What you really need to know about milk

Almond, soya and other milks are more popular than ever, but why are so many people switching away from cow's milk? Senior Dietitian Victoria Taylor explains the pros and cons.

When it came to milk, the choices used to be skimmed, semi-skimmed or whole. Now there’s a bewildering range, both dairy and nondairy.

  • Our quiz on milk will test your knowledge of milk fact or fiction. 

Most of these milks are more expensive than standard cow’s milk, so if you are going to use them make sure the benefits to you are worth the additional spend.

While non-dairy milks are often promoted as a healthier alternative to traditional milk, this isn’t necessarily true. Some lack the calcium we get from dairy products, while sugar is often added to standard versions and almost always to flavoured versions.

Here's the insider's guide to the actual health benefits and drawbacks of different types of milk.

Cow’s milk

Jug of cow's milk

Standard cow’s milk tends to be cheaper than alternatives and is a good source of calcium. The downside is the saturated fat it contains, which many of us are eating too much of. While milk isn’t high in fat (even whole milk is four per cent fat, putting it in the ‘medium’ category), if you have it frequently, it adds up.

The good news is that it’s easy to switch to lower-fat milk. If you’re used to whole milk, switch to semi-skimmed first, which has about half as much fat as whole. The taste and texture are similar. If you are using semi-skimmed, but skimmed is a bridge too far, try one per cent milk. Most people can’t tell the difference from semi-skimmed, but it has half the fat.

Some people avoid cow’s milk for environmental or ethical reasons. These are personal choices, although it’s worth being aware that non-dairy milks may also have an environmental impact. 

Lactose-free milk

Hand picking up bottle of specialist milk

Lactose intolerance is an inability to digest the sugar found in milk, and can cause diarrhoea and stomach cramps. It’s not the same as a cow’s milk protein allergy, caused by an immune response to milk proteins, which can lead to wheezing or an itchy rash.

There are different types of lactose intolerance and for some people, it may be temporary, especially after gastroenteritis.

If you think you’re lactose intolerant, talk to a doctor or dietitian who can discuss your symptoms with you, give you advice, and monitor the effects of any changes.

Lactose-free milk is cow’s milk that has been filtered to reduce the lactose and has lactase (the enzyme used to digest lactose) added, making it less likely lactose-intolerant people will experience symptoms. If you’re allergic to cow’s milk protein, this isn’t suitable for you.

Goat’s milk

Goats in the background, goals milk, cheese and yogurt in the foreground

Many people believe goat’s milk is easier to digest than cow’s milk. But it contains lactose and proteins similar to those found in cow’s milk, so if you are intolerant or allergic to cow’s milk the same may apply to goat’s milk. Saturated fat levels are similar, too. That said, goat’s milk can be a tasty alternative to cow’s. Choose semi-skimmed or skimmed rather than whole.

Nut and seed milks

Bowl of almonds and a glass of almond milk

Almond milk is the most readily available, but there are many others, including hazelnut and hemp seed milks. Almond milk won’t provide the same heart health benefits as eating whole nuts, and contains less almond than you might think – often around two per cent and as little as one per cent.

Always choose unsweetened versions and ideally one that is fortified with calcium, especially if you’re using it as a replacement for milk. They’re usually 1–2 per cent fat – similar to one per cent or semi-skimmed cow’s milk, although lower in saturated fat, protein and calories.

Soya milk

Soya beans and a glass of soya milk

Research has linked soya protein to heart-health benefits. Studies have shown that consuming between 15g and 25g of soya protein per day can help to reduce cholesterol levels. A 250ml serving of soya milk contains around 8g of protein. Compared to cow’s milk, unsweetened soya milk is similar to semi-skimmed milk in its fat and protein content, but needs to be fortified to be a source of calcium. Choose an unsweetened type if you can.

Coconut milk

Coconuts and small bottles of milk

Tinned coconut milk is high in fat. There is 16.9g/100g in standard coconut milk, almost as much as single cream. Reduced fat coconut milk contains 7.7g fat/100g, but it is still high in saturated fat. Tinned coconut milk is usually used in cooking as in our Autumn laksa, rather than as a drink. Use it sparingly.

For drinking or with cereal, healthier options are coconut drinks labelled as a ‘milk alternative’. These can be rice milk flavoured with coconut flesh, or coconut milk mixed with water or coconut water. They taste of coconut but contain much less saturated fat, and are nutritionally similar to low-fat milk in fat and calorie content, but lower in protein.

Oat (and rice) milk

 glass of milk and jar of oats

Oat milk contains oat beta glucans, which can help maintain normal cholesterol levels when you consume 3g a day as part of a balanced diet. A 250ml glass of oat milk provides 1g of beta glucans (a bowl of porridge made with 40g of oats provides 2g of beta glucans).

As with other milk alternatives, it is low in fat, but also low in protein, and it is important to choose unsweetened versions. Rice milk is similar to oat milk nutritionally, but you won’t get the oat beta glucans that come in oat milk.

How much dairy?

  • Eight per cent of our food should be made up of dairy products and alternatives, including milk, yoghurt, cheese and non-dairy alternatives.
  • Dairy products are the main source of calcium, and we need 700mg a day for a number of functions in the body and building healthy bones and teeth.
  • But calcium is not present naturally in dairy milk alternatives, so it needs to be added.
  • Choosing low-fat dairy products will help you meet your calcium intake, without adding too many calories.
  • Is your dairy knowledge udderly brilliant? Take our milk quiz to find out! 
Oat (and rice) milk

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