Which milk is right for you?

More and more people are exploring alternative substitutes to cow's milk. Nutritionist Kerry Torrens takes a look at the most popular options – and our cookery team puts them to the test in the Good Food kitchen

A glass of milk

Scour the dairy shelves in your supermarket and, as well as cow’s milk, you can find goat’s milk, several soya options and milk-style drinks made from nuts. There’s a huge demand for these products, as four out of 10 British households now use an non-dairy alternative to milk in hot drinks, cereal or cooking.

One reason is that some of us find cow’s milk difficult to digest, and blame symptoms like bloating, wind and diarrhoea on dairy. This may be because low levels of the enzyme lactase make it hard to digest the lactose (sugar) in dairy products. Other people may be intolerant to cow’s milk protein or have a more serious allergy to dairy.

Milk allergy is also one of the most common childhood food allergies, affecting about 2-3 per cent of infants in the UK, with symptoms ranging from skin conditions to digestive problems.

Skimmed, semi or full-fat? 

Latest research reveals that skimmed milk may not necessarily be the healthiest option. Yes, it’s lower in fat and calories than whole milk, and marginally higher in calcium, but some experts suggest that the saturated fat in dairy may not be a problem in terms of heart health. In fact, by drinking skimmed we may be missing out on fat-soluble nutrients like vitamins A and E.

Semi-skimmed is low enough in fat to be a ‘low-fat’ food, but it also has lower levels of fat-soluble vitamins than full-fat milk. So make sure you get your fat-soluble vitamins from other sources, such as brightly coloured salad or veg served with an oil dressing.

Best for babies

The Department of Health recommends exclusively breastfeeding your baby for the first six months of life – after that you can continue to breastfeed alongside the introduction of your baby's first solid foods. From the age of one, whole cow’s milk may be offered as a drink. Semi-skimmed is an option from two years, and skimmed milk should only be given after five years of age. Always ask your GP or a dietitian for advice if you have queries about breastfeeding or your baby has a milk allergy – some alternatives, like soya drinks, may be unsuitable.

Find out more about breastfeeding.

Choose the right one for you

Check our guide below for your best option. Whether you choose dairy milk or not, always include plenty of non-dairy sources of calcium in your diet, such as canned salmon and sardines, green leafy veg, nuts and seeds, including almonds and sesame seeds. Combine these foods with sources of vitamin D such as eggs and oily fish – vitamin D helps your body make the most of calcium.

Read more about the best calcium-rich foods.

Cow's milk

What is it? 

A natural product, rich in protein and a source of calcium. Organic milk contains higher levels of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, and the cows are less likely to have been exposed to antibiotics and pesticides. Some people prefer homogenised cow’s milk, as homogenisation breaks down the fat molecules, making the milk easier to digest.

Good for... Cereal, porridge and in hot drinks, and naturally nutritious.

Taste: Mild and creamy.

Cooking: Ideal in sauces and bakes.

We tested... Full-fat milk, 50p/pt, Tesco.
 

Cow's milk (full-fat) nutrition per 100ml
64kcals120mg calcium 3.6g fat 2.3g sat fat 4.6g sugar 3.4g protein

Lactose-free dairy drink

What is it? A dairy drink made from cow’s milk that has been filtered to remove lactose, and has the lactase enzyme added. It contains the same nutrients as regular cow's milk.

Good for... Those who are lactose-intolerant.

Taste: Similar to cow’s milk.

Cooking: Works as well as cow’s milk.

We tested... Lactofree Whole dairy drink, £1.40/1 litre, Asda.

 

Lactose-free full-fat dairy drink nutrition per 100ml
 57kcals 126mg calcium3.5g fat 2.2g sat fat2.8g sugar 3.4g protein 

a2 cow’s milk

What is it? Milk containing a2 protein only. Cow’s milk consists of a range of proteins, one group being caseins, where the main types are a2 and a1. New research suggests that a1 can cause gut discomfort – if you’ve ruled out lactose-intolerance, you could try a2 milk.

Good for... Those affected by milk protein.

Taste: As good as cow’s milk.

Cooking: Works as well as cow’s milk.

We tested... a2 Whole Milk, £1.39/1 litre, Asda.
 

a2 cow's full-fat milk nutrition per 100ml
68 kcals 129mg calcium3.5g fat 2.2g sat fat4.7g sugar 3.4g protein 

Goat’s milk

What is it? A natural product, nutritionally similar to cow’s milk.

Good for... People who can’t tolerate cow’s milk, as it has smaller fat particles and less lactose. Works well in tea, coffee and hot chocolate.

Taste: A strong, distinctive flavour, slightly sweet with a sometimes salty undertone.

Cooking: Suitable for use in most recipes.

We tested... St Helen’s Farm Whole Goats Milk, £1.65/1 litre, Sainsbury’s.
 

Goat's milk nutrition per 100ml
61 kcals120mg calcium 3.5g fat 2.4g sat fat 4.3g sugar 2.8g protein

Soy or soya milk alternative

What is it? Soya milk alternatives are comparable in protein content to cow’s milk and are low in fat. Soy-based products can help to manage cholesterol levels, although you need about 25g soy protein, or 3-4 glasses of soya milk alternative a day, to achieve this. Some brands are fortified with calcium and vitamins A, B12 and D.

Good for... Non-dairy drinkers who are looking for a low-fat option – check that your brand includes added calcium and vitamins A and D. Mixes well in tea and coffee.

Taste: Nutty and thick, but not sticky.

Cooking: Works well in baking – try it in our dairy-free Blueberry & coconut cake.

We tested... Alpro Soya unsweetened fresh milk alternative, £1.40/1 litre, Tesco.
 

Soy or soya milk nutrition per 100ml
33 kcals120mg calcium1.8g fat 0.3g sat fat0g sugar 3.3g protein

Almond drink

What is it? A blend of almonds and spring water, fortified with calcium and vitamins, including D and B12. Brands vary as to the amount of almonds used in their product and will tend to include emulsifiers and stabilisers, so read labels carefully.

Good for... Vegans and anyone avoiding animal products, because it’s fortified with vitamin B12. We enjoyed it in hot drinks but felt it worked best in coffee.

Taste: A subtle nutty flavour. Choose unsweetened for day-to-day use.

Cooking: Use in the same quantities as cow’s milk – it makes a good batch of scones.

We tested... Alpro Almond Drink Unsweetened, £1.80/1 litre, Ocado.
 

Almond drink nutrition per 100ml
13 kcals 120mg calcium 1.1g fat 0.1g sat fat 0g sugar 0.4g protein 

Coconut 'milk' drink

What is it? A sweetened coconut drink with added calcium, vitamin B12 and vitamin D. This is lower in protein, with higher levels of saturated fat than most other plant-based options.

Good for... Vegetarians. Try it with your cereal, and in tea and coffee.

Taste: Light, with a hint of coconut.

Cooking: Great for baking, as the coconut flavour won’t overpower the food. Makes a good batch of sweet dairy-free pancakes – the milk is quite thin, so you won’t need as much in your batter.

We tested... Free From Coconut 'Milk' Drink, £1.25/1 litre, Tesco.
 

Coconut milk nutrition per 100ml
17 kcals 120mg calcium0.9g fat 0.8g sat fat2g sugar 0.1g protein 

Hemp milk alternative

What is it? A blend of hemp seeds and water, fortified with calcium and vitamin D.

Good for... Hot drinks.

Taste: Mild and slightly sweet.

Cooking: Use in smoothies or sauces, or freeze with fruit and honey for a non-dairy ice cream.

We tested... Braham & Murray Good Hemp Original, £1.50/1 litre, Tesco.
 

Hemp milk alternative nutrition per 100ml
35 kcals118mg calcium2.8g fat 0.3g sat fat1.8g sugar0.6g protein 

Oat milk alternative

What is it? Made from oats and enriched with vitamins and calcium. Low in saturated fat.

Good for... A low-fat option with all the goodness of oats.

Taste: Creamy with a slightly powdery aftertaste. 

Cooking: Won’t split when heated, so it's good for a white sauce.

We tested... Oatly Oat Drink Original, £1.50/1 litre, Sainsbury’s.
 

Oat milk alternative nutrition per 100ml
 45 kcals120mg calcium 1.5g fat 0.2g sat fat 4g sugar 1.0g protein 

Rice drink

What is it? A sweet milk-style drink, low in protein and fortified with calcium.

Good for... Those who can’t tolerate dairy or soya.

Taste: Sweet but neutral – doesn’t give hot drinks a milky colour.

Cooking: It has a thin consistency, so you may need to thicken sauces with a little extra flour.

We tested... Rice Dream, £1.99/1 litre, Holland & Barrett.
 

Rice drink nutrition per 100ml
47 kcals 120mg calcium 1.0g fat 0.1g sat fat 4g sugar 0.1g protein 

This article was reviewed in November 2018 by nutritionist Kerry Torrens. Prices were correct as of this date.

Kerry Torrens is a qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other healthcare professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local healthcare provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

 

Comments, questions and tips

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Robert Lucas's picture
Robert Lucas
11th Nov, 2019
Lactose Free milk from Aldi. £0.85p. https://www.aldi.co.uk/lactose-free-long-life-milk/p/078082170251800
Lee Heryet's picture
Lee Heryet
7th Aug, 2018
It's what Ian Rush drinks!
Life Of Diva
1st Dec, 2014
The food we eat plays an important role in keeping our skin healthy. Fresh fruits and vegetables are always good for our health and give us a glowing skin too. Studies conducted on people shows that those people who consumed proper amount of vitamins and minerals in their diet have healthier skin and hair than those who did not. Protein rich foods, vitamins and carbohydrates help to nourish the cells in our body and promote growth and development. When our body lacks proper nourishment, it reflects on our skin as it gets dry and dehydrated. Here are some fabulous foods for dry skin you need to check out below: http://www.lifeofdiva.com/skin-care/foods-dry-skin/
julietho
7th Oct, 2014
Hi, Can I just point out that the nhs recommends exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months (i.e. With no other water or foods) and then to supplement Breast milk with food after this period. The WHO recommends Breast feeding for 2 years and beyond. This is the perfect milk for humans!!
TerezaS
1st Oct, 2014
Lactose-free milk does NOT taste like cow's milk! I tried it once (from a very well known shop!) as I seem to have become intolerant to cow's milk, so thought it might be lactose-intolerance - it was revolting, FAR too sweet - and I have a very sweet tooth! Never again!
Goodfood1999
19th Sep, 2014
Almond milk certainly is a good alternative - I've been using it for 2 years. However, you should make sure you read the labels, as the amount of almond actually in each product/carton varies HUGELY. For example, Alpro has 2% almonds, Rude Health 1% and EcoMill 7% - so in effect Alpro is twice as good for you as Rude Health, and Eco Mill is seven times better for you - so don't just go for the cheapest / prettiest carton. Also, Rude health actually has much more rice in it than almond - they should infact be advertising it as rice milk, but somehow manage to get away with calling it almond milk! And don't forget, making your own is easy.
oldwalrus
20th Nov, 2013
One thing you missed - Raw Milk - as it comes from the cow, i.e. not messed around with, pasteurised milk loses most of it's goodness during the heat treatment! Whitewash is probably better for you! (it's what is used to con us into thinking it's good for us anyway - pasteurised milk that is)!
mums_kitchen
22nd Oct, 2013
I am definitely going to use milk alternatives, not because of taste or allergy, but having just woken up to the fact that cows will only produce milk if they've had a newborn. These little calves are taken from their mother within days so that they don't "bond", and most of the little ones are slaughtered soon after for veal.
lp4v07
25th Mar, 2015
This is very untrue. Most calves aren't removed from their mother until much later than that and then most will be reared until adults either for beef or milking!
flotty
31st Oct, 2014
I did not know this!! I will definitely not be drinking cows milk anymore.. thanks for the eye opener..

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SaraG
23rd Oct, 2014
I have a lactose intollerance /allergy. I think I prefere soya milk but truthfully have not tried all options. I have lactase tablets but find these have to be taken with care - Once a Week Only - which is very boring. I have had this intollerance for at least 18 years. For a short time I was OK - but then it returned & with age I seems to be more sensitive. Any ideas on how to get rid of it /manage it better will be gratefully recieved?!
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