Want to make the switch from cow's milk, but unsure where to start? As researchers warn other milks may not have everything we need, Peta Bee weighs up the pros and cons of the most popular alternative milks on the market
Stand behind someone who orders an almond milk frappuccino or a coconut milk smoothie and what conclusion do you draw? Probably that they are nutritionally astute, having made the switch from supposedly hormone-laden cow’s milk. Food scares and health concerns have led to a ten per cent drop in sales of cow’s milk over the last decade, as consumers switch to so-called fake milks or ‘filks’ that, strictly speaking, are not milks at all. All of them look and taste a bit like the traditional liquid, but promise all of the benefits with none of the downsides.
Whereas soya was once the only milk alternative available, demand for alternatives has rocketed to the extent that manufacturers now offer a vast array of options, ranging from nut milks to rice and oat milks. They’ve become so popular that in 2015 The Sunday Times reported a 40 per cent rise in sales the previous year, in a market thought to be worth more than £100m.
But is the move to a ‘filk’ necessarily good for your health? As scientists at the University of Surrey warn that we're putting our health at risk by losing out on iodine (which we traditionally get from our cow's milk), we review the pros and cons of the various milk alternatives on the market, taking into account the calories, fat and nutritional content per serving.
PROS The fat globules in goat’s milk are generally smaller than those in cow’s milk, which means the body’s digestive enzymes can break it down more rapidly. This is said to help reduce symptoms that can occur with cow’s milk intolerance, such as bloating and discomfort. The proteins also form a softer curd in the stomach which is said to aid digestion, although this hasn’t been proven. Semi-skimmed, lower fat versions are now available.
CONS Whole goat’s milk is almost as high in calories and saturated fat as whole cow’s milk and it also has a slightly salty taste. It contains a substance that binds with vitamin B12 found in foods from animal sources, to prevent the vitamin from being absorbed by the body. Some children given goat’s milk have been found to have B12 deficiency which can cause a type of anaemia, the symptoms of which are fatigue and weakness.
PROS Unlike coconut water (found inside the fleshy meat), coconut milk is made by grating the white coconut flesh and soaking it in hot water which sees the coconut cream rise to the top so that it can be skimmed off. The remaining liquid is squeezed to extract what we know as coconut milk. Coconuts are rich in a range of vitamins and minerals including C, E, the B group, iron, selenium, and magnesium. It is high in fat, but mostly the beneficial variety of medium chain fatty acids, such as lauric acid which is converted by the body into an antiviral and antibacterial compound called manolaurin, said to protect against illness. The milk is lactose free so can be used as a milk substitute by those with a lactose intolerance.
CONS It is whoppingly high in calories. Reduced-fat versions cut levels almost in half, but even ‘light’ coconut milk contains about close to 300 calories per glass.
PROS Produced in the Netherlands, this newcomer to the milk market is lower in fat and cholesterol than cow’s milk, but contains five times as much vitamin C. Studies in India show it contains high levels of insulin and is helpful to people with type two diabetes, as it keeps blood-sugar levels stable. In India it is used therapeutically to treat a range of illnesses.
CONS It is, shall we say, an acquired taste as it’s very watery and salty. No real advantage to drinking it (you can get the extra vitamin C from a couple of oranges) and it is not lactose free, so no good for those intolerant to cow’s milk.
PROS Soya and its milk, which is made from soaked, cooked and ground soya beans, has long been extolled as something of a wonder-bean. There are claims that the isoflavone compounds it contains (which mimic the female hormone oestrogen) can lower cholesterol, reduce menopausal symptoms, boost bone density and even ward off the risks of some cancers. Some studies have shown the main isoflavone in soya, genistein, can inhibit the formation of blood vessels that assist in the growth of small tumours.
CONS There is something of a backlash taking place against soya milk and other soya products , precisely because the isoflavones are so powerful. A few years ago, researchers at the Queen Victoria Hospital in Belfast discovered soya consumption could have a profound influence on male fertility. In short, they concluded, the more soya a man eats, the more difficulty he will have in fertilising an egg. Soya is known to contain so-called anti-nutrients that limit the body’s ability to absorb important vitamins and minerals including calcium, iron and zinc. It also contains trypsin inhibitors that reduce the efficiency with which the body digests protein. There are suggested links to thyroid problems and impaired endocrine function. In their natural state, soya beans taste quite bitter, so the milk is heavily processed to mask the unpleasant flavour, making it less of a ‘natural’ alternative than many people think. Some varieties are highly sweetened.
PROS It contains no saturated fats or lactose (milk sugar) and is among the lowest in calories of all the milk alternatives. It’s set to become the milk trend of the year as trendy eateries like The Pressery in East London have recently started selling high-end unpasteurised almond milk at almost £5 a litre.
CONS In many commercial almond milks, almonds are the second or third ingredient after water and sweeteners giving it a sweeter flavour than regular milk. It can also contain added sugar.
PROS Contains up to twice as many minerals, such as calcium, phosphorous, zinc and the important B group vitamins, as cow’s milk. It is a rich source of iodine, an essential nutrient required for the synthesis of thyroid hormones.
CONS It contains almost double the fat and more calories than cows’ milk.
Fat 1.4 g
PROS Commercial oat milks are made from the liquid left when oats are soaked in water. Studies have shown oats help lower cholesterol levels and are a low glycaemic index food that provides a long lasting energy burst. It is thought the milk has similar benefits.
CONS Not all commercial oat drinks are fortified with the vitamins in regular cow’s milk so check the brand you buy has vitamins and minerals - such as calcium - added. Oat milks are not gluten free. They are a low gluten food, but anyone with Coeliacs Disease should seek medical advice before using them.
PROS Contains 11.5 per cent more protein than cow’s milk and more of some vitamins and minerals such as calcium and iron. It is closer in content to human milk than many other milk products and also lacks the sour aftertaste of many cow’s milk alternatives.
CONS Has double the fat of whole cow’s milk and is also high in calories. You might be better off sticking to a good mozzarella for the benefits.
PROS Made from filtered water, partially milled organic brown rice and sea salt, commercial rice milk contains as much calcium and as many vitamins as cow’s milk but less fat even than soya milk. It is relatively high in fibre.
CONS Contains added salt and also tastes sweet so not good in savoury dishes. Low in calcium and protein.
Like this? Read our article on dairy-free diets here