A drop of milk? A guide to the different types available

Stirring world of soya, coconut, oat, hemp, rice, almond, cashew and hazlenut milks

As a proud tea and coffee drinker, I am averse to veering towards putting anything into my mug other than the full fat milk the milkman drops at my gate.

I am conscious of course of the ethical complexities involved in my habit of a white coffee but I’ve yet to find an alternative my tastebuds can bear. My other half has experimented by routinely asking the barista what kind of milk they have, opting for soy or coconut depending on his mood.

My dad purchased a soymilk maker a few years back and has found a certain joy in squeezing his own pulses and beans to make soy, oat, and almond milk. When I ask him about his experience of being a home-made milk maker he says he can’t drink it fast enough and, as my mum is on my side of the fence when it comes to the cows, his production rate has eased.

It seems my mum and I may be in the minority when it comes to our preference for full-fat milk. Much of the world around us has tuned into the pros and cons of the various milk substitutes alongside the evidence of the effects milk production has on our planet. And so, despite my dad suggesting I drink my coffee black, and before I ponder borrowing his soy milk maker, I ask the question, “What are the alternatives to my growing cow’s milk guilt?”


Fat and energy

“While full-fat dairy milk may be higher in fat and energy,” says Laurann O’Reilly, a nutritionist with a master’s in public health nutrition, “low-fat dairy milk is a great choice and contains similar values to the full-fat in terms of protein, vitamins, and minerals while being lower in energy. Fortified versions of low-fat dairy milk such as ‘Super Milk’ also contain additional vitamins including vitamins B, D, E, calcium and folic acid which can provide you with an additional nutrient boost.”

As a natural source of calcium and protein, cow’s milk comes with “a wide matrix of micronutrients” which are delivered in much higher quantities than plant-based alternatives. O’Reilly reminds me that, along with cow’s milk, both goat’s milk and sheep’s milk are also nutritious dairy products to consider with milks, yogurts and cheeses now widely available in local supermarkets. “In fact,” she says, “goat’s milk is often a common option for those with a cow’s milk intolerance due to it containing less lactose.”

And yet, that twinge of conscience kicks in telling me to assess the substitutes before discarding them for that jug of full-fat milk. When considering milk substitutes, the Department of Health offers guidance by way of encouraging us to choose alternatives which are inclusive of added calcium. Considering it is not naturally present in most other options, cow's milk is traditionally the main provider of dairy in the Irish diet. O'Reilly adds, "As many of the non-dairy alternatives contain added sugar, it's important to be conscious of this and opt for the unsweetened or no added sugar versions where possible."

Nutrition deficiency

In the end, our choice of milk is not solely based on taste or ethical considerations but rather inclusive of our nutrition which can be a deciding factor for many. “Animal-based dairy products should be the first option for individuals to meet their calcium, vitamin and additional mineral needs,” says O’Reilly. “If you are vegetarian, vegan or you are unable to consume animal-based dairy due to a medical condition such as an allergy or intolerance, you may risk nutrition deficiency when consuming non-fortified plant-based milk alternatives. It’s therefore important to ensure that you make up for this through consuming a diet rich in vitamins and minerals or through supplement form.”

O’Reilly highlights the benefits of each individual milk substitute helping us to decide on which alternative to try next.

Ultimately, it will probably come down to personal preference and whether you can stomach the replacement as it sinks or floats in your morning coffee.

Soya milk: One of the most common non-dairy choices, soya milk is packed with protein and fibre. The benefits include being rich in anti-oxidants called "isoflavones" and having minimal saturated fat. It's also safe for the lactose-intolerant and anyone with a milk allergy. There are some downsides though, chiefly that its sugar content can be high, particularly in the flavoured versions.

Coconut milk: Extraordinarily versatile, coconut milk serves a variety of purposes in the kitchen. It is packed with vitamins C, E, B1, B3, B5 and B6 as well as iron, selenium, sodium, calcium, magnesium and phosphorus. And its benefits don't end in the gut. Coconut milk makes for an effective beauty product as well. Not to be mixed up with tinned coconut milk, coconut milk from the carton can be a healthy non-dairy alternative.

Oat milk: Like many plant milks, oat milk is cholesterol- and lactose-free, while also containing high levels of the antioxidant vitamin E. It also contains folic acid, which is essential for most bodily functions and is needed to synthesise and repair DNA, produce healthy red blood cells and prevent anaemia. Thanks to its plant source, oat milk is usually tolerated by people with multiple allergies and is also a good source of antioxidants. The main issue with oat milk is that it is high in sugar and doesn't have the calcium and protein content of cow's milk. Since it's derived from a cereal crop it's not suitable for individuals with a sensitivity to gluten.

Hemp milk: A good alternative for anyone with soya and nut allergies, hemp milk is also cholesterol- and lactose-free, low in saturated fats and rich in healthy omega fatty acids. It's also an excellent source of protein and tastes creamier and nuttier than soya milk or rice milk. Like other plant milks though, it lacks calcium and isn't as widely available as soya, rice and goat's milk.

Rice milk: Rice milk is safe for those who suffer from lactose intolerance. It works well in cereals, tea, coffee and, also being low in fat, it's a good milk substitute for baking.

Almond milk: You can use almond milk as a replacement for dairy milk in recipes or your daily diet. It works great in mashed potatoes, with cereals, and it also works well in both coffee and tea.

Cashew milk: Cashew milk is a popular non-dairy beverage made from whole cashews and water. It has a creamy, rich consistency and is loaded with vitamins, minerals, healthy fats and other beneficial plant compounds. Available in unsweetened and sweetened varieties, cashew milk can replace cow's milk in most recipes.

Hazelnut milk: This is another plant-based alternative to dairy milk but isn't as common or as popular as almond milk.

All hazelnut milk is naturally lactose- and soy-free and low in calories. Another versatile milk for using in meals and recipes.