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
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.
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.
|64kcals||120mg 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.
|57kcals||126mg calcium||3.5g fat||2.2g sat fat||2.8g 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.
|68 kcals||129mg calcium||3.5g fat||2.2g sat fat||4.7g sugar||3.4g protein|
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.
|61 kcals||120mg 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.
|33 kcals||120mg calcium||1.8g fat||0.3g sat fat||0g sugar||3.3g protein|
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.
|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.
|17 kcals||120mg calcium||0.9g fat||0.8g sat fat||2g 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.
|35 kcals||118mg calcium||2.8g fat||0.3g sat fat||1.8g sugar||0.6g 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.
|45 kcals||120mg calcium||1.5g fat||0.2g sat fat||4g sugar||1.0g protein|
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.
|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.
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