Dairy is one of those very ‘grey’ areas when it comes to nutrition. On either side of the dairy argument there are positives and there are also points to consider.
Positives being that dairy is a great source of numerous nutrients such as protein, fat, calcium and vitamin D. Plus a number of dairy products like yoghurt actually put good bacteria back into your gut. On the other hand, dairy products typically have had some level of processing and depending on individual tolerance can actually cause a range of digestive and gut problems.
My general take on dairy is that if you can tolerate it – great! It is an easy source of the afore mentioned nutrients. However, you just want to make sure you do not go crazy as it can irritate your gut (differing levels for different people) which is central to so much of our overall health especially our immune system. It is also crucial to keep your intake of other nutrient dense whole foods high.
Clear as, ah, a milky cup of milk?
Like I said, dairy is a very grey area of nutrition.
Cows milk is a dairy product AND it is used as the basis for many others (cream, cottage cheese, ice-cream as examples). So what are some alternatives for those that need to keep it minimal or eliminate it? Just remember there is a difference between being intolerant and having an allergic reaction. A milk allergy occurs when the immune system reacts to the protein in milk, where as an intolerance is typically in response to the lactose in milk. When in doubt always get this confirmed by an allergy specialist.
Below is a short list of some milk alternatives. The first two here almond/nut milks and coconut milk which are my preferred recommendation!
Remember all of these alternatives are processed to some degree (unless you make them at home). As a good rule of thumb always go for the least processed options with no added sugar (so ‘unsweetened’) and minimal additives. If you can go organic that would be ideal here as they typically have slightly less additives in them. However due to the huge explosion of these products on the market you will need to read the label.
For example, when I looked at the Macro Organic Almond Milk and checked the ingredients list it also had organic brown rice listed. This may not be a problem but if you are not wanting to use brown rice or grains at all, and/or wanting to keep your carbohydrate down (you will see it has 6g/serving and more sugar then the Vitasoy Almond Milk on the left) then this is why you need to check!
Please note this is not by any means an exclusive list. As I mentioned there are a multitude of products out there on the market right now. This post is also not designed to give specific individualised advice, rather a general overview of some of the current dairy-free options for milk.
If I had to choose, almond milk would take top place for a dairy-free alternative to milk. Not only because it is packed full of nutrients but in terms of how similar it resembles normal milk in regards to thickness. While it is not a complete protein, almond milk does contain a reasonable level of protein but more importantly a good amount of healthy fat. Only choose the unsweetened option. One that is labelled ‘original’ does not mean it does not have added sugar, when you check the back you will find it most likely has cane sugar included. Almond milk already contains 3.9g of sucrose (simple sugar) per 100g which is from the almonds themselves, so it does not need added sugar. Also when you see ‘sugar’ on the packet of an ‘unsweetened’ option this is why.
Almond milk makes a great choose to have on top of cereal (my healthy toasted muesli here just if you are looking) and of course in smoothies – be sure to check out my new Almond, Kale and Strawberry smoothie here. Mums – almond milk also makes an easy option for your coffee too :). In regards to brands, I actually found the Vitasoy to be the best in terms of the least amount of additives but also keeping ‘true’ to the product (i.e no brown rice!).
Unfortunately those that are allergic to nuts/tree nuts – this option is ruled out for you.
A close runner up – coconut milk gives smoothies, curries and other milk based recipes a very creamy texture. As with all of these alternatives there appears to be wide variation in the additives used. Compared to almond milk, coconut milk will have less protein and slightly more fat – I am on the fat is good side of the camp so in my opinion this is fine, it is just about making an informed choice here given your own dietary intake and what you are looking for. Coconut does have a huge number of nutrients that can really help in healing an irritated gut so this is worth keeping in mind as well.
(FYI for little ones struggling with constipation I have just the smoothie recipe for you here using coconut milk)
I think I need another entire blog dedicated to just soy milk alone! It is a very debated product both in research and on the world wide web. Soy milk is made from soaking dried soybeans and grinding them in water. Nutrient wise the soy bean itself is very good – over 35% protein and 3.4mg/100 of iron. However the two major points of contention are the genetic modification (GMO) and the impact on our hormones (both male and female).
As of February 2004, Food Standards Australia New Zealand approved GMO ingredients derived from GMO crops such as potatoes, corn, canola, soybean, and sugar-beet. At the moment buying Certified Organic soy is the only way to ensure that the soybeans were not genetically modified nor grown without chemicals. Currently there is mixed research on just what the effect is of soy on both male and female hormones. In simple terms this means there is some research to show there is an impact and some where no impact is seen. It is important to remember that soy was (and still is) not meant to be consumed as a major dietary staple but in small amounts.
Bottom line – if you can have a different alternative I would, especially if you are struggling with a hormone condition of any description. If you are buying soy milk, make sure it is organic (you are buying a ‘specialist’ drink option anyway so this makes it worth it) and like with all dairy (cows milk included) keep in mind your daily volume.
Lactose Free Milk
This is not suitable for those with a milk allergy but an easy alternative for those with an intolerance. Many major milk brands now stock this in the main section of the supermarket. If you are buying this, I would just make sure you get the full-fat option rather then the trim (keep the good stuff in and the sugar out!).
Rice and Oat Milk
Generally your rice and oat milks will be slightly less nutritious then your other alternatives. They will be significantly lower in fat (even compared to cows milk) and lower in fiber and other nutrients such as iron and b-vitamins. Potentially for a child with sever allergies these may offer an alternative but I would still check the label carefully as some will have wheat for example in the ingredients list. Being grain based, I would not recommend these for babies under that age of one (you can ready my blog on not giving babies infant cereal or baby rice here and I discuss this more in my starting solids guide here). For those trying to kick start their metabolism or boost energy levels I would also see if almond milk could be used instead due to the impact on our insulin (fat storage hormone) from the extra carbohydrate and potential related inflammation.
I really hope that was helpful! I know it is just a general guide and it really is a bit of a mind field out there to know what is right for you and your family!
After Extra Help?
I talk more about dairy, milk and other allergenic foods at on my starting solids tours! This is a great chance to ask me anything! Check out my events page for dates – we are about to kick off 2017 here in Auckland (Feb 18th) and then Hamilton (Feb 25th) – just click the links over the cities for all details here jump here to event finder.
I also offer special one-on-one consultations for starting solids questions and toddler feeding related questions, these are in 15min, 30min and 1 hour slots just click here to inquire (online booking system coming soon!).
xxx Dr Julie Bhosale