It’s thought around one in five UK households have swapped regular milk for dairy-free alternatives. Between 2011 and 2013, our yearly consumption of free-from milks soared from 36 million litres to 92 million, while last year Waitrose reported its sales of almond milk had overtaken soya milk for the first time.
With so many dairy free and dairy options on supermarket shelves, it’s important to know the health pros and cons.
Cow’s milk (semi-skimmed and skimmed)
Benefits: It’s an easily available staple. A source of protein, calcium, iodine and vitamin B2 and particularly high in vitamin B12. Skimmed milk contains slightly higher levels of calcium than semi-skimmed (which in turn has more than whole milk) due to the processing. Skimmed milk has had most of the fat removed and is a great choice if you’re watching your calorie and fat levels.
Downsides: Small numbers of people have a full-blown allergy to the proteins in cow’s milk and some are intolerant to lactose – although lactose-free versions of cow’s milk are now readily available.
Almond milk (unsweetened)
Benefits: It’s dairy free, low in fat and calories, and, unless you buy an organic version, usually fortified with calcium and vitamins D, E, B2 and B12.
Downsides: It’s low in protein and can’t be used as a substitute milk for toddlers due to low calorie levels. Although some contain vitamins D and E, these are fat soluble, so may not be absorbed unless you’re having the milk with a higher-fat food.
Benefits: It’s dairy free and hemp seeds are rich in short-chain omega-3s (the ones found naturally in plant foods) and omega-6. Often fortified with calcium and vitamin D, so make sure you read the label.
Downsides: It’s relatively low in protein compared with other milks. It isn’t so readily available – although as it becomes more popular it’s entering the mainstream.
Benefits: Coconut milk is dairy free and has a pleasing taste, making it one of the most popular alternatives. It’s fortified with vitamin B12 and vitamin D.
Downsides: Although low in natural sugars and calories, it contains more saturated fat than other milk, including semi-skimmed. Plus it’s not all that comparable to cow’s milk from a nutrition point of view.
Benefits: It’s dairy free. Many are fortified with calcium and vitamin B12.
Downsides: It contains low levels of arsenic, and for this reason, the Food Standards Agency advises against children under four-and-a-half having it at all (although the amounts of arsenic are too small to be a problem for adults). It’s higher in sugars than other milk alternatives.
Benefits: It’s dairy free but can be used as a milk replacement from the age of two if you choose the higher-fat varieties (such as Oatly Foamable). Oat milks are often a source of fibre, in particular beta-glucan, a type of soluble fibre linked to improved blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Some brands have added calcium and sometimes vitamins D, B2 and B12.
Downsides: It’s relatively low in protein.
Soya milk (sweetened and unsweetened)
Benefits: It’s dairy free but almost comparable to cow’s milk in its high protein content. Plus it’s low in fat, and a source of calcium if fortified.
Downsides: People who are intolerant to the protein in cow’s milk are often intolerant to the protein in soya milk, too. In fact, there may be up to a 50% crossover, so it may not work as an alternative for everyone.
Benefits: It has the same nutrition profile as regular cow’s milk – it’s just free from the A1 protein. It may be easier for some people to digest, although this isn’t proven.
Downsides: It’s a lot more expensive than standard milk.
Benefits: Nutritionally, it’s the most similar to full-fat cow’s milk. Some people who can’t tolerate cow’s find goat’s milk easier to digest.
Downsides: Around 90% of people with a true allergy to cow’s milk protein (as opposed to lactose intolerance) will also have an allergy to goat’s milk protein.