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The Nourish guide to non-dairy milk

milk and muesli

I’ve been giving my daughter Maya non-dairy milk since she was young, as her eczema really plays up when she has too much cow’s milk protein in her diet. She, like many with eczema, can get away with a little cheese and yoghurt, but adding normal milk on top would play havoc with her symptoms. I still remember having to go into her school twice a day to replace the bandages which were wrapped around her legs from ankle to hip. Listening to her cries as I pulled the bandages off was heartbreaking. Fortunately, by cutting back on cow’s milk and juggling between almond and oat milks, Maya’s skin is now in a much happier place.

There are lots of reasons for deciding to avoid cow’s milk – you might be vegan or have an allergy to the protein (whey or casein) or sugar (lactose) it contains. Fortunately, there are many non-dairy milks on the market (and in coffee shops!). There are pros and cons to each, so use our Nourish guide to help you choose.

Almond milk
I love the flavour of almond milk and often have it with porridge or lattes. It’s low in saturated fat, which is helpful if you have been advised to lose weight but means it is less satiating than other non-dairy milks and won’t much aid the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients. It has a natural creaminess, so can be used as an alternative to dairy in soups and sauces. Avoid added sugar by buying the unsweetened variety.
Pros Good source of vitamin E, copper, zinc, iron, magnesium, calcium and potassium.
Cons Despite being made with nuts, it’s low in protein.

milkshake

Cashew milk
With a consistency close to that of cow’s milk and a sweeter, creamier taste than almond milk, this is my go-to for a luxurious hot chocolate.
Pros Low in calories and fat. A good source of zinc, iron, copper and magnesium.
Cons Low in protein.

Soya milk
There’s a lot of debate around soya and risk of cancer. That’s because soya contains phytoestrogens – natural chemicals that have a similar structure to the female sex hormone oestrogen. In Asia, where the diet is rich in soya foods, incidences of breast cancer are lower than they are in the West. However, there is concern that eating soya-rich foods after a diagnosis of oestrogen-dependent cancer may encourage growth of tumour cells. Until more research is done, you may want to reduce the amount of soya products you consume if you have been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Pros Cholesterol-free and rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are good for heart health. Similar protein content as cow’s milk. Phytoestrogens aid calcium absorption.
Cons Higher in calories than cow’s milk; may not be suitable if you have been diagnosed with an oestrogen-dependent cancer.
For more information on soya and cancer, see here.

jar of milk

Rice milk
This is an ideal option if you suffer from allergies, as rice milk can be safely drunk if you are lactose intolerant or have a reaction to soya or nuts. It’s rich in energy-providing carbohydrates, but that also means it may not be the best option if you’re trying to reduce calories in your diet.
Pros Low in fat and cholesterol free. It’s rich in B vitamins, which help the body to convert food into glucose for energy, as well as supporting the immune system and promoting heart health. Contains antioxidants magnesium and selenium.
Cons Low in protein and calcium.

Oat milk
Similar to rice milk in its nutritional content, however oat milk also contains heart-healthy beta glucans.
Pros Beta glucans have been proven to help lower cholesterol. The recommended amount is 3g per day. Oat milk contains 1g of beta glucans per 250ml glass. A bowl of porridge made with 40g oats contains 2g beta glucans.
Cons Low in protein.

Coconut milk
I love the flavour of coconut milk and use it in cooking (it’s wonderful in veggie curries) and to make my morning Turmeric Shot. Cartons of coconut milk, which is diluted with water, are lower in fat than cans of the creamier milk most often used for cooking.
Pros It is high in saturated fats, which help to satisfy the appetite and can help the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients (such as the curcumin in turmeric, which research shows may help to reduce cancer risk). A good source of calcium, B vitamins and vitamin D.
Cons Too much saturated fat in the diet is linked to higher cholesterol and increased risk of heart disease.

turmeric and coconut milk drink

Hemp milk
Thinner than some non-dairy milks and with a slightly nutty flavour, hemp milk is good as a drink on its own, added to smoothies or with tea.
Pros High in omega 3 fatty acids, which are anti-inflammatory and promote heart health. It’s also rich in vitamins A, D and B12, plus iron and calcium.
Cons Its thin consistency may make it less appealing than other non-dairy milks. Lower in protein than soya milk.

Note: be iodine-aware
Adults generally need 150mcg of iodine per day; it’s 200mcg if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Cow’s milk and dairy products are the main source of iodine in UK diets, so there’s a chance that switching to non-dairy alternatives can increase risk of iodine deficiency. Iodine is required to make thyroid hormones. It’s also essential for the development of a baby’s brain, so it’s important that pregnant women, or those planning to have a child, get sufficient iodine in their diet.

A study from the University of Surrey looked at 47 non-dairy milks (including soya, almond, coconut, oat, rice, hazelnut and hemp milk) and compared their iodine content with cow’s milk. The analysis showed that they contained only around 2% of the iodine found in cow’s milk. That doesn’t mean you need to switch back to eating dairy, however, as there are other natural sources of iodine found in foods. Take a look at our list to find out more.

Alternative sources of iodine
White fish
Shellfish
Eggs
Meat/poultry
Nuts
Kale

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