Why Milk Alternatives Are Unhealthy

Why Milk Alternatives Are Unhealthy

There’s a milk revolution going on in supermarkets and it’s showing no sign of retreat. Where formerly we might have had a simple choice between cow milk and soy milk, with a few other niche products available in the bigger supermarkets, suddenly we’re facing a bewildering range: almond or macadamia milk? Cow, sheep, or goat? Coconut? Rice, oat or quinoa?

Milk picture from Shutterstock

But why?

First, let’s take a moment to reflect on the possible reasons for this phenomenon. The current interest in the Palaeolithic diet may certainly have something to do with it. Adherents seek alternatives to dairy and soy foods under the misconception that humans had entirely completed their evolutionary process before any use of these foods. They argue that this somehow means we are not “meant” to consume them.

People with lactose intolerance have long avoided animal milks, which all contain lactose as their natural (but sometimes poorly absorbed) sugar. Environmental concerns are another possible reason people want to reduce their consumption of animal milks.

Distrust of soy foods has also grown in recent years because of concerns about their hormonal effects, although there’s little evidence to support the idea they’re harmful. Nonetheless, people are looking further afield to find a suitable swap for cow’s milk if they have a dairy protein allergy or if they’re avoiding casein to help manage neurological conditions such as autism or dementia (as part of a diet that has been popular but controversial).

Picture: mc559

Soy allergy is another reason people search for milk alternatives. The ranks of these searchers are boosted by the fact that plant-based and raw diets are on the increase.

Not so good

Unfortunately, unless they’re reading the packaging carefully, many consumers are probably being misled by the labelling of these alternative products as milk. What’s more, some are startlingly low on nutrition and, ironically, many are packed with additives despite their “natural” tag.

Indeed, compared to animal milks, which usually contain only milk, a typical ingredients list for one of these alternative products might contain between ten and 18 different added substances. These include oils, thickening agents (starches, carrageenan, or vegetable gums), flavourings and syrup sweeteners, emulsifiers and added vitamins and minerals. And their main ingredient is water.

The large amount of added water means that many of these products are quite dilute. Other than soy milk, none of the others have even a tenth of the protein in animal milks.

If you adjust for the amount of added water by looking at their nutrition relative to calorie content (instead of just per 100 millilitres as most labels show), then some of the nut products look a bit better. They’re still very high in fat.

And really, you’re mainly paying for some very expensive water. Then, there’s added salt, which surprisingly seems to be a supplement to every nut milk product on the market.

Why Milk Alternatives Are Unhealthy

Picture: Vrangtante Brun

Calcium content is not comparable either, unless it has been added. Unfortunately, the form of calcium commonly used is not easily absorbed by the human body compared to what’s present in animal milks.

The low-down

Nut milks are a mixture of ground nuts and water, usually with a sweetener and salt. They provide the beneficial fats that are found in nuts, as well as protein and calcium in very small amounts.

Cereal milks, such as oat, rice or quinoa, are a starchy mixture of grain flours or brans – or both. They usually have added oil and, again, salt. Generally, these cereal milks provide little protein but the added oil usually has beneficial mono-unsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Coconut milk sold as a beverage usually has added water and salt. It is also very low in protein. Coconut oil is mostly saturated fat. While many advocates will argue for the specific benefits of the medium-chain triglycerides present in this fat, these form only part of the fat content of coconut. And it still doesn’t stack up as a healthier fat than the mono- and poly-unsaturated fats.


The environmental implications of Palaeolithic-style eating are rarely mentioned. Eating like a cave-dweller sounds so natural, how could it be bad for the environment, right? But the world’s population is more than 6000 times the size it was in the Palaeolithic era, so sustainability is now a much bigger issue!

Why Milk Alternatives Are Unhealthy

Picture: Tom Woodward

There would be huge environmental implications if six billion people tried to follow a diet high in meat, but the type of milk we choose may be very important too. The amount of water used to grow almonds is very large, for instance, and coconut milk will be high in food miles for most of us. So there isn’t a clear front-runner amongst these milks in the environmental stakes.

Given the strict rules about what products can be called juice, it’s curious that manufacturers are allowed to call these products milk at all, since they really aren’t. Other than in the sense of being a white liquid you can put on cereal and in tea, and use in cooking, that is.

If that’s all you’re looking for, then it’s up to you to choose which one you like most — but do read the label to see what else you’re getting!The ConversationSuzie Ferrie is a Clinical Affiliate at University of Sydney.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


  • My wife and child use oat milk as both have a dairy protein intolerance. The dairy protein is also similar to that found in soy which produces a similar but milder reaction. Out of all the milk alternatives we looked at, oat milk seemed to be the best option. Almond milk has around 2-3% almonds, oat milk has 15% oats.

    • My eyes are getting worse, I thought that said “cat milk”, until I got to the end and it contained 15% cats

    • I use oat milk myself. While I’m not allergic to milk, it can cause an upset stomach. I will still have normal milk for things like coffee, but on cereals and in smoothies, it’s oat milk.

  • “it’s curious that manufacturers are allowed to call these products milk”

    I find it much more curious that the author is unfamiliar with dictionaries.


    a : a fluid secreted by the mammary glands of females for the nourishment of their young; especially : cow’s milk used as a food by humans
    b : lactation
    : a liquid resembling milk in appearance: as
    a : the latex of a plant
    b : the juice of a coconut composed of liquid endosperm
    c : the contents of an unripe kernel of grain

    • 2
      : a liquid resembling milk in appearance: as
      a : the latex of a plant
      b : the juice of a coconut composed of liquid endosperm
      c : the contents of an unripe kernel of grain

    • This is quite funny: the second definition of “milk” is something that resembles “milk”.
      Presumable the second “milk” in that sentence MUST be the first definition only, otherwise “milk” could mean anything! 😉

      What dictionary is it from? It’s poorly written.

      • 1: It’s from the Mirriam-Webster dictionary.

        2: Dictionaries don’t define language, they merely document usage. If the dictionary meaning is nested, that is the responsibility of the english-speaking population, not that of the writers of the dictionary.

        3: Meaning no disrespect, when I criticize another person’s writing, I try to ensure adequate grammar in my response.

        • 2. Of course it’s the writer’s responsibility. Precisely the same definition could easily have been written without the ambiguity.

          3. Disrespect is of course exactly why you wrote this – don’t bother pretending otherwise. Please allow me to grovel in the dirt and whip myself bloody for my e-instead-of-y typo in a web page comment….

          • 2a: I see a concise, clear, nested definition. I welcome you demonstrate the deficiencies of Webster’s definition by posting an improvement.

            2b: We both understood the definition without difficulty, so clearly it’s not ambiguous to us. Is the problem that the definition would be ambiguous to a hypothetical stupid person?

            3a: The spelling error was a minor consideration. The obvious grammatical issue was that while criticizing someone else’s writing, you repeatedly used speech marks despite the fact that nobody had spoken. In a forum there *are* acceptable novel forms of generic emphasis, but speech marks are not among them.

            3b: Demonstrating that you had undermined your argument doesn’t seem to me disrespectful, and was not intended.

            3c: While whipping yourself, may I suggest meditating on the truth that your demonstrated skill at writing is relevant when you criticize another’s writing abilities.

          • 2a. Certainly: just insert “as defined above” or similar after “milk” in #2.

            2b. Ambiguity doesn’t go away merely because you or I assume we know what was meant.

            3a. I would never, under any circumstances, use quotation marks for emphasis. I detest that practice, and consider it unequivocally wrong. I used quotation marks because I was quoting part of the definition, and without the quotation marks my post would have been referring to milk literally, as opposed part of a referenced text. Don’t criticize me for something you apparently don’t understand.
            (And before you reply to that paragraph you should, at the very least, look up “quotation mark” in the online Merriam-Webster dictionary and read what it says is appropriate use – hint: it isn’t restricted only to something said by someone.)

            3b. If that were true it would have been unnecessary for you to open with “Meaning no disrespect”. You’re now obviously just spouting BS.

            3c. I mentioned no-one’s ability, nor did I imply anything about it. The quality of one sentence doesn’t define a writer’s ability. I suggest you take your own advice.

          • 2a: to 3a: All I see is loss of efficiency, both in your revised definition and in your unnecessary quote marks, because I see that the quote marks and the definition nesting are both utterly implicit in the context.

            I think perhaps I understand why you think this excessive hand-holding detail is necessary:
            Do you perhaps believe that good writing should cater to the lowest denominator?
            Because I believe that a good writer respects both the reader’s intelligence, and their time.

            3b: Your response demonstrates that you easily draw the conclusion that people are rude, sometimes incorrectly.

            3c: Interesting claim. Do you also wish to claim that there’s no implication about the cook if I make the following statement: “Who made that meal? It was rubbish!”

  • Ok, so maybe my comprehension is suffering today (not enough lactose in my diet I guess!), but I read it twice (and also the original article in case anything was omitted) and still not sure why milk alternatives are unhealthy…
    Is it because a lot of them lack protein? Is that the main takeaway?

    I get the environmental angle, but that’s not “unhealthy”. Unethical maybe, but not unhealthy. But the author seems to be neglecting the environmental damage of dairy cows and farms too.

    As for milk analogues being nothing but “white water with additives”, I still don’t see the issue. The ingredients are listed right there on the carton. No-one’s being deceived.

    “Milk only contains milk”? That’s a little simplistic.
    “Cow milk is about 87% water” – from here: http://ansci.illinois.edu/static/ansc438/Milkcompsynth/milkcomp_water.html

    And for the record, I usually drink [unsweetened] almond milk. This article hasn’t swayed me in the slightest to think about changing to something else.

    • Milk in Australia contains 100% milk. From the cow. That probably includes water as produced INSIDE the cow but it’s not added. Almond milk is only 2% almond “milk” (how much of that naturally produced is water?) and then they add water, additives, salt, and sugar in the sweetened version. So the deception is that the almond “milk” should be called “almond flavoured water”, but of course that doesn’t sell very well. As long it’s white and liquid, they can pit it against real milk as an “alternative”.

      • That 87% is the percentage of water in cows milk. It’s not added. I’m assuming that US cows and AU cows have roughly the same milk composition.

        But if you have one glass of cows milk, and one glass of almond milk, whether the water has been added during milk production (as in the cow), or added after (almond), what’s the difference?

        You can call analogue milks any name you want. I’d be happy to drink “almond flavoured water” (it doesn’t really taste like almonds TBH though). It’s just semantics.

        I just think the points this article is trying to make are unresearched and seem to be biased.

  • If you make your own mylk there’s no additives or preservatives, no added oil or sugar. And it couldnt be easier: just a few minutes in a Thermomix or other high speed food processor and voila! As for the health aspect we dont need dairy – we’re humans not calves! Too much protein and fat in our diets is precisely what’s causing the health crisis the western world faces.
    Forget paleo, go whole food plant based and live a long healthy life!

    • I’ve just read your response to the article on the different ‘milks’ now found on the supermarket shelves & found it to be quite interesting. For many years I’ve been drinking lactose free milk on cereal & in tea & coffee for digestive reasons & found it has helped me (no more bloating, wind etc). I’m interested to know what kind of milk you make Anni.
      Cheers Rita

      • Most of the population is lactose-intolerant – lactose tolerance post childhood is a mutation found mostly in people from, or descending from, Western Europe, but it’s vanishingly uncommon for people of a different ethnic origin.

        So bloat from drinking regular milk is actually pretty common.

        Personally I’m a mutant and love regular milk…

        There are also tablets you can get from a chemist that supply the enzymes used to digest milk, but popping a tablet so you can drink milk seems excessive. Maybe for ice cream…

    • Exactly, animals make milk for raising their own children.
      That’s why mothers lactate.

  • We don’t need dairy the same way we don’t need whole foods. And osteoporosis is IMO far worse than being a little chubby.

  • My takeaway is that there’s up to 18 additives in many of the alternatives, and they try to look like the real thing, but they just aint.

  • of the 100% cow’s milk, you have probably 60% ‘real milk’ (besides the obvious fact that it’s completely unnatural and weird to drink another mammal’s milk), then there’s like 5-10% pus from the mastitis that the cows get, then obviously loads of hormons and antibiotics that they are being fed with, and then also the stress of living in a solitary confinement your whole life. I mean, not your whole life, only a few years until you’re used up and get sent to the slaughterhouse to get killed and eaten, yay!
    Also, you don’t have to buy the shitty nut-based milks with 18 ingerdients, there are also milks out there with only 2-3 ingredients.
    We all have the choice.

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