Over the past few months several friends of mine have asked me which non dairy milks I use and if I can explain the differences between them all. Most supermarkets these days stock a wide range of non dairy milks in both long life cartons and refrigerated fresh versions and it can be quite daunting when starting out to know which one to chose. It's certainly taken me a while to find my favourites. As a general rule of thumb I look for the milks with the most health benefits but fewest unwanted additives.
When Noah was first diagnosed with a cows milk protein intolerance he was still being breastfed. I cut all dairy out of my diet but couldn't really find a 'substitute' milk that worked for me. I think at that time I was trying to find a non dairy alternative that tasted the same and was disappointed. As a result I gave up cereal and ate a lot of toast! As Noah grew up the dietician recommended fortified oat milk as the best milk alternative for him as it was equal to cows milk in calcium levels and was fortified with vitamins. 4 years on that is still the milk of choice for the boys and they love it. I have since experimented with many non dairy milks and have come to realise that for me they all have their place in our diet. I no longer look for a 'one size fits all' alternative, rather using each milk as a completely different ingredient in the same way you wouldn't use a cheddar for every recipe that needed cheese.
Your choice will ultimately depend also on the reason for switching to a non dairy alternative. You may be looking for a lower fat or low calorie alternative or have additional allergies such as nut or soy. These will all be deciding factors. There are of course many brands available of all the alternatives which will have different ingredients and nutritional value and there are also sweetened and unsweetened versions of most. One thing to consider is that most non dairy milks have been subject to a high level of processing so a better option could be making your own. There are lots of recipes online and the process is fairly simple. (Of course these homemade milks, whilst less processed and with no additives also have no fortification with calcium or vitamins).
Open our fridge at any one time and you will find oat milk, almond milk, and soy milk. All of these offer different health benefits and nutritional value. I'll do my best to summarise these for you!
Oat milk has a very mild 'oaty' flavour and works well as a substitute in general cooking and baked goods. As I mentioned this is the one our boys have as their main milk substitute. Oat milk has the benefit of being soy and nut free if these are a problem however it is not gluten free. An organic version is available but this is not fortified with extra calcium or vitamins.
Advantages - Soy free, nut free, fortified with calcium and other nutrients. Provides good amounts of protein and fibre. Can be used as a main milk for children from a younger age than many other non dairy milks.
Disadvantages - Not gluten free, higher in calories and sugar than some other milks.
Nutrition information per 100 g (Oatly Original) - Energy 190 kJ/45 kcal, Fat 1.5 g, of which saturated 0.2 g, Carbohydrates 6.5 g, of which sugars 4 g, Fibre 0.8 g, Protein 1 g, Salt 0.1 g, Vitamin D 1.5 µg, Riboflavin 0.21 mg, Vitamin B12 0.38 µg, Calcium 120 mg, Betaglucan 0.4 g
Almond milk has a mild nutty flavour and can be used in place of cows milk in all aspects of cooking. It's my personal favourite for cereal and baked goods such as cakes and pastries. It is obviously not suitable for those with a nut allergy.
Advantages - Gluten free, fortified with calcium and vitamins, low calorie, sugar and fat content (if this is what you want)
Disadvantages - not suitable as a main milk drink for children under 3 (packaging states this)
Nutrition information per 100 g (Alpro Unsweetened Almond UHT) - Energy 55kj, Energy 13kcal, Protein 0.4g, Carbohydrate 0.1g, of which sugars 0.1g, Fat 1.1g, of which saturates 0.1g, of which cholesterol nil mg, Fibre 0.4g, Sodium 0.05g, Vitamin D 0.75µg, Vitamin E 1.8mg, Calcium 120mg
We don't tend to use soy milk that often but I like to include it in our diet both to add variety and because of its high protein content. There is a lot of debate regarding high levels of soy consumption especially in males. Do a simple google search and have a good read for yourself. Personally I wouldn't feel comfortable using soy milk as my boys main drink but have no issues using it as part of a varied diet.
Advantages - widely available, fortified with calcium and vitamins, gluten free, high in protein.
Disadvantages - many people with cows milk protein intolerance can also not tolerate soy.
Nutrition information per 100 g (Alpro Unsweetened Soy UHT) - Energy 134 kJ / 32 kcal, Fat 1.8 g, of which saturates 0.3 g, Carbohydrate 0.2 g, of which sugars 0.1 g, Fibre 0.6 g, Protein 3.3 g, Salt 0.03 g, Vitamin: D 0.75 µg Riboflavin (B2) 0.21 mg, B12 0.38 µg, Calcium 120 mg, Lactose nil
Bonsoy is the only soy milk made with fermented soybeans and this is what gives the milk it’s really creamy taste. It is the soy milk of choice for good baristas as it has a good "stretch". This is the only milk I will have my coffee made with and it tastes great on cereal however is super expensive in comparison to the others and doesn't have the nutritional benefits of added calcium and vitamins.
Nutritional information per 100ml - Calories 60.0, Total Fat 2.0, Saturated Fat 0.0g, Polyunsaturated Fat 0.0g, Monounsaturated Fat 0.0g, Cholesterol 0.0mg, Sodium 40.0mg, Potassium 195.0 mg, Total Carbohydrate 5.0g, Dietary Fiber 0.0g, Sugars 1.0g, Protein 4.0g
Rice milk is the most hypoallergenic milk alternative however tends to be lower in protein and higher in fat and calories. It is **not** recommended as a main drink for children and these are reports that raise concerns regarding arsenic levels in rice milk for children.
Advantages - Easy to digest, non allergenic, soy free, fortifies with calcium and vitamins.
Disadvantages - not suitable for young children, low in protein, higher in calories and sugar than some other milks.
Nutrition information per 100 g (Rice Dream with Calcium Milk Alternative UHT) - Energy 197kj, Energy 47kcal, Protein 0.1g, Carbohydrate 9.4g of which sugars 4g, Fat 1g, of which saturates 0.1g, of which cholesterol 0mg, Fibre 0.1g, Sodium 0.05g, Vitamin B12 0.375µg, Vitamin D 0.75µg, Calcium 120mg
There are more alternatives popping up on the shelves on a regular basis including ready to drink coconut milk, hemp milk and hazelnut milk. I have yet to try these but will do soon I'm sure.
This article is meant as an overview to the options available and is by no means prescriptive! I would also add that our dietician has been fab in guiding us through this process for the kids and I would suggest if you are making major changes to your children's diet its worth a quick chat with a professional. Do let me know which milks you use and which you have found best in your cooking...