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Are you bamboozled by the variety of milks available in your local supermarket? Have you noticed coffee orders have become even more complicated as the number of milk alternatives has grown? In the “West”, we are absolutely spoiled for choice when it comes to both dairy milk and plant-based milk alternatives, but how do you decide which is best for you?

Dairy milk is a nutrient-dense core food, and our major source of well absorbed calcium for strong bones. We are now discovering other beneficial components in dairy milk including bioactives (1), and eating fermented dairy foods provides gut health benefits (2). If you have lactose intolerance, there’s no need to take milk totally off the table as most people with insufficient lactase enzyme can tolerate small amounts of milk, and there are plenty of low/er lactose variants available. Yoghurt contains much less lactose than milk as the bacterial cultures gobble up the lactose and produce lactic acid and this gives yoghurt its characteristic sour flavour and hard cheese contains hardly any lactose.

How do different milks compare?

Nutrients/100mL Whole milk Reduced fat milk Skim milk Reduced fat chocolate milk
Kilojoules 279 188 152 277
Protein (g) 3.4 3.5 3.7 3.5
Fats (g) 3.5 1.2 3 2
Carbohydrates (g)  5.5 5 5.5
Sugars (g) 5.5 5 5.5 9 (3.4 added)
Glycemic index 27-34 20-30 20-34 22-37

: Australian Food Composition Database and glycemicindex.com

While milk contains mostly saturated fat, consumption does not appear to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease in most observational studies (3). However, those at increased cardiovascular disease risk such as those with high blood cholesterol (in particular LDL cholesterol) would ideally choose low-fat or reduced fat (or semi-skimmed) ‘light’ milk with a fat content of around 1%. Skim milk has almost no fat (and some would say no flavour either!) and is more watery in appearance. Skim and light milks also have lower energy (kilojoule/Calorie) content and this may be a good choice for those above their healthy weight.

All dairy milk has a low glycemic index, and it doesn’t change much when you reduce the fat content. The nutrition information table above shows protein and carbohydrate content changes little when fat is removed, however manufacturers may add extra protein to some products for better flavour and mouthfeel. Suprising for some, flavoured milk, yoghurt and custard with added sugars are still low GI.

Milk can be enjoyed in many ways apart from straight up in a glass, such as on breakfast cereal and muesli, in oatmeal (porridge) and in smoothies and shakes. It is a versatile ingredient in cooking such as in milk puddings, pancakes, white sauces and soups.

Plant-based milk alternatives such as almond, oat, rice and coconut are popular, however, they are generally nutritionally inferior to dairy milk. Soy milk with added calcium is the most nutritious option in this category containing more protein (and better quality), vitamins and minerals (4). Plant-milks tend to be very low in the actual ingredient for which it is named (2% almonds in almond milk for example), low in protein (and protein quality), low in micronutrients (vitamins and minerals – unless they are added), and contain oils, sugars and other additives for flavour and texture.

In terms of environmental sustainability, ‘plant-based’ (or vegetarian) foods have assumed the moral high-ground but assessing the environmental sustainability of food is much more complicated than most understand. We need to improve our entire food system to produce all foods more ethically and sustainably, and prioritise nutrient-rich foods. A healthy, balanced plant-rich diet is good for people and planet, but it’s also important that we eat only as much as we need (avoid overeating) and avoid wasting food (5).

Nicole Senior is an Accredited Practising Dietitian, author, consultant, cook and food enthusiast who strives to make sense of nutrition science and delights in making healthy food delicious.
Contact: You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram or check out her website