Life Wellbeing Almond, soy or rice? A health check for non-dairy milks
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Almond, soy or rice? A health check for non-dairy milks

non-dairy-milks
Milks ain't milks ... especially when they're made from nuts or other plants. Photo: Getty
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Is your go-to caffeine fix a latte, long macchiato or flat white with a dash of almond, rice or soy milk? These milk alternatives might be trending but are they really healthier? Here’s your definitive guide.

What’s in your non-dairy milk?

Before you put health milks in your shopping trolley or morning cuppa, dietitians say you must check the label so you know what you’re really getting.

Hidden sugars

“Most people don’t realise that alternative milks often contain added sugars because they are listed under other names, including glucose, dextrose, maltodextrin, agave, corn syrup and rice malt syrup,” says Aloysa Hourigan, a dietitian and spokesperson for Nutrition Australia.

Do you drink plenty of tea and coffee? “Over the course of the day, the hidden sugar in ‘health milks’ can add extra kilojoules, increasing risk of weight gain.”

Gluten levels

Some milk alternatives contain barley. “Barley contains gluten, which can adversely affect people with gluten intolerance or allergy (coeliac disease),” Ms Hourigan says.

non-dairy-milk
Read the labels of non-dairy milks: Many have added sugars and oils. Photo: Getty

Added oils

Polyunsaturated oils, such as sunflower and canola, are often added to non-dairy milks to help them pour more easily.

Hourigan says that means that drinking too much non-dairy milk might tip you over your total dietary fat requirements for the day.

Nutrition status

“Most health milk alternatives have lower nutritional value compared with dairy milk,” accredited dietitian Melanie McGrice says.

However, there are exceptions, with research from McGill University in Canada showing soy milk has a higher nutritional value than other non-dairy milks.

“Soy is the best alternative to cow’s milk as it contains proteins with all of the essential amino acids,” Ms McGrice says.

Calcium levels

One in six Australians do not consume any dairy – some out of choice, others because of allergy or intolerance.

“This is leading them to miss out on important nutrients such as calcium, increasing the risk of osteoporosis, which can lead to bone fractures,” Ms Hourigan says.

If you are dairy-free, make sure you increase your intake of calcium-rich foods such as leafy greens, and consider choosing products that are calcium-fortified.   

non-dairy-milks
If you eat no dairy, then leafy greens are your calcium-laden best friends. Photo: Getty

How do non-dairy milks compare?

If you’re weighing up milk alternatives, Ms Hourigan says these are the key points to remember:

Rice milk

  • A tolerated food, so it can be a good choice for people with food sensitivities
  • Low in protein compared to cow, goat and soy milk
  • High in carbohydrates, so often has a higher natural sugar content

Almond

  • Contains heart-friendly fats called monounsaturated fatty acids
  • Low in protein. A glass of almond milk contains 1.3 grams of protein, while cow’s milk has 8.5 grams

Coconut

  • Low in protein compared to cow, goat and soy milk
  • Higher in saturated fat than other alternatives and cow’s milk
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Soy milk is on of the most popular non-dairy milks. Photo: Getty

Soy

  • Contains heart-healthy fats
  • Can be an important source of protein and calcium for people on a vegan diet

Oat

  • A moderate amount of protein compared to other milks
  • Contains beta-glucan, which can help to lower blood cholesterol levels
  • Not suitable for people who are gluten intolerant
  • Has lower protein levels than cow’s milk, which means it is less filling

Lactose-free

  • Provides the same nutrients as cow’s milk
  • A good source of protein, calcium, and other vitamins and minerals
  • Not suitable for people with dairy allergies, but is an option for those who are lactose-intolerant