Cow milk, considered a must-have in most diets around the world, finds its way into most western breakfasts. Be it as simple as a glass of cold milk, a hot chocolate, a bowl of cereal, tea or coffee, milk has become part of the very fabric of breakfast and a fridge staple.
That said, in recent years, there’s been a shift away from classic cow’s milk. This is down to a wide range of reasons — from intolerances, personal preferences, dietary restrictions to sustainability or ethical qualms. With this in mind, consumers are now on the hunt for the healthiest milk alternative our supermarket shelves have to offer.
The selection of non-dairy alternatives out there is enormous, and we’d even go as far as saying that we’re spoilt for choice. So the 8fit nutrition team decided to make the job easier for you and put together a list of the five tastiest and healthiest milk alternatives out there.
Reasons to substitute dairy milk
For most of us, dairy milk has been part and parcel of our childhoods. We’re sure as a kid you were told that drinking it would help you grow big and strong, and make your bones unbreakable. This isn’t without reason, as cow’s milk has an incredible nutrient profile. The protein it contains is of high quality, and it’s brimming with vitamins and minerals like calcium, B vitamins, and phosphorus.
On the flip side, cow’s milk is not suitable for everyone. One of the most common reasons people veer away from cow’s milk is an existing allergy or lactose intolerance. Many children tend to react adversely to milk until they outgrow it in their teens. On top of that, approximately 75% of the world’s population can’t handle lactose (the sugar found in milk). Other factors such as the overexploitation of domesticated animals, and the concern over added contaminants, like antibiotics and hormones, are also influencing depleting milk consumption.
Realizing that it’s possible to make milk out of many plant-based sources, such as soy, fruit, nuts, and rice is no doubt a revolutionary change! And the fact that it provides us with so many different options is fantastic, but it can sometimes seem overwhelming when trying to make the “right” choice. With this in mind, here are five of the healthiest milk alternatives, in our humble opinion.
It’s simple — mixing ground almonds with water, creates a tasty milk. Of all the nut milks out there, almond milk contains the highest level of calcium — giving dairy milk a run for its money. Not just that, almonds are also rich in other essential minerals like magnesium, potassium, and iron, and contain a considerable amount of vitamin E — around 50% of your RDA. Last but not least, almond milk has just ⅓ of the calories of 2% milk. So you’re getting all your nutrients in, while at the same time cutting down on the calories.
Did you know…
Due to its tendency to separate, a thickening agent called carrageenan is sometimes added to almond milk to homogenize it. Since the agent has been linked to some nasty gastrointestinal side effects like inflammation, try to look for brands that don’t contain emulsifiers or sunflower lecithin.
Blending the white flesh of brown coconuts with water makes coconut milk. If you enjoy the creamy texture of cow’s milk, then coconut milk is a great substitute. 90% of the calories from the milk come from saturated fat, including medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). This type of fat, unlike cow’s milk, is easy for your digestive system to break down and use. It’s useful for improved cholesterol levels, as well as being one of the principles of the ketogenic diet. Coconut milk is also rich in potassium, containing more in a cup than cow’s milk.
Did you know…
We’re talking about coconut milk sold in a carton, and that resembles dairy milk. The other kind sold in a can is closer to cream and is calorie-dense, which is still ok for cooking, but not the type we recommend drinking in large quantities.
With a naturally sweet and nutty flavor, oat milk has become a popular milk alternative. It’s high in fiber, especially beta-glucan. This soluble fiber forms a thick gel-like substance as it passes through the gut. This then binds to the cholesterol in the body, reducing its absorption. Not only does it lower cholesterol levels, but it also has a positive effect on LDL cholesterol, which is the kind that’s been linked with heart disease. On top of that, beta-glucan has been shown to increase feelings of satiety as well as lower blood sugar levels after a meal.
Did you know…
Oat milk is one of the creamier alternatives to dairy, which makes it ideal for foaming into lattes or cappuccinos. It also tastes pretty good added to a bowl of oats or cereal – healthy meets healthy!
Another nutritious alternative to dairy is hemp milk. Rich in plant-based protein, it’s particularly perfect for vegans. Hemp milk has a nutty and slightly sweet taste and is packed with omega-3 fatty acids as well as essential amino acids. These are known to aid digestive health and brain function. If you’re sensitive to soy due to its bloating effects, you’ll be safe with hemp as it doesn’t contain oligosaccharides.
Did you know…
The texture of hemp milk is thinner than the other milk substitutes, almost watery. This means it works best as an alternative to skimmed milk. It’s also pretty low in carbs, which is excellent for those of you on a low-carb meal plan.
Rich and creamy, this beverage is also classified as one of the healthiest milk substitutes. Coined the “new almond milk,” it’s usually made by blending either cashew nuts or nut butter with water. It’s a good source of fiber, copper, and magnesium, which are essential in muscle and nerve function. Cashews made their mark in the vegan and plant-based scene, as it’s creamy texture is ideal in vegan cheeses and other mock-dairy foods.
Did you know…
Some types of shop-bought cashew milk have added sugar and sweeteners. Try to go for the unsweetened variety and jazz it up at home with sugar-free spices and flavorings, depending on your mood.
The choice is yours
For many, cow’s milk is still a kitchen staple, but for others, there are a number of alternatives that are available according to your taste and needs. As a general rule, try to avoid those milk alternatives with added sweeteners or sugar on the ingredient list. Some milks are fortified with minerals and vitamins, those are still fine to grab, as they can help supplement a vegetarian or vegan diet.
So what is the healthiest alternative to milk? No one milk will please everyone. The flavor, nutrient content, and price of these substitutes also vary, and may determine which one you opt for. So play around and give them all a go and see if you find the perfect match for you.