The lowdown on plant based milk alternatives

By Casey O’Dell – Accredited Practising Dietitian

There’s no denying that plant-based milks are growing in popularity in Australia – it seems like there’s a new product or brand featuring on supermarket shelves each week! 
But putting popularity aside, why do we opt for plant-based milk alternatives? And are they as nutritious as traditional cow’s milk? Check out the answers from our Accredited Practising Dietitian Casey below. 

Why opt for plant-based milk? 

  1. Lactose Intolerance – while lactose-free cow’s milk is a suitable option for those with lactose intolerance, it’s not always available and some people may choose to try plant-based milk alternatives. Lactose intolerance is quite common – up to 65% of the world’s population have some issues with digesting lactose. The symptoms of lactose intolerance are varied and can include diarrhoea, constipation, gas, bloating and stomach pain. The symptoms usually occur within 1-2 hours of consuming a good serve lactose containing products such as milk or yoghurt.  
  2. Milk Allergy – Milk allergies are far less common and usually in infants and children. Up to 2% of babies have a milk allergy and most of which will grow out of the allergy by the age of 5. An allergy is related to the milk ‘protein’ not the lactose (which is the milk sugar). The symptoms of a milk allergy will generally present soon after milk consumption (even a small amount) and vary in severity. Symptoms include wheezing, vomiting and gastric upsets as well as hives on the skin. In rare cases milk allergy can cause anaphylaxis. All animal milk products need to be avoided in a milk allergy, including lactose-free and goat milk.  
  3. Environmental/ethical reasons – some people choose plant-based milks for ethical and environmental reasons around how the milk is produced.  

Are plant-based milk alternatives as nutritious as cow’s milk? 

Yes and no. There are several plant-based alternatives to milk that are just as nourishing as their animal equivalent, and unfortunately some are not. It’s important to ensure the milk is fortified with calcium as plant-based milks do not naturally contain calcium like animal milk does. All plant-based milk is lactose free.  

Soy milk – Nutritionally, soy milk is comparable to cow milk. It’s made from soybeans or soy protein isolate (depending on the brand). It has the highest amount of protein compared to the other plant-based milks, around 12g per serve and is usually fortified with calcium and vitamin B12.  

Almond milk – The lowest in calories out of all the milks, but lowest in nutritional punch. There is only calcium if added and the protein amount is less than 1g per serve. Most commercial almond milks are very watery and only contain around 2% of almonds.  

Cashew milk – Like almond milk, cashew milk is low in calories and sugar. It is rich in unsaturated fats which are beneficial for your heart. Cashew milk has no protein however is very creamy so froths up well for a coffee.  

Rice milk – While being relatively non-allergenic and useful if the only option, rice milk doesn’t offer much in the way of nutrition. It is the highest in sugar out of all the milks and has a high glycaemic index with no protein.  

Coconut milk – The variety you find in a carton is a watered-down version of the coconut milk you might get from a can to make curry with. This coconut milk contains a moderate amount of saturated fat and no protein. It contains very little sugar, so the calories are kept low.  

Oat Milk – This milk is higher in sugar but contains beta glucan fibre which helps control cholesterol. Most commercial varieties of oat milk contain gums and oils to enhance the texture. Oat milk froths well for coffees and works for both sweet and savoury dishes as a good milk alternative.