The results are in – this is the healthiest milk

Experts reveal which is the healthiest milk for your body and the planet, from traditional dairy to plant-based alternatives.

Gone are the days of “I’ll grab milk on the way home” because… well, which milk?

There is reduced fat, low fat, skim, lactose free or A2 dairy milk. Or any one of the explosion of plant-based alternatives – whether made from nuts, grains or legumes – that now cater to our different tastes, nutritional needs and ethical and environmental concerns.

So, which milk should you drink?

From traditional dairy to trendy plant-based alternatives, discover which milk option suits your health needs and environmental concerns.

We spoke to the experts to help you choose.

Dairy milk

Full fat dairy milk is a highly nutritious whole food, dietitian and nutritionist Jemma O’Hanlon says.

“It’s a natural source of high-quality protein, essential for building and maintaining muscle, and calcium and vitamin D for strong bones and teeth, and other vitamins and minerals,” Jemma says.

“And low fat dairy is an option if you have a history of heart disease or high cholesterol.”

However, research found producing a glass of dairy milk generates three times as many greenhouse emissions as most vegan alternatives, Dr Diana Bogueva, of the Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute, notes.

Soy milk

Soy milk, made from soaked and ground soybeans, is a good dairy-free alternative, UNSW School of Health Sciences head professor Eleanor Beck says.

“Nutritionally, it’s the closest to dairy milk, with similar protein, which is important when choosing a substitute, as long as you choose one fortified with vitamins and minerals, including calcium,” Prof Beck explains.

Science shows soy milk is also one of the most environmentally friendly dairy alternatives, with its land use, water use and greenhouse gas emissions lower than that of many other plant-based milks.

Almond milk

While its nutty flavour and low calorie count have made it a cafe favourite, almond milk is naturally low in protein, Jemma says.

“Try and choose one with added calcium,” she recommends.

And on the eco-front? “Almonds require a large amount of water to grow, with 80 per cent of them grown in drought-prone California,” Dr Bogueva says.

Macadamia (and other nut) milks

Macadamia, cashew, hazelnut, walnut, pecan and pistachio – we’re spoilt for choice, but how healthy are these dairy alternatives?

While lactose free and rich in certain healthy fats, these milks are usually low in protein and often contain added sugars, thickeners and flavours, Jemma notes.

“Look for options fortified with calcium (and) vitamin B12 and steer clear if you have nut allergies,” she advises.

Generally, nuts are water-intensive crops and their transporting and processing can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

But macadamia may make the top of the class.

“They are native to Australia, drought-tolerant and self-reliant once established, don’t require as much water, and don’t make as much impact on the environment,” Dr Bogueva says.

Oat milk

Oat milk is lactose free and rich in a variety of nutrients and phytochemicals (the natural chemical compounds found in plants).

Dietitian Rebecca Flavel says it has a creamy texture and contains a good mix of dietary fibre, fatty acids and minerals, as well as micronutrients.

“However, it has about half the protein that dairy milk has, and the protein it does have is incomplete in that it lacks the range of amino acids,” Rebecca says.

“Oat milk uses 80 per cent less land than dairy milk, as well as a lot less water,” Dr Bogueva adds.

Rice milk

Popular among those with lactose intolerance, rice milk is naturally high in carbohydrates.

“It’s the least likely to trigger allergies of the non-dairy milks but has a high glycaemic index, which means it’s not suitable for people with diabetes,” Prof Beck says.

As it is also lower in protein and lacking calcium, Prof Beck recommends opting for a fortified version.

“Rice milk also has a big water footprint,” Dr Bogueva notes.

“It’s associated with higher greenhouse gas emissions compared to other plant-based options because methane-producing bacteria develop in the rice paddies.”

Coconut milk

Prof Beck says coconut milk might be popular but is “high in saturated fat, low in protein and doesn’t naturally contain calcium”.

Generally, environmentally speaking, it is pretty good because coconut trees require little water to grow and absorb carbon dioxide, Dr Bogueva says.

“However, as coconuts are grown only in tropical areas, industrial production of this milk can destroy wildlife habitat,” Dr Bogueva adds.

So, which milk is the healthiest?

We haven’t even got to pea, hemp and flax milks yet – all of which have positives on the nutritional and environmental front but, for now, here is the verdict on the healthiest milks.

As a general rule, Prof Beck says dairy wins for overall nutrition; for people who prefer plant-based alternatives, soy is the protein king, with oat milk also a good choice.

For those concerned about the environment, choose organic versions of a plant-based alternative, Dr Bogueva advises.

“And, diversify your plant-based choices if you can, to stop the market demand leading to these products being overexploited,” she says.

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Written by Liz McGrath.