetarians and vegans. It’s also great for diabetics since it is low in sugar, carbohydrates and has a low gylcemic index. Since it is ‘watered’ down, it’s important to remember than much of the nutritional content of quinoa has been diluted but it is still rich in essential minerals, fibre and vitamins.
Due to its distinctive quinoa taste, it is best served on your morning porridge or smoothie.
Move over soy and almond milk, hemp milk is the hottest milk to hit grocery stores, renowned for it’s range of health benefits. Hemp milk has more protein and calcium than other non-dairy milks and is very high in vitamin A, vitamin E as well as omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids, which are great for heart health. Hemp seeds also contain all 22 amino acids so this milk is a great option for vegans and vegetarians looking for more protein in their diet.
Hemp milk has a strong taste and a slightly grassy and nutty flavour so may not be everyone’s cup of tea. It is best suited to savory recipes or grain-based dishes like muffins or breads. There are little side effects associated with hemp milk but if you’re watching your calories make sure to avoid the unsweetened versions, particularly flavoured hemp milks.
Unfortunately brands of non-dairy milks are not always created equal. For all non-dairy milks it’s essential to look at the label to see if any addictives like sugar, thickeners or nasty preservatives have been added to improve consistency and shelf life. Also look out for other non-dairy milks like cashew, macadamia and flax milk on your next grocery trip, or even better try making them at home.