Whilst there is no definitive conclusion as to which are genuinely the best and worst, with all the information to hand we can at least make an informed decision for ourselves.
With all milks and milk alternatives, as always, organic is preferable over non organic, and try to buy unsweetened version where possible – even ‘natural’ sweeteners such as agave are unnecessary.
In terms of taste, they, to risk stating the obvious, tend to taste of their core ingredient; almond milk taste of sweet almonds, whilst coconut milk has a mild but distinctive taste of the fruit itself.
Let’s look at the various options more closely.
The biggest nutritional distinction is between levels of protein, carbohydrates and fats, shown more clearly in the table below.
Rich in calcium, Vitamins D, E, A and K as well as phosphorus and magnesium, cow’s milk is rich in protein, provides some carbohydrates (in the form of milk sugar, lactose), and saturated fats, thought not to be as bad for us as previously assumed. The popular protein powders Whey and Casein are milk derivatives. Due to the pesticides, antibiotics and hormone treatments cows’ receive, grass fed and organic milk is especially preferable when choosing dairy over other milk alternatives. From a fat loss point of view, since dairy is higher calorie than most alternative milks, these calories need to be taken into account and they’ll add up much quicker than low calorie unsweetened almond milk. However there are lots of valuable nutrients in dairy, and since these vitamins are ‘fat soluble’, semi-skimmed or whole milk are better sources of these vitamins than skimmed. Low lactose versions are available for people with intolerances..
Watch this video > Is dairy giving you tummy troubles?
Very much like cows’ milk nutritionally, but tends to be easier to digest in people with sensitive stomachs due to less lactose and having a similar chemical structure to human breast milk – the casein is a different type to cow’s.
Very low in carbohydrates, almonds naturally contain calcium, though most shop bought ones will also be fortified with calcium and vitamin D. They also contain vitamin E. Most of the healthy fats in almonds are removed when making ‘milk’, however this does make unsweetened almond milk very low calorie which appeals to people trying to lose weight. Almond milk is one of the most popular milk alternatives due to being naturally absent in both lactose and gluten and is widely available. Hazelnut and cashew nut are more recent additions to the nut milk collection.
This is thinned coconut milk for use as a cow’s milk alternative, as opposed to the thick coconut milk added to curries. It contains vitamins C, E, and B as well as magnesium, potassium, phosphorus and iron. Low in carbs and sugar, coconut milk to drink is relatively new to UK shops compared to soy and almond, but is fast rising in popularity along with other coconut products such as coconut oil, coconut water and coconut flour.
High in fibre and protein, soy milk is one of the most popular dairy alternatives on the market. It is a source of magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium. Soy is also thought to be beneficial to cholesterol levels and cardiovascular health, while unsaturated fatty acids provide all sorts of hear health benefits amongst others. However there are some concerns with soy products (or more specifically, unfermented soy products). The phytoestrogens are thought to affect female hormone balance, and whilst this can come with pros such as easing menopausal symptoms, it has been suggested that soy consumption could be linked to the growth of certain cancers as well as having negative effects on thyroid function, and encouraging fat storage especially around the midriff. Soy also inhibits digestive enzyme production, making it difficult for some people to digest and causing cramps, bloating and other discomforts.
Assumed by most to be a grain, quinoa is actually a seed, and one that is a ‘complete protein’ (containing all 8 essential amino acids) unlike grains. This makes it a good alternative to protein rich cow’s milk. It is rich in manganese, tryptophan, phosphorus, folate and magnesium, as well as being a source of fibre, though most of the fibre is removed when discarding the solids from the ‘milk’.
Grains such as buckwheat, oat, barley, rice, and millet can also be soaked and strained to produce a milk-like liquid. Wholegrains are widely known to lower cholesterol, and protect the heart, protect against Type 2 Diabetes, help prevent asthma, gallstones and some types of cancer, and aid in healthy weight maintenance. They are rich in B Vitamins which help turn food into energy, numerous minerals, and fibre for cardiovascular and digestive health, as well as some protein. It is noted however that most of the benefits come from eating the grain itself, so whilst the ‘milk’ can be a dairy alternative, the ‘porridge’ left behind would ideally be eaten too.
Let’s have a look to see how various types of milk compare:
All the above milks apart from cow’s can be made at home; your chosen food is simply combined with water and soaked or boiled, then strained to leave the remaining ‘milky’ liquid behind. Here’s a recipe for making your own Almond Milk:
135g raw almonds
A pinch of sea salt
Water for soaking the nuts
750ml water (ideally filtered)
½ tsp. vanilla extract (optional)
Soak the almonds and salt water overnight.
Strain the water from the almonds and discard it.
Blend the 750ml water, almonds vanilla in a food processor until well blended and almost smooth.
Pour the mixture into a clean muslin over a bowl to catch the liquid, and squeeze as much milk as you can from the towel.
Store the ‘milk’ in the fridge for up to 5 days, and shake or stir before each use.
Whichever you choose, it is always important to get the full range of vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients (protein, carbs and fat) that your body requires, so take this into account and if the ‘milk’ you drink is lacking in some areas, be sure to make up for them with the inclusion of other foods.