I’m often asked Which milk should I drink? Is cow’s milk ok? Should I avoid soy? Which nut milk is the most like cow’s milk? The choice of milk is overwhelming and I understand why it is confusing!
My answer is based on the level of nutrition in the milk and minimising additives while I also like to consider the environmental impact. Of course, my answer will also depend on my client’s own health status but, generally, if you tolerate dairy, a small amount of organic full fat cow’s milk is ok. If you can find such milk in a glass bottle, non-homogenized or cold pressed milk, that is even better. If you don’t tolerate dairy or prefer a plant-based milk, the next best option is a small amount of home-made nut milk. It is honestly not hard to make and, compared to commercial shop bought nut milk, the difference in quality, cost and taste is enormous.
The choice of non-diary milk has grown exponentially in the last 10 years. These tetra packs in the supermarket take up nearly half an aisle, so it is no surprise people are confused by the choice. Hemp, oat, almond, macadamia, cashew, coconut, rice, soy, sweetened, non-sweetened, activated….. the list goes on.
As a nutritionist I encourage my clients to eat whole foods, that is foods in their natural state or as close to their natural state as possible. This ensures you get the most nutrition from that food. Processing significantly depletes the nutrients in food and additives such as colours, flavours, gums, thickeners and preservatives can be damaging to your health, even if they are natural.
Browsing the supermarket aisle, I began examining the list of ingredients in these non-diary milk products. This is what stood out for me:
- There is a very small amount of the “main” ingredient in these milks. For example, many of the almond milks contain 2.5% almonds (some more and some less). For 1 litre of almond milk that means there is approximately 25 grams of almonds which is equal to 19 almonds. This seems a very small amount for the main ingredient, and what is the other 97.5% made up of? Mostly water.
- Gums are added to bind the ingredients together and help improve the texture of the non-diary milk. They include products like guar gum, carrageenan, agar agar, xanthan gum, gellan gum. They are mostly natural, derived from bacteria, plant or algae sources. However, our digestive system is not able to break down these gums. While research is divided on whether they contribute to gut health issues in healthy people, , there is substantial evidence to suggest anyone with IBS or IBD should avoid these gums as they can aggravate their gut health issues and symptoms. Interestingly and importantly these products (because they are not technically food and are in relatively small amounts) do not need to be listed on the ingredients panel. If you are someone who has gut health issues, or suffers from coeliac disease, ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, I highly recommend avoiding these gums.
- The long list of additives continues and includes hydrogenated vegetable oils. These highly processed and cheap oils are added to give the milk a smooth texture to mimic the texture of cow’s milk and improve their palatability . Hydrogenated oils such as vegetable oil and palm oil are inflammatory and contribute to increased bad cholesterol levels and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and accordingly, in my opinion, should always be avoided.
- I found many of these non-diary milks had added colours and flavours, both natural and artificial. These flavourings do not add nutritional value. Some E numbers can be harmful for anyone with asthma or children with behavioural issues. My advice is to avoid E numbers and eat whole foods but, if this is not always possible, educate yourself on the impacts of these E numbers. There are many good apps available such as Food Additive Checker.
- Cane sugar is added to “sweetened” varieties of the non-diary milks. Sugar is a simple carbohydrate which is quickly converted to energy. If we don’t use that energy it is stored in the body as fat and excess consumption of sugar leads to insulin sensitivity. The typical Australia diet is already too high in simple carbohydrates, I recommend avoiding any sweetened non-diary milk.
- Sodium is added to these dairy-free milks to enhance flavour and as a preservative. Processed food is notoriously high in sodium and, if you are eating several processed foods each day, your sodium intake can easily be too high. High sodium intake is associated with high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. It also cause calcium losses, some of which may be taken from your bones.
- The tetra packaging these alternative milks are stored in are made up of paper, aluminium and a plastic called polyethylene. Toxins can leech from the polyethylene into the food and if these toxins build up in our bodies they can have a negative impact on our health impacting our hormones and fertility, immune system, and childhood developmental.
On an environmental note, tetra packages are not naturally biodegradable and need to be chemically broken down, the environmental impact of which has not been fully assessed. Currently much polyethylene is exported to India for recycling or put into landfill.
Soy is another controversial topic and the topic of a future blog. There is a lot of research into the health benefits and dangers of soy and lots of evidence to support both sides. My recommendation is that foods made from soy beans including miso, tofu and tempeh are ok in moderation as they are high in nutrition and therefore beneficial to your health with organic soy being preferrable. The fact that these foods are fermented increases their nutritional value. However, soy milk is highly processed with much of the nutrition being removed, so I generally advise against soy milk or at least minimising your intake.
Oat milk is touted as the most environmentally friendly milk. Oats are a wonderful whole food full of vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidants. They can help reduce bad cholesterol, improve bowel health and help balance your blood sugar. The problem with oat milk is that when it is processed all of the valuable nutrition is removed, and you are left with simple carbohydrates which, as stated above, can be problematic. Oat milk is often fortified with vitamins and minerals because it is otherwise void of nutrients. I recommend eating your oats and avoiding oat milk.
On a positive note, my recommendations for anyone currently consuming large amounts of dairy or commercially produced dairy-free milk:
- Ensure you have a wide variety of foods in your diet. I recommend reducing your intake of milk and replacing it with nutrient dense whole foods, try my milk free smoothie below and make your oats into porridge.
- Limit all milk to occasional or sometimes food, don’t make it a staple in your diet, breast milk for babies and infants is an exception.
- Read labels and choose products that contain the most real food and no, or minimal, additives. They are usually a bit more expensive but it is worth it.
- Try making your own nut or seed milk, it is delicious.
Chocolate nut breakfast smoothie – milk free!
1 ripe banana
½ a cup of frozen organic berries
1 tablespoon of Cocoa or Cacao (I like a mix)
1 tablespoon of collagen powder (optional)
1 tablespoon of flax seed
2 – 3 tablespoons of nuts – almonds or cashews work well
½ a tablespoon of protein powder (optional)
1 cup of ice
300 ml of water
If your blender struggles to properly blend the nuts try soaking them for a few hours, or overnight, beforehand. They will be much softer and blend more easily.
Blend until smooth and creamy then enjoy.