LONG gone are the days when milk only meant the cow variety. It is also safe to say our options are far greater than full-cream, skim and soy when we are ordering a latte.
Now, we not only have a far greater range of cow's milk, but also an ever-growing range of plant-based milks that are constantly touted for their superior health benefits.
But a closer look at the ingredient lists and the nutritional panels of these milks reveal something different - that in general you are paying for a whole lot of water in anything but a natural food.
Unlike dairy milk which contains just dairy milk, water is the main ingredient of almond milk, often followed by sugar and then 2-3 per cent almonds. Overall, this means that almond milk contain very little protein, at most 2-3g per serve compared to at least 8g of protein in soy and dairy milk.
While there are a number of unsweetened almond milks now available, regular varieties are also relatively high in added sugars with up to 12g of added sugars per serve. A closer look at the ingredient list will also reveal a number of additives including oils, emulsifiers and gums which have the role of converting the almond water into a milk-like consistency.
The other key issue to be aware of if your milk preference is for almond milk is that ideally you need to find a variety that contains both added calcium and added Vitamin B12, two key nutrients we often assume we will get when we consume 'milk'.
A popular choice for those battling various food allergies and intolerances, rice milk is a lot like almond milk in the sense it is a mix of water and brown rice, although the rice amounts tend to be higher at 10-13 per cent resulting in a milk that contains significantly more carbohydrate than cows and almond milk.
Like almond milk, rice milk too will use various oils and additives to create a milk-like consistency. The protein content of rice milk is exceptionally low and again the key is to choose an unsweetened variety that is fortified with calcium and Vitamin B12 if possible.
Made from a mix of water and oats (up to 15 per cent), the biggest difference between other plant-based milks and oat milk is that oat milk does contain relatively high amounts of the dietary fibre beta glucan, which is clinically proven to help lower blood cholesterol levels.
The downside is that oat milk, even the unsweetened options are relatively high in calories and carbohydrates compared to dairy milk with close to 30g of carbohydrates per serve and remains low in protein with just 2-3g of protein per serve. And again, a scan of the ingredient list reveals that oat milk contains a mix of oil, salt and gums in its formulation.
The closest to dairy milk in terms of the nutrients it offers, a serve of soy milk contains 8-10g of protein and 10g of carbs. Regular soy milk will also contain a similar amount of fat to that of full cream milk, although the plant source of fat means that the type of fat is mainly unsaturated fat until dairy milk which is primarily saturated fat.
The main ingredient in soy milk is again water, along with soy beans (10-14 per cent), sugar, gums, flavours and salt. As soy milk has been available for a number of years there is also a lot of fortified varieties with more calcium, protein and also lower sugar varieties available.
Another increasingly popular variety of plant-based milk is coconut milk. Made from water, coconut cream, sugar, emulsifier and salt, the main difference between other plant-based milks and coconut options is that coconut milk has more fat but fewer carbs and the main type of fat is saturated fat.
Relatively low in calories, of all the alternate milk options you would have to argue that coconut milk is the one that offers the least nutritionally. Very few calories, minimal protein and carbohydrates, you are basically drinking a bit of fat and water minus any natural nutrients. While you can find varieties that contain added calcium, there are more nutrient rich plant-based milk alternatives to coconut milk.
IN SUMMARY …
The milk you choose to drink is a personal choice - you may prefer a plant-based diet; or dislike the taste of dairy or you may be looking for vegan, lactose-free or allergy-friendly alternatives to cow's milk.
Whatever your preference it is important to know that with the exception of soy milk, very few plant-based milks contain the natural nutritional properties of regular milk including calcium, protein and Vitamin B12 and as such, may put you at risk of a range of nutritional deficiencies. And at worst could be adding a whole lot of extra sugar into your diet.
The best thing to do? Always check the ingredient lists of the milks you are buying so you are at least aware when you are paying for water, sugar and additives.
Susie Burrell is a nutritionist. Follow her on Twitter: @SusieBDiet