Not too long ago, the only thing you could expect to pour over your morning cereal was cow’s milk. But the popularity of alternative milk brands has exploded in recent years, and we now have everything from almond and oat, to coconut, soya, and pea milk gracing our supermarket shelves.
But with so many choices, it can be tricky to know which milk to buy. Each type of milk has its own pros and cons, and the right one for you will come down to a variety of factors; for example, whether you’re shopping for health, diet, personal taste, or sustainability reasons. Some people also like to switch between different kinds of milk depending on what they’re using it for.
So, to help you navigate your way through the ever-crowded milk aisle, we’ll be exploring the pros and cons of various different types.
1. Skimmed cow’s milk
Skimmed cow’s milk per 200ml (approx):
Fat: 0.2g (0.2g saturates)
Skimmed cow’s milk offers some obvious benefits over other dairy options like semi-skimmed and whole milk – the main one being that it supplies a high amount of protein, calcium, and vitamins A and D for relatively low calories.
This makes it a great option for anyone who likes the taste of cow’s milk while watching their weight.
That being said, some people find that skimmed cow’s milk isn’t as filling as whole or semi-skimmed versions and are put off by its thinner consistency. And, in terms of environmental impact, cow’s milk (whole, skimmed, or semi-skimmed) is widely known for being the least sustainable option.
According to research, a glass of cow’s milk is responsible for almost three times more greenhouse gas emissions and requires nine times more land than any plant-based milk.
2. Whole and semi-skimmed cow’s milk
Semi-skimmed cow’s milk per 200ml (approx):
Fat: 2.3g (2g saturates)
Whole cow’s milk per 200ml (approx):
Fat: 7.2g (4.6g saturates)
Just like their skimmed counterpart, whole and semi-skimmed cow’s milk are both full of calcium, and vitamins A and D – all of which are key for maintaining healthy bones and immune system function.
However, whole and semi-skimmed milks – particularly whole milk – are also high in healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acid. This not only adds to their nutritional content, but research shows that these fats make it much easier for the body to absorb other nutrients, like vitamin D.
The main downside of whole milk is its higher saturated fat content, which many people in the UK are eating too much of and is linked with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Therefore, semi-skimmed milk may be the more desirable option for anyone who likes cow’s milk with a thick enough consistency – but with a lower fat and calorie content.
Though, as mentioned above, both whole and semi-skimmed milk have a negative impact on the environment.
3. Almond milk
Unsweetened almond milk per 200ml (approx):
Fat: 2g (0.2g saturates)
Store-bought almond milk is a blend of almonds and spring water fortified with vitamins and minerals, including vitamins D and B12.
Almond milk is available in sweetened or unsweetened versions and aside from being a popular option for anyone wanting to avoid animal products, it’s also liked for its nutty flavour and low calorie content. Plus, as a good source of healthy fats and vitamin E, almond milk offers impressive antioxidant properties.
While almond milk scores a good review on the calorie front, it lacks many other important nutrients, such as protein and calcium. So it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough of these elsewhere in your diet if you drink almond milk.
The environmental impact of almond milk, however, is a bit more controversial.
But, most almonds used to make almond milk are grown in California, where the industrialised almond industry relies on huge amounts of water (around five litres per almond!) and the hard labour of bees. In fact, bees have to work so hard to pollinate almond trees that one investigation found the almond industry was responsible for the deaths of around 50 billion bees over just a few months.
4. Soya milk
Unsweetened soya milk per 200ml (approx):
Fat: 3g (0.4g saturates)
Soya milk is made from soybeans and typically fortified with vitamins and minerals like vitamin D and calcium when store-bought.
There are a number of benefits to using soya milk – including the fact that it’s naturally lactose-free, rich in protein, iron, fibre, and B vitamins, and actually contains more calcium per cup than cow’s milk. Soya milk is also popular for its creamy texture.
That said, soya milk has been subject to some controversy over the years due to its estrogen content, as there were claims it increased the risk of breast cancer. But, these theories have since been proven false and experts now agree that food sources of soy such as soya milk don’t contain high enough levels of estrogen to increase a person’s risk of breast cancer.
In fact, some studies have found that a diet rich in soy can actually reduce the risk of breast cancer.
Plus, when it comes to environmental impact, soya milk has a shining review. It requires very little water to make and has only slightly higher greenhouse gas emissions than almond milk – without any of the negative impacts on cows and bees.
5. Oat milk
Oat milk per 200ml (approx):
Fat: 3g (0.2g saturates)
Oat milk is made by mixing whole oats (that are treated with enzymes) with warm water, which is then strained and fortified with vitamins and minerals.
Because of its thick, creamy texture, oat milk’s often described as being the closest plant-based alternative to cow’s milk, which makes it a delicious alternative for anyone who’s lactose intolerant, vegan, or simply enjoys the taste. Oat milk is also thought of by many as being the best plant-based option for baking, as the majority of other vegan milks are too thin.
Along with soy milk, oat milk is one of the most sustainable options as, according to research, it requires 60% fewer carbon emissions and 80% less land to produce than cow’s milk. It also contains naturally occurring fibre and store-bought versions are often fortified with various nutrients including vitamins A, B12, and D, calcium, and phosphorous.
However, while pretty few and far between, there are a few downsides to consider. This includes the fact that oat milk isn’t as rich in protein as many other types of milk – containing around 6g less protein per 200ml than soya milk.
And, during the manufacturing process, oat and wheat fields can sometimes cross-contaminate, which means that some oat milk brands can contain traces of gluten. As a result, any oat milk that isn’t certified gluten-free is likely to be unsuitable for anyone with celiac disease.
Lastly, oat milk is slightly higher in calories than other types of milk, such as almond milk. But, still clocking in at less than 94 calories per 200ml, it can easily be enjoyed as part of a healthy, balanced diet.
6. Cashew milk
Cashew milk per 200ml (approx):
Fat: 2.2g (0.4g saturates)
Cashew milk is made from whole cashews and water. It’s available in sweetened and unsweetened versions; has a rich, creamy texture, is loaded with healthy fats, vitamins and minerals like potassium, iron, and magnesium; and is naturally lactose-free.
Cashew milk has a modest calorie content and store-bought versions can contain up to 50% more calcium than cow’s milk, with significantly less saturated fat.
Another pro of cashew milk is that it’s a little sweeter and creamier to taste, so if you’re not a fan of the nuttiness of almond milk but want a similar calorie count, it’s a good option. That being said, it’s worth checking the added sugar content of sweetened cashew milk and only drinking it in moderation.
Like other plant-based milks such as almond milk, cashew milk is also pretty low in protein, so if you’re going to use it, it’s worth making sure you have plenty of other protein-rich foods in your diet.
When it comes to the environment, cashew milk is considered a sustainable choice because it requires minimal land to produce. Though, the significant downfall of cashew milk is the poor treatment of cashew pickers. In India for example, where around 60% of cashews are grown, there are known human rights issues surrounding cashew production.
7. Pea milk
Pea milk per 200ml (approx):
Fat: 1.9g (0.3g saturates)
Pea milk is one of the newer types of plant-based milk and has been growing in popularity. Made from yellow-split peas, it’s lactose-free and has a thick texture, slightly off-white colour, and generally mild taste.
Though not quite as high in protein as soya or cow’s milk, pea milk still offers a good dose. And, store-bought pea milk is often fortified with other nutrients like calcium, iron, omega-3, and vitamin D, so it offers a range of other health benefits too.
Pea milk is also one of the more environmentally friendly milk choices as peas don’t require much water or land to grow, and generate significantly less greenhouse gas emissions.
The main downside of pea milk to consider is that some people don’t enjoy the taste, which is described by some as being a little earthier and grassier than other plant-based milk.
8. Rice milk
Rice milk per 200ml (approx):
Fat: 2g (0.2g saturates)
Rice milk is considered the most hypoallergenic of all milk products – suiting those who are lactose intolerant, or have a casein, soy, or nut allergy. Rice milk is also low in fat, and cholesterol free, and the small amount of fat it does contain is mostly unsaturated – which makes it a great option for those looking to boost their heart health.
It’s also rich in magnesium, iron, B vitamins, copper, manganese, and selenium – all of which have many health benefits and give your immune system a boost.
However, rice milk does contain a lot of sugar and carbohydrates – around three to four times the amount of soy or dairy milk. So, it’s not a particularly suitable option for anyone with diabetes or who’s looking to keep their blood sugar levels in check.
It’s also known to have quite a watery consistency and is very low in protein – so if you do use it, it’s important not to rely on it for this and to add other protein-rich foods to your diet.
In terms of sustainability, rice milk also isn’t the best option. According to research, it’s one of the worst polluters when it comes to water, and produces more greenhouse gasses than any other plant milk.
With so many different kinds of milk to choose from, it can be tricky to know which one to go for. But whether you’re deciding based on factors like health, weight loss, or the environment, we hope you’ve found this quick guide useful.
For further reading, you might be interested in our articles; Dairy alternatives – tips for replacing milk, butter, cheese, and more, and 9 ways to make your diet more environmentally friendly. Or, head over to the food and drink section of our website.