Scour the dairy shelves in your supermarket and, as well as cow’s milk, you can find goat’s milk, several soya options and milk-style drinks made from nuts. There’s a huge demand for these products, as more and more households now use an alternative to traditional milk in hot drinks, cereal or cooking.
One reason is that some of us find cow’s milk difficult to digest, and blame symptoms like bloating, wind and diarrhoea on dairy. This may be because low levels of the enzyme lactase make it hard to digest the lactose (sugar) in dairy. Other people may be intolerant to cow’s milk protein or have a more serious allergy to dairy products.
Milk allergy is also one of the most common childhood food allergies, second only to peanuts, according to a study from American academy of allergy asthma and immunology. The study also revealed that about 8 per cent of infants suffer from a food allergy, with symptoms ranging from skin conditions to digestive problems.
Skimmed, semi or whole?
Latest research reveals that skimmed isn’t necessarily the healthiest option. Yes, it’s lower in fat and calories, and higher in calcium, than whole milk, but some experts suggest that the saturated fat in dairy may not be a problem in terms of heart health. In fact, by drinking skimmed we may be missing out on fat-soluble nutrients like vitamins A and E. Semi-skimmed is low enough in fat to be a ‘low-fat’ food, but it also has lower levels of fat-soluble vitamins than whole milk. So make sure you get your fat-soluble vitamins from other sources, such as brightly coloured salad or veg served with an oil dressing.
Best for babies
Experts recommend that babies are breast-fed up to six months, and start whole cow’s milk from one year old. Semi-skimmed is an option from two years and skimmed milk only after five years of age. Always ask your GP or a dietitian for advice if your baby has a milk allergy. Some alternatives, like soya drinks, may be unsuitable.
Check our guide for your best option. Whether you choose dairy milk or not, always include plenty of non-dairy sources of calcium, such as canned salmon and sardines, green leafy veg, nuts and seeds, including almonds and sesame seeds.
Traditional cow’s milk
What is it? A natural product, rich
in protein and a source of calcium. Organic milk contains higher levels of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, and the cows are less likely to have been exposed to antibiotics and pesticides. Some people prefer homogenised cow’s milk, as homogenisation breaks down the fat molecules, making the milk easier to digest.
Good for Cereal, porridge and in hot drinks,
and naturally nutritious.
Taste Mild and creamy.
Cooking Ideal in sauces and bakes.
Nutrition per 100ml kcals 68, calcium 122mg, fat 4g, sat fat 2.6g, sugar 4.7g, protein 3.4g.
Lactose-free cow’s milk
What is it? Cow’s milk that has been filtered to remove lactose, and has the lactase enzyme added. It contains the same nutrients as regular milk, and offers similar health benefits.
Good for The lactose-intolerant.
TasteThe same as cow’s milk.
CookingWorks as well as cow’s milk.
Nutrition per 100mlkcals 58, calcium 135mg, fat 3.5g, sat fat 2g, sugar 2.7g, protein 3.9g.
a2 cow’s milk
What is it?A less common alternative, this is milk containing a2 protein, a type of casein, only. Some people believe that a1 causes gut discomfort – if you’ve ruled out lactose-intolerance, try a2 milk.
Good for Those affected by milk protein.
TasteAs good as cow’s milk.
CookingWorks as well as cow’s milk.
Nutrition per 100ml kcals 64, calcium 120mg, fat 3.6g, sat fat 2.4g, sugar 4.7g, protein 3.2g.
What is it? A natural product, nutritionally similar to cow’s milk.
Good forA useful option for people who can’t tolerate cow’s milk, as it has smaller fat particles and less lactose. Works well in tea, coffee and hot chocolate.
Taste A strong, distinctive flavour, slightly sweet with a sometimes salty undertone.
Cooking Suitable for use in most recipes.
Nutrition per 100mlkcals 61, calcium 120mg, fat 3.6g, sat fat 2.5g, sugar 4.3g, protein 2.8g.
What is it? Made from pressed coconut with added calcium. This is lower in protein, with higher levels of saturated fat than most other plant-based options.
Good forVegetarians. Try it with your cereal, and in tea and coffee.
TasteLight with a hint of coconut.
CookingGreat for baking, as the coconut flavour won’t overpower the food. Makes
a good batch of sweet dairy-free pancakes – as the milk is quite thin, you won’t need as much in your batter
Nutrition per 100ml kcals 25, calcium 120mg, fat 1.8g, sat fat 1.6g, sugar 1.6g, protein 0.2g.
Soy or soya milk
What is it?Soya ‘milk’ is comparable in protein content to cow’s milk and is low in fat. Soy-based foods can help to manage cholesterol levels, although you need about 25g soy protein, or 3-4 glasses of soya milk a day, to achieve this.
Some brands are fortified with calcium and
vitamins A and D.
Good for Non-dairy drinkers who are looking for a low-fat option – check that your brand includes added calcium and vitamins A and D. Mixes well in tea and coffee.
Taste Nutty and thick, but not sticky.
Cooking Works well in baking.
Nutrition per 100ml kcals 37, calcium 120mg,
fat 1.7g, sat fat 0.26g, sugar, 0.8g, protein 3.1g.
What is it? A blend of almonds and spring water, this is fortified with calcium and vitamins, including D and B12.
Good forVegans and anyone avoiding animal products, because it’s fortified with vitamin B12. We enjoyed it in hot drinks but felt it worked best in coffee.
TasteA subtle nutty flavour – choose unsweetened for day-to-day use.
CookingUse in the same quantities as cow’s milk – makes a good batch of scones.
Nutrition per 100mlkcals 13, calcium 120mg, fat 1.1g, sat fat 0.1g, sugar 0.1g, protein 0.4g.
What is it?A sweet milk,
low in protein and fortified
Good forThose who can’t tolerate dairy or soya.
TasteSweet but neutral – doesn’t give hot drinks a milky colour.
Cooking Thin consistency, so you may need to thicken sauces with a little extra flour.
Nutrition per 100ml kcals 47, calcium 120mg, fat 1.0g, sat fat 0.1g, sugar 4g, protein 0.1g.
What is it? Made from oats and enriched with vitamins and calcium. Low in saturated fat.
Good forA low-fat option with all the goodness of oats.
TasteCreamy with a slightly powdery aftertaste.
Cooking Won’t split when heated, good for a white sauce.
Nutrition per 100mlkcals 45, calcium 120mg, fat 1.5g, sat fat 0.2g, sugar 4g, protein 1.0g.
What is it?A blend of hemp seed and fortified with calcium and vitamin D.
Taste Mild and slightly sweet.
Good forHot drinks.
CookingUse in smoothies or sauces. Or freeze with fruit and honey for a non-dairy ice cream.
Nutrition per 100ml kcals 39, calcium 120mg, fat 2.5g, sat fat 0.2g, sugar 1.6g, protein 0.04g.