Non Dairy Milks - How they Compare

Non Dairy Milks - How they Compare

Have you considered swapping to non dairy milks? Or does your child need a non-dairy milk because of a food allergy or intolerance? The number of different non dairy milks on the market is increasing. However it is not a simple swap from dairy to non dairy milk. This is because the nutritional value of non dairy milks varies a lot. Most have less protein and less energy (kilojoules) than cow’s milk. Non dairy milks aren’t naturally high in calcium and not all brands have calcium added. Some also have sugar added.

Here is a comparison of some non dairy milks and what to consider if any of these are a regular part of what you and your child drinks*.

What are non dairy milks made from and what do I need to know about them?

Soy

  • Soy milk is the closest to cow's milk in terms of nutrients.
  • It’s higher in protein than other non dairy milks, it also contains fibre and most brands have added calcium.

Nut

  • Although nuts are high in protein, the amount of nuts in nut milk varies (some have as little as 2% nuts) and generally the protein content is low.

Cereal

  • Oat: Usually low in fat, moderate in protein. May not have added calcium.
  • Rice milk: Tends to be low in protein and fat and high in natural sugars. Usually have added calcium. Often similar in energy to cow's milk.

Nut

  • Nut milks are also low energy (compared to soy or dairy milk). Some nut milks are sweetened and some don't contain calcium.

Coconut

  • Tend to be low in energy, low in protein and many don’t have calcium added.
  • Can be higher in saturated fat (unhealthy fat) compared to other milks.

Note: This is a general summary of non dairy milks. When choosing a product for your family, always check the food label as products vary so much. Homemade non dairy milks will be very low in calcium unless calcium is added.

So, can non dairy milks be used as a direct replacement for cow's milk?

Some can and some can’t. It depends whether nutrients have been added to the product.

Dairy made from cow’s milk provides a rich source of energy, protein and calcium (and other nutrients). In general, rice, oat and coconut milks tend to be low in protein and calcium, so are not a suitable milk replacement for children under 5 years.

If you’re looking for an alternative it’s important you choose ones that gives your child a similar amount of nutrients to cow’s milk.  If you don’t you’ll need to offer other foods to fill this gap. This is where you may need some help. To find out how much milk does a child needs

If your child is having non dairy milks, or if your child is vegan, it’s a good idea to see an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) to check that their nutrition needs are being met overall, and which milk alternatives are best for your child.

What exactly should I look for when reading the food label of a non-dairy milk?

Go to the Nutrition Information Panel and look for products that:

  • have a similar amount of protein to cow’s milk (around 3 g per 100 mL)
  • have added calcium (aim for over 100 mg per 100 mL)
  • don’t have added sugar (choose unsweetened options).

More on Reading Food Labels

Take-home message

  • Cow’s milk provides an affordable source of nutrition for growing bodies, but if your child is allergic or intolerant to cow’s milk, or you choose not to drink it, there’s a variety of non dairy milks available. Some are an adequate nutritional substitute for cow’s milk; some are not. Always read the food label. Homemade non dairy milks are low in calcium unless it is added.
  • If your child is not breastfed and their only source of milk is from a non dairy source, your child will need a suitable infant formula for the first 12 months and possible up to 2 years. More information on this topic
  • Please talk to your child health nurse or a dietitian if your child is having plant based milks as their main source for the dairy and alternatives food group.

*This information is of a general nature and contact your GP or APD for personalised advice.