Dieticians reveal the healthiest milks and what alternatives to avoid

Plant-based and dairy milks. (Getty Images)
Which milks are healthiest? (Getty Images)

Whether it's splashed on cereal, dribbled into our tea or whizzed up to make a smoothie, milk is a dietary staple in most households, but the type of white stuff people opt for tends to differ.

A quick trolley dash of the supermarket reveals a plethora of milks for consumers to choose from, with the more traditional cows milk, being joined by its goat cousin and a whole wealth of plant-based options including, soya, oat, almond and coconut.

It seems non-dairy milk has become a permanent fixture in the nation's coffees and fridges with over four out of 10 (48%) British households now opting for alt-milk switch-ups.

But like many things in the wellness world, the milk we choose to chug has been causing some confusion recently, particularly when it comes to the healthiness of each particular option.

Dairy milk often comes under fire for digestion issues and oat milk is clocking up accusations of causing acne and bloating.

So how do we know which milks are healthiest and which we should be crossing off the menu? We spoke to the experts to get their take on the great milk debate.

Pouring glass of milk. (Getty Images)
How do we know which milks are healthiest? (Getty Images)

Is dairy milk good for our health?

According to Claire Lynch, dietitian and educational lead at Plant Based Health Professionals, the scientific answer to this common nutrition question is simply no.

"The predominant reason we continue to believe dairy is necessary is due to the very successful marketing by the dairy industry that promotes it as beneficial for bone health," she explains.

"Dairy is indeed a source of calcium, a nutrient required for bone health, but there is no scientific evidence that consuming dairy improves bone health or prevents osteoporosis. Some studies even suggest the opposite."

Lynch says that countries consuming the most dairy milk actually have some of the highest rates of bone fractures.

"What is more important for bone health is regular weight-bearing exercise, vitamin D and all the nutrients, including calcium, obtained from eating plenty of fruit and vegetables," she adds.

When it comes to children, parents often worry that dairy is required for normal growth and development in childhood, but Lynch says this isn't the case.

"When you consider that more than 70% of the world’s population are in fact lactose intolerant after weaning, the inclusion of dairy for most children will result in distressing abdominal symptoms. In fact, dairy consumption is linked to the development of eczema, asthma and acne – conditions that negatively impact a child’s quality of life."

Instead, Lynch argues that there are some better milk choices to make.

"Fortified soya and pea milks have the same amount of protein and calcium as cow’s milk without the saturated fat and health risks associated with dairy consumption," she explains.

"The addition of milk and other dairy products to an otherwise healthy plant-based diet centred around fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds has no discernible benefits and may even cause harm," she continues.

"When the ethical and environmental considerations are taken into account, this leaves no doubt that dairy is best left off the plate."

Plant-based milks in the supermarket. (Getty Images)
There is a whole host of plant-based milks to choose from. (Getty Images)

Plant-based milks

When it comes to plant-based milks, the options are vastly expanding.

"Legumes, cereals, nuts, and seeds are now all being used to produce alternatives to cow’s milk," explains registered dietitian, Rosie Martin. "From humble soya to innovative potato, choosing a dairy-free milk in the expanding market can feel overwhelming."

So which ones should you be putting in your basket, and which will provide the nourishment that you need without dairy?

Soya milk

Soya milk is a popular choice amongst plant-milk consumers and is made by soaking, grinding and boiling soyabeans.

"Soya milk is high in protein at 3.3g per 100ml, compared to 3.4g in dairy milk and contains good quantities of all nine of the essential protein building blocks called amino acids," explains Martin.

"Soya also contains beneficial isoflavones and has been found to have cholesterol-lowering properties, so it is a good choice for those with raised levels."

With its creamy texture, Martin says soya milk is a palatable option for many, but should be avoided by anyone with a soya allergy.

Almond milk

Almond milk is produced by soaking and blending almonds. "It is a low-energy option that is also low in protein at 0.4g per 100ml, but this does vary across brands," Martin advises. "Almond milk is a good source of heart-healthy, mono-unsaturated fatty acids, as well as vitamin E which acts as an antioxidant in our bodies."

With its mildly nutty flavour, Martin says almond milk is a great option for use on cereals.

Oat milk. (Getty Images)
Is oat milk as healthy as it seems? (Getty Images)

Oat milk

Oat milk is made in the same way as almond milk, producing a creamy and well-tolerated texture and flavour that can be used in drinks, over cereals and in baking.

"Oat milk is now the most popular vegan milk available," Martin says. "Compared to almond and rice milk, oat milk tends to have a little more protein at 1.1g/100ml and may also contribute to improved cholesterol levels".

If you have coeliac disease, Martin says oat milk is one to avoid due to the potential contamination with gluten-containing cereals.

Coconut milk

Coconut milk that is created for drinking is made by boiling grated coconut in water and straining the liquid.

"Due to this processing method, it is generally far lower in fat than coconut milk produced for cooking, at only 0.9g of fat per 100 ml compared to 18.1g," Martin explains. "Coconut milk for drinking is low in protein but can add flavour and sweetness to hot drinks and cereals."

Rice milk

Rice milk is made by boiling and pressing rice and straining the liquid.

"Rice milk has a sweeter taste with a higher carbohydrate content compared to other plant milks," Martin advises. "It is naturally low in protein and other nutrients but can be considered a good alternative for those with nut or soya allergies."

Hemp milk

Made by blending hemp seeds with water, hemp milk is also low in protein but does provide the essential polyunsaturated fatty acids omega 3 and omega 6.

"Hemp milk is often used in cereals, cooking and baking," Martin adds.

Pea milk

Pea milk most commonly uses yellow split peas, with the protein blended with water to produce the milk. Martin says pea milk provides a little more protein than other plant milks at around 2.4g per 100ml.

Hazelnut milk

Hazelnut milk is produced from roasted hazelnuts that are soaked and blended with water. "The result is a sweet, thick, and rich fluid that can be enjoyed in smoothies, over cereal and in indulgent coffees and hot chocolates," Martin adds.

Cashew milk

Cashew milk is another creamy milk made by soaking, blending and straining cashews. "Like almond milk, it is a low-energy source of vitamin E but it is also low in protein and fibre," Martin says. "Cashew milk has a subtle nutty flavour and can be a good option for use in cooking, baking and to add to your coffee."

Potato milk

Potato milk is the new plant-milk kid on the block. "It is high in fibre and great for those with allergies as it is free from lactose, milk, soy, gluten, and nuts," Martin explains. "Luckily the processing leaves the potato flavour behind resulting in a neutral, creamy milk with a subtle sweetness."

Which milks should we be buying? (Getty Images)
Which milks should we be buying? (Getty Images)

Which alternative milks are healthiest?

When choosing your plant-milks, Martin recommends opting for ones that are unsweetened to avoid unnecessary added sugar.

"It is also important to meet your calcium requirements when moving to a plant-based diet, and fortified plant-milks can be a significant contributor," she advises. "Fortified milks also often come with added vitamin D and B12 too."

As cow’s milk is regularly promoted for protein, Martin says plant-milks (except for soya), are often condemned for their lower protein content.

"Milk is not a significant contributor to protein in a healthy, balanced diet, however," she says. "This means that although additional sources of plant-based protein can be useful for plant-based athletes or those who are unwell, the general population do not need to rely on milk alternatives, due to the abundance of protein in foods such as tofu, beans, pulses, and peas."

When measuring up the nutritional content in plant-based milks in comparison to cow’s milk, Martin says soya takes first place due to its protein content. But is this one the best?

"As most of us can get all the nutrition we need from the foods we choose in our diet, I would argue that the best plant milk is the one you enjoy most.

"And with all the science showing us that plant diversity is key, why choose just one?"