• A study from India looks at how well do plant based alternatives fare nutritionally compared to cow’s milk. (Foodcollection/Getty Images)Source: Foodcollection/Getty Images
The science is in. Here's how soy, rice, almond and coconut milks compare, nutritionally, to cow's milk.
Yasmin Noone

11 May 2020 - 11:02 AM  UPDATED 11 May 2020 - 11:24 AM

Once upon a time, in simpler days, the question ‘do you want milk with that’ yielded a yes or no answer.

Currently spoilt for choice, asking that question today may elicit another more complicated question in response: what kind of milk?

You can try cow’s milk. It may be retro but it's a great source of calcium, is high in protein and contains vitamin A, D, B2, B12 and minerals like zinc and iodine. Yet people who are vegan or vegetarian; have a dairy or cow’s milk allergy; are lactose intolerant or sensitive to cow's milk be unable to drink the animal product. 

As an alternative, they can drink soy, almond, rice, coconut, macadamia, cashew and even hemp milk. But how do these plant-based milk alternatives nutritionally compare with good old fashioned cow’s milk?

The results are in

An Indian study, published in Journal of Food Science and Technology in late 2017, investigated the nutritional differences between cow’s milk and four popular plant-based milk alternatives across the world: almond, soy, rice and coconut milk.

Which one fared best? According to this study, soy milk – by a long shot. The authors rated it top, on the whole, because it is so rich in protein and can help drinkers maintain a balanced diet.

“It is quite clear that nutritionally soy milk is the best alternative for replacing cow’s milk in the human diet,” the study says, conclusively.

So why didn’t the study’s authors rate the other three types of cow’s milk alternatives as high as soy milk? Given the point of the study was to evaluate how each compares to cow’s milk, the four alternatives were evaluated according to their suitability as a near-perfect replacement for the animal product. In other words, the study's authors asked, which plant-based milk can give you the same - or similar - nutrients to cow's milk?

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Almond milk was regarded as a suitable alternative for people who couldn’t drink cow’s milk and didn’t like the “beany flavour” of soy milk or had a soy allergy.

The study rated almond milk as being tasty and low in calories. “[But] the nutrient density and the total number of calories [of almond milk] are not as rich as that of cow’s milk,” the study reads. A big disadvantage is that people may also be allergic to almond milk.

“It is quite clear that nutritionally soy milk is the best alternative for replacing cow’s milk in human diet."

Rice milk got one big tick – it’s got comparable calories to cow’s milk. However, it is rich in sugar and may promote an unbalanced diet if consumed regularly. The study’s authors also called rice milk a “very bad source of proteins and fat as starch is the main source of almost all of its energy”.

As for coconut milk, it was rated as being low in calories and high in taste. But it lacks protein and is rich in saturated fats.

“Rice milk and coconut milk cannot act as an ideal alternative for cow’s milk because of limited nutrient diversity, but they are the options for consumers that are allergic to soybeans and/or almonds.”

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Accredited Practising Dietitian, Lauren McGuckin, tells SBS that although coconut and almond milk may suit people’s taste profile, “there may not be a lot of substance in it beyond filtered water”.

McGuckin, a spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, reads the details of the nutritional panel of a carton of almond milk and coconut milk over the phone to SBS. 

She says: “the almond milk has 2.5 per cent ground almond in the [whole carton] and the main ingredient in it is water. For the coconut milk, it’s nine per cent coconut milk”.

So although nuts are rich in monounsaturated fats and good for the heart when you eat them, McGukin says their benefits don’t necessarily transfer to their milk varieties.

“With nuts or coconut being less than 10 per cent of the product, I’m not sure of the overall benefit.”

The study also states that coconut milk is very high in saturated fat, which could cause cardiovascular issues.

“With nuts or coconut being less than 10 per cent of the product, I’m not sure of the overall benefit.”

What’s so great about soy?

Due to its nutrient content, soy milk has been used as a substitute for cow’s milk in the west for over four decades. Meanwhile, soy has been a strong part of the South Asian diet for hundreds of years.

According to research from the Association of Food Scientists & Technologists (India), soy is a unique dietary source that is very rich in proteins and fat.

The study states that soy seeds contain up to 35–45 per cent protein and 20 per cent fat, which is why soy milk is an important source of protein for vegetarians.

“...soy milk is the next best thing."

“Cow’s milk is also a very important source of protein (8.11 g) in the human diet and only soy milk is comparable in providing with the same amount of proteins (8.71 g) to the human body.”

Senior nutritionist at Nutrition Australia, Aloysa Hourigan, agrees that if you can’t consume cow’s milk for whatever reason, “soy milk is the next best thing”.

But no matter the cow’s milk alternative adopted, Hourigan recommends shoppers choose a variety that is calcium-fortified.

“Even the same brand of, say almond or soy milk, will have products that are and aren’t calcium fortified,” says Hourigan. “So always opt for the calcium fortified milk alternative. I think it is a good idea to also go for the unsweetened varieties.”

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