Do you risk losing key nutrients by switching from milk to non-dairy alternatives?

Once we sloshed cow’s milk over our cereal but now it’s all about choice. But do we risk losing key nutrients by switching to non-dairy options, asks Sharon Ní Chonchúir.

WHAT could be more wholesome than cow’s milk? Generations of us grew up glugging glasses of it straight from the fridge before greedily licking off the frothy white moustache it would leave on our lips.

We’re not such enthusiastic consumers of milk today. Research carried out by the National Dairy Council in 2018 found that 41% of Irish women and 30% of Irish men are now avoiding or limiting their dairy consumption and that one in ten believe that cow’s milk is unhealthy.

This is a message that is often heard online. Social media influencers such as Rozanna Purcell and former Miss World Rosanna Davison, who holds an MSc degree in personalised nutrition, are among those who say that the likes of soy, almond and oat milk alternatives are much healthier than full-fat cow’s milk.

While Irish people are still some of the biggest milk consumers globally, with the average household drinking 6.2 litres every week, sales of milk alternatives are growing. Earlier this year, the retail experts Kantar published figures showing that Irish sales of plant-based milks were up 40% in January compared to the same period in 2018.

The trend isn’t confined to Ireland. According to research firm Mintel, UK sales of milk alternatives have grown by 30% since 2015.

Does this mean that the social media influencers are right? Are these milk alternatives more nutritious than full-fat milk and are they worth spending the extra money?

Because, rest assured, they are more expensive. I compared prices across a range of shops and found that a litre of cow’s milk sells for approximately €1.20 while a litre of nut, rice or oat drink can cost double that.

Holly White makes her own almond milk and is certain that it’s better for her than cow’s milk. She’s a vegan food blogger and fashion stylist who published her first cookbook, Vegan-ish, last year.

“Dairy milk does not agree with me,” she says. “When I drank it, I didn’t digest it very well. It made me bloated and congested my skin. Within a month of giving up, my skin had cleared completely.” White was also motivated by ethical concerns. “A cow must be pregnant or have recently given birth in order to be able to produce milk,” she says. “The fact that their calves are taken away from them so that us humans can consume their milk is not something I can support in any way.”

The replacement of cow’s milk with plant-based alternatives is a trend that worries Sarah Keogh, a dietitian and nutritionist at the Eat Well Clinic in Dublin (www.eatwell.ie). 

“There is no health benefit in switching from dairy to these alternatives unless you have an allergy to dairy.

“Their nutritional content is far less than milk.”

None of the plant-based alternatives are naturally high in calcium, which is one of the key nutrients supplied by milk.

“We need calcium and the idea that you can get enough of it by eating green vegetables is a myth. You’d have to eat 16 portions of broccoli every day to do so.”

Not everyone realises that calcium can be missing from plant-based drinks. “They assume that because people say these drinks are healthy then they must have the same nutritional value as milk,” says Keogh. “They don’t and it’s a big mistake to assume that they do.” Some milk alternatives are fortified with calcium and other missing nutrients and Keogh encourages everyone to make sure the brand they drink is a fortified one.

“I give lots of talks to companies and whenever I go into companies that have mostly younger workforces, I am frightened by the fact that so many of them have given up dairy without giving a thought to how to replace their calcium,” she says. “We’re going to see a swathe of osteoporosis in years to come.”

White makes sure she maintains a healthy calcium intake. “I eat a lot of leafy greens, almonds, nuts and seeds and I get blood tests done regularly to ensure my body is getting all the nutrients it needs,” she says.

Iodine is another nutrient that may be missing from the diets of people who give up milk.

“We can get iodine from fish, seaweed or from cow’s milk, to which it is added,” says Keogh. “But if you don’t eat any of those, you won’t get it and iodine deficiency is becoming a big public health issue, especially for pregnant women who need it for the healthy brain development of their baby.”

Even though the move away from cow’s milk towards plant-based milks worries Keogh, she doesn’t think that it will be a permanent one for most people. “The last trend we had was the gluten-free diet and that lasted for five years,” she says. “Now it’s a vegan diet. In five years’ time, it will be something else.”

However, she does concede that there will always be some demand for these plant- based alternatives. “People who give up milk for ethical or environmental reasons need these milk replacements, but they shouldn’t fool themselves that they are healthier products,” she says. “If they are fortified, they can offer the same nutrients as milk. If they’re not, they offer far less.” Keogh also refutes common allegations that are made about milk.

“There are often stories about breast cancer rates increasing because of cows being given hormones and about antibiotics entering the food supply because they are given to dairy cows but that only relates to American farming practices,” she says.

“None of this is allowed by the EU so those arguments don’t hold here. When you look at the science, there is no debate about dairy being anything other than good for you.”

I have a personal interest in this issue. I have multiple sclerosis and try to control it using the OMS diet and lifestyle programme (www.overcomingms.org). The diet excludes all dairy products and I now use almond milk in my porridge every morning. That’s the only time I use it as I was already a black tea drinker before I ever developed MS.

Keogh is not convinced by the OMS diet. “There hasn’t been enough research to show that it works,” she says. But she does reassure me that I can live a healthy life without dairy.

“We can all live without it as long as we get our nutrients, especially calcium, from somewhere,” she says. “Vegans suffer from 30% more fractures than non-vegans.

“That’s an indication that their bone health is not as good. If they got enough calcium from their diet, that shouldn’t happen.”

The move away from cow’s milk towards plant-based alternatives was always going to cause a stir in Ireland. The Irish dairy sector is one of the most successful in the entire economy, with 18,000 dairy farmers and approximately 1.4m cows generating over €4bn in exports in 2017.

However, no matter what dairy representatives have to say, there will always be people who follow vegan diets or who choose to avoid dairy for other reasons. If you’re thinking of converting to a dairy-free diet, both White and Keogh agree on one important point.

“Please seek advice from your doctor or nutritional advisor before making any dietary changes,” says White. “I am simply sharing what works for me.”

Keogh couldn’t agree more. “It’s worth sitting down with a registered dietitian to make sure you’re getting everything you think you’re getting from your diet,” she says. “It’s best to listen to someone who has studied the facts and knows the science rather than being taken in by the latest trends on social media.”

What's the alternative?

What are the options when it comes to replacing milk? I had a look at the plant-based alternatives — all in 1l cartons — on my local supermarket shelves and taste-tested the main contenders.

  • Almond: Alpro unsweetened roasted almond, €2.39, has been my milk of choice for several years now. It has a mildly nutty taste, which works well in tea, coffee or with breakfast cereal.
  • Rice: Made by Rice Dream, €2.29, this tasted significantly sweeter than my almond milk despite not having any added sugar. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, it could be a good option for you.
  • Hazelnut: I accidentally picked up the sweetened version of this Alpro product, €2.39, which meant its main ingredient after water was sugar. That aside, its flavour was pleasantly sweet and hazelnutty.
  • Cashew nut: Another Alpro product, €2.19, and a good one. Its flavour was creamy and mildly nutty and while it might not work in tea, I could see people adding it to their breakfast cereal.
  • Soy: One of Alpro’s original milk alternatives and many people’s entry point to milk replacements, €2. It is easy to see why as it’s clean tasting and has the same mouthfeel as milk.
  • Coconut: Again by Alpro, €2.39, it tastes overwhelmingly of coconut, a flavour I associate with Thai curries and not with tea, coffee or breakfast cereal.
  • Oat: This plant-based drink by Oatly, €2.39, has been talked up by vegans recently. I liked its sweetness and that it contains nothing by water, oats and sea salt.

More on this topic

Sweet memories: Nora Owen reaps rewards of garden planted by her husband who has dementia

No protocols to manage hospital waiting lists

Testosterone reboot: How to boost men's hormones in midlife

GPs vote for acceptance of €210m Government deal

More in this Section

H&M has announced its latest incredible designer collaboration – and it goes on sale tomorrow

Ask an expert: What’s the best way to quickly potty train my toddler?

Album review: Flying Lotus - Flamagra

Special delivery: Rare postbox among items at Sheppard’s auction


Latest Showbiz

Theresa May impersonator strips off during BGT audition

Mel B hopes sound ‘will be much better’ for next Spice Girls concert

Max George considering children with new girlfriend Stacey Giggs

Spice Girls dazzle in Dublin as first arena tour in a decade kicks off

More From The Irish Examiner