Which dairy milk substitute is right for you?

Written by Catherine Saxelby on Wednesday, 14 September 2016.
Tagged: almond, coconut, guides, healthy eating, milk, nutrition, oats, rice, soy, wellness

Which dairy milk substitute is right for you?

Almond, rice, coconut, soy and oats are all used to make dairy milk substitutes. If you are lactose intolerant, have a milk allergy, or follow a vegan diet then these substitute milks can form an important part of your diet. All are free of lactose, cholesterol and are low in saturated fat but that doesn’t mean they’re perfect. Check out my warning watch points for each of them, especially if you plan to use them regularly, or for adolescents who have high calcium needs.

Note: there is a move to re-name these dairy milk substitutes as "mylks" in order to make the distinction clear that they are NOT mammal-derived liquids, despite the fact that they look and can be used in their place. I support this move.

Soy milk

Available in full-fat and low-fat versions, soy milk has a calcium, protein and kilojoule profile that is most like cow’s milk. Soy milk can be made in two different ways and this may influence your choice at the supermarket:

Collage SoyMylks

1. The first way is a milk that is made from whole soy beans that are soaked, heated and then crushed to extract the milky juice which is blended with water, vegetable oil, salt, and sweeteners like malted barley and sugar. Generally, it's low in calcium but rich in protein and B vitamins. This method is regarded as more ‘natural’.

Typical ingredients in whole bean unflavoured soy milk:

Filtered water, whole soy beans (17%), pearl barley, barley malt, raw sugar, sunflower oil, natural flavouring, sea salt, kombu (kelp).

2. The second type is blended from soy protein isolate powder (which is processed from defatted soy flour and contains around 90 per cent pure protein), together with water, oil, sweeteners like sugar or maltodextrin, gums, emulsifier, vitamins, mineral salts and calcium. This is generally fortified with vitamins A, B1, B2, B12 and calcium to a level similar to milk. It has a better flavour with a less ‘beany’ taste.

Typical ingredients in protein isolate unflavoured soy milk:

Filtered water, soy protein (3.5%), corn maltodextrin, vegetable oils (sunflower, canola), cane sugar, minerals (calcium, phosphorus, magnesium), acidity regulators (332, 450), antioxidant (ascorbic acid), vitamins (A, B12, D2, B2, B1), natural flavour.


If you have a hormone-sensitive cancer, check with your doctor if it’s ok for you to drink large volumes of soy milk (say around 1 litre) with its natural plant oestrogens.

Almond milk

Made from ground almonds, almond milk is low in carbohydrate, protein and kilojoules. It comes into its own if you’re allergic to both dairy and soy. Plain, unflavoured, almond milk can be used as a substitute for regular milk in most recipes.

Almond mylk CollageIt has a pleasant nutty flavour that makes a nice milky coffee and teams well in desserts and Middle Eastern recipes. Vanilla flavour and sugar or a sweetener (such as agave) are often added to commercial almond milks. However, if you have time, you can make your own almond milk at home by swirling ground almonds with water in a blender then squeezing the liquid out through a fine sieve or mesh.

Typical ingredients in unflavoured almond milk:

Filtered water, ground whole almonds (2%), tapioca starch, agave syrup , sunflower oil, salt, carrageenan, lecithin, natural flavour.

Oat milk

Popular in Sweden, oat milk is made from a solution of ground oats swirled with water. It has a naturally light semi-sweet taste (without the need to add sugar or agave syrup), so is a welcome alternative if you dislike the nutty-tasting milks and don’t want added sweeteners. It substitutes well for skim milk.

Oat milk is high in fibre (particularly beta-glucans) and contains vitamin E, folic acid, minerals and natural phytochemicals. It is not gluten-free. If it’s not fortified, it won’t contain much calcium (you can check the ingredient list to see if a calcium compound is on the list).

Collage OatMylksTypical ingredients in unsweetened oat milk:

Filtered water, whole oats (10-17%), sunflower oil, sea salt.

Rice milk

Rice milk is usually processed from brown rice and is essentially a source of sugary carbohydrate (with around 24 g per glass). The rice milks that have been tested to date have very high GI values, like their parent rice. Rice milk is low in nutrient value unless vitamins and calcium are added to it.

Collage RiceMylksTypical ingredients in unsweetened rice milk:

Filtered water, whole brown rice (13%), sunflower oil, calcium phosphate, sea salt.

Coconut milk

Made by diluting coconut cream with water then adding in sugar or agave, thickeners and a source of calcium. Coconut milk appeals to the growing vegan sector and allergy market with its claims that it’s dairy-free and soy-free.

PicMonkey CollagCoconut Mylk collage

Typical ingredients in unflavoured coconut milk:

Filtered water, coconut cream, sugar, mineral (calcium phosphate), emulsifier (lecithin), gums (guar, xanthan, carrageenan), natural flavour, salt, modified starch (1450).

5 handy shopping tips when buying plant milks

I’m still a fan of cow’s milk and am in admiration of the current system for milking, packing and transport in Australia. However, as a descendant of northern European parents and grandparents whose ancestors herded cows for generations and retained the enzyme necessary to digest the lactose, I’m fortunate to be able to consume dairy products without any problems. I’m well aware, though, of those who suffer bloating, diarrhoea or digestive upsets from consuming cow’s milk. So here are my take-home notes:

  1. Be prepared to pay.

All these alternative milks cost more than regular cow’s milk. Perhaps that’s because of the smaller scale or the extra processing needed to produce them. Outside of city areas, you’ll mostly find them sold as long-life UHT tetra-pack (not chilled, unlike dairy). So they’re not as ‘natural’ as fresh cow’s milk.

  1. Don’t rely on them for calcium.

Nut and grain milks are low in calcium. Definitely not for any calcium-requiring teens in the house. However, you can find many brands that are fortified so that nutritionally they deliver the calcium of cow’s milk. You can check the label for 75 or 120mg calcium per 100mL or look for “calcium phosphate” or “calcium triphosphate” on the ingredient list.

See table:

Plant milk mg calcium per 100mL
Soy, non-fortified 8 - 32
Soy, fortified 120
Almond, non-fortified 3
Almond, fortified 75
Oat, fortified 120
Rice, fortified 120
Coconut, fortified 75
Cow's milk, full-cream 120
  1. They are LOW in protein. Nut, coconut and oat milk have only around 1 gram protein per 100mL, which is one-third that of cow’s milk. Rice milk has almost no protein.
  2. Soy milk is the closest to cow’s milk. In terms of protein, calcium and kilojoules, soy milks are your best bet and are similar in price.
  3. Most alternative milks are lower in fat and have less saturated fat (dairy is about 2/3 saturated fat).

Bottom line

All of these plant milks are ‘concoctions’ of sorts being formulated to resemble cow’s milk. If you can tolerate cow’s milk, it’s a healthier option for you and is always cheaper. What’s more, it’s fresher and made from (mostly) a single ingredient.

Hear Catherine on this topic

Click through to ABC Radio National Blueprint for Living and listen to Catherine being interviewed by Jonathan Green on 13 Oct 2017.












Catherine Saxelby

About the Author

Catherine Saxelby has the answers! She is an accredited nutritionist, blogger and award-winning author. Her latest book Nutrition for Life  is a new update on all the things you've read or heard about. Think insects, collagen, vegan eating, Keto dieting, vitamin B12, fast food and cafe culture.  It has plenty of colour pictures and is easy to dip in and out of. Grab your copy NOW!