To drink or not to drink? That is the question when it comes to milk… Nutritionist Cassandra Barns gives us some advice
There’s a big debate around whether regular milk is ‘good for us’. We’ve asked Cassandra Barns, Nutritionist to explain: ”It can have beneficial properties. As well as being a good source of calcium, protein, and fat-soluble vitamins, consuming milk and other dairy foods has been found to be linked to reduced risk of diabetes and obesity. However, many studies have only found this beneficial effect with full-fat milk, and not skimmed or semi-skimmed milk!
‘There are also several good arguments against drinking milk. Many people may have a negative reaction to milk and other dairy products, with symptoms including digestive problems, or excessive mucus production – being prone to earaches or a “snotty nose” (kids and adults!) can be an indication that you have a problem with dairy. It may also cause particular problems for those with skin conditions such as eczema, and other immune system imbalances including autoimmune conditions.
‘In summary, I’d say that for some people it can be fine to drink milk; for others, it’s best kept to a minimum or avoided. It’s very individual, and depends on the person’s general state of health and symptoms that may indicate they don’t tolerate it very well. For those who do drink milk, I’d advise choosing organic, and going for full-fat milk and not skimmed or semi-skimmed. As well as having a greater link with health benefits (as mentioned above), full-fat organic milk can be a better source of fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin A. Even better, go for fermented milk products – organic whole milk kefir or yoghurt – as a good source of beneficial bacteria for your gut too.’
We’ve asked some top nutritionists to put together their complete guide to alternative milks:
1. Hemp milk:
One of the primary benefits of hemp milk is that it has a higher omega-3 content compared to milk made from most other nuts and seeds.Shona Wilkinson, Nutritonist at Superfooduk.com says ‘Omega-3 fats can be beneficial for our heart, cholesterol levels and our skin. Hemp seeds are also a great source of magnesium – a mineral that has many vital roles in our body, including making energy from our food, and supporting our bones.’
2. Cashew milk:
Cashew nuts are good sources of several minerals. ‘These include copper, which helps maintain our hair pigmentation (i.e. helps to stop it going grey) and manganese, which has antioxidant activity. Cashew milk can be naturally creamier than other types of nut or seed milk, which can make it a nicer replacement for normal milk,’ says Barns.
With both types of milk, aim to avoid the sweetened versions if you’re drinking a lot of them, as the sugar can add up. ‘Also, relative to normal milk they contain only a small amount of protein and calcium (unless they’re fortified with calcium) so can’t be counted as a good source of these nutrients,’ add Wilkinson.
3. Almond milk:
Almond milk is similar in many ways to hemp and cashew milk, and is generally another good choice. Barns says ‘Almonds are a good source of minerals too, including magnesium, and are also a better source of calcium than many other nuts and seeds. They’re also one of the best natural sources of biotin, a vitamin that we need for healthy skin and hair. Unsweetened almond milk is generally low in calories (as little as 14 calories per 100ml, compared to around 48 cals in normal semi-skimmed milk) and very low in carbohydrates, so can be a good choice for dieters! It’s usually not very creamy, so is not to everyone’s taste. But some people particularly like the mild almond flavour that comes through’
Dr Marilyn Glenville, the UK’s leading Nutritonist (www.marilynglenville.com) and author of Natural Alternatives to Sugar (Amazon) adds ‘This milk is made from a nut rather than a bean or grain. Has more protein than either rice or oat milk so it is a better choice if you want to lose weight. Unfortunately, many of the almond milks are not as healthy as they could be because of added sugar and other “nasties.”‘
4. Rice milk:
Cassandra says ‘Even the unsweetened versions are much higher in carbohydrates and sugars than most other milk alternatives: they contain up to 11 grams of carbs per 100ml, versus less than 2 grams in unsweetened nut milks. This can be fine if you’ve just been working out – or running a marathon! – but is not ideal for most people as a ‘staple’ in their diet. As rice milks are often made with refined white rice, they can be a poorer source of vitamins and minerals than some other milk alternatives.’
Marilyn adds “A good choice if you are allergic to soya. However, it has more watery and thinner consistency than soya milk and it’s high in carbohydrates as it is made from a grain.”
5. Oat milk:
Wilkinson says ‘As it’s made from a grain, it’s higher in carbohydrates than nut milks, but not as high as rice milk. One of the specific benefits of oats – and oat milk – is that they contain a type of fibre called beta glucan, which has been found to help maintain healthy cholesterol levels. It has a naturally creamy consistency and a naturally sweet taste without the need for added sugar or other additives. Like almonds, oats are high in biotin – for healthy skin and hair – and also manganese, which is a vital antioxidant mineral.’
‘It contains 10 minerals and 15 vitamins – one glass of oat milk contains more calcium than a glass of cow’s milk. In addition, it contains no saturated fat. However, some oat milks can be sweetened with sugar or have other ‘nasties’ added so read the label,’ Dr Glenville adds.
6. Soya milk:
Barns says ‘I don’t generally recommend soya milk as a staple alternative to normal milk. Soya can have health benefits – it contains good levels of protein, fibre, lecithin (that can help us to digest fats), some B vitamins and vitamin E. However, soya in high amounts can disrupt hormone levels in some individuals, due to its content of phytoestrogens (plant compounds similar to oestrogen) – it’s even been found to affect fertility in both men and women. Soya in large quantities can also have a ‘goitrogenic’ effect, which means it can affect the activity of the thyroid gland, which controls our metabolism. These are just two of the potential issues with soya! Neither of these are likely to be an issue if you’re just having the odd bit of soya milk in a cup of tea, but can be a problem for some people if they’re getting through several cartons of soya milk a week, for example.’
Dr Glenville warns, ‘If not organic, soya milk could be genetically modified. It can also be sweetened with sugar or be made from soya isolate which is a refined product.’
7. Coconut milk:
‘Coconut is rich in a beneficial type of fats called medium-chain fatty acids – these fats are more easily converted to energy in our body compared to other fats, and also have natural anti-bacterial properties. The types of coconut milk found in cartons (which are generally diluted versions of ‘real’ coconut milk) are also fairly low in carbohydrates and calories, making them similar to nut milks. It often has a mild coconut flavour,’ says Cassandra.
Dr Glenville says, ‘Although coconut milk contains a high amount of saturated fat, research in animals has shown that it can actually decrease total cholesterol and LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol and increase HDL (‘good’ cholesterol).’