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Dairy to be different: unpacking the many types of milk

There are more milk varieties and alternatives on the market than ever before. So is it time you considered switching to dairy-free?

Once confined to the shelves of health food stores, dairy-free milk substitutes have become increasingly popular options that are now widely available in supermarkets and cafes. Consumers of all ages – particularly those looking to combat cow’s milk protein allergies or dietary concerns like lactose intolerance – are turning to alternatives such as soy milk, oat milk, rice milk, coconut milk, and various nut milks. In this guide we unpack the many types of milk to help you decide which, if any, could become part of your everyday intake… 


Soy milk is well established as the most popular non-dairy substitute. As an excellent source of low-fat and plant-based protein, soy milk is known to help support healthy muscles and organs. Soy milk is also rich in ‘healthy’ omega-3 fatty acids the human body is unable to form on its own – a benefit many experts have linked to a reduced risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease. On the flip side, while soy milk’s overall nutritional content broadly resembles cow’s milk, natural soy contains less calcium making it less effective in the prevention of osteoporosis. 


Nut milks including almond, cashew and macadamia each provide their own unique nutritional benefits. One of the more widely consumed plant-based milk varieties, almond milk, is often promoted by researchers as being effective for adults who suffer from intolerances to regular milk. What’s more, the healthy fats in almond milk might help with weight reduction. That said, if you’re regularly consuming almond milk but not looking to lose weight, additional healthy sources of calories and protein, such as fish and beans, can help meet your daily needs. 


With its mild, creamy flavour, oat milk is a popular choice for cereals and hot beverages in particular. Like soy milk, oat milk provides a high amount of vitamin B-12 per serve. But while the sugar in oat milk is natural, the calorie and carbohydrate level is also rather high.  


Among the other alternatives to dairy, both rice milk and coconut milk are high in calcium but low in protein. Coconut milk is considerably lower (around 68 percent) in carbohydrates than rice milk, but the latter has more vitamins and nutrients including thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, vitamin B6 and folate. 


It’s worth noting that some manufacturers supplement these non-dairy milk products with additional calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B-12 and other nutrients. Before buying, it’s worth doing your research and comparing the nutritional values of different plant-based milk brands. It might also be a good idea to consult a nutritionist about the best options for your body and other members of your family.  

Potential health benefits aside, some Australians are also opting for plant-based milk products because they are considered more ethically sustainable than cow’s milk. Speaking of sustainability, diversifying your consumption across multiple milk products is also said to be better for the environment as this balances out the farming of each natural resource.

Whatever your motivations, don’t be afraid to milk this growing trend for all it’s worth!