Got Milk? More Like “What Milk”?

How milk alternatives are changing the whole industry.
  • Article by Amy Bradney-George
  • March 06, 2015 at 11:21 AM

Remember when a barista’s eyes would roll if someone asked for a soy latte (let alone a skinny soy latte)? Now there are orders for soy, almond and a profusion of other “milks” that have flooded the market.

These milks/alternatives include both plant- and animal-based options that are often marketed as “healthier” than conventional cow’s milk. In the plant-based arena, there is soy milk and the increasingly popular almond milk, as well as rice milk, coconut milk, oat milk, quinoa milk and even hemp milk – plus various blends of these.

On the animal side of things, there is goat’s milk and camel milk, and a variety of different “kinds” of cow’s milk. The standard cow’s milk (as in the Coles or Woolworth’s branded stuff etc) is pasteurised and homogenised milk, which comes as full fat or low fat. Then there is non-fat, unpasteurised, unhomogenised, low lactose and raw milk, despite the latter being illegal to sell for human consumption.

As more and more people become aware of these different options, cafés are starting to cater for the growing specialty milk market. Now, depending on where you go, you can order an almond milk latte or a coconut milk latte, and pour goat’s milk or quinoa milk on your cereal.

But is more choice necessarily better? In order to figure out all of these milk options, we have explored the rise of milk alternatives and what they all have to offer.

The changing milk market

milk-518067_1920There are all kinds of reasons why people choose other milk options to add to their drinks, meals or cooking, starting with tradition.

A report from market research company Packaged Facts, for example, explains plant-based milk alternatives have been around for a lot longer than many people realise:

“Plant-based milks have a long history in both Eastern and Western cultures, with references found in early European cookbooks as well as Oriental literature from the 1500s,” it says.

In a modern context, allergies and intolerances are the most common reason for choosing soy, or any other non-dairy milk, followed by dietary preferences and other health concerns individuals may have.

“Health issues including lactose intolerance, milk allergy, and the genetic disorder phenylketonuria (PKU) can be addressed through the consumption of dairy alternative beverages because these plant-based milks are free of animal proteins, in particular casein,” Packaged Facts explains.

“Others who are primary consumers of dairy alternative beverages include vegans, vegetarians and people concerned about antibiotics or growth hormones often found in cow’s milk.”

Soy milk is by far the most established and popular dairy milk alternative in the world. It has been used in Asian countries since around 202BCE but was first “westernised” in 1979 when Vitasoy launched in the US.

But consumption of soy milk has plateaued over the years, particularly due to concerns that the high amounts of phytoestrogens could cause breast cancer or an over abundance of estrogen in men. Those hyped up concerned, along with the increase in dairy allergies and intolerances and the so-called “healthy eating” and “clean eating” movements have seen other milk alternatives edge into the market.

In fact, in the US, almond milk overtook soy as the most popular dairy alternative in 2014. As The Boston Globe reported at the time:

“Sales of refrigerated almond milk today account for 4.1 percent of total milk sales compared to less than ½ percent four years ago.”

Meanwhile, data from IBISWorld in Australia shows that revenue from milk alternatives grew 5.9% from 2009 to 2014, to $144 million. In comparison, the Australian dairy milk industry is worth $2 billion but has declined 0.9% in the past five years.

According to the Australian Dairy Industry, the past few years have seen a steady shift away from full cream, dairy milk, to other options. In a 2013 report on the milk market, the industry body says that full cream milk has been losing shares in a steadily growing market. While full cream milk used to make up 67% of sales in the early 1990s, it had a 48% share in 2012/13.

“The share trends across the other segments have all been upwards; with total modified milks’ share up from 23% to 32%; fresh flavoured milks increasing share from 7% to 10%; and the UHT milk volume share increasing from 3% to 10% over the twenty years.”

All of this data basically highlights how much our milk preferences are changing. And while the majority of people might still have some kind of dairy milk in their coffee, asking for an alternative is also part of the norm. In fact, it’s got to the point where US coffee chain giant Starbucks now offers up to seven kinds of milk options (full fat dairy, low fat dairy, non-fat diary, and “half and half” as well as almond milk, soy milk and coconut milk).

The cost of different kinds of milk

Whether the choice to go diary free is out of necessity or personal preference, the chances are good that it will cost you more than regular cow’s milk.

A CHOICE comparison of milk alternatives, for example, shows that the cost can range from $1.49 for one litre containers of home branded soy milks, up to $6.95 per litre for organic almond milk. While most products have prices between $2 and $3 per litre, almost a quarter (23%) of the milk alternatives listed cost more than that.

It’s worth noting this comparison focuses on plant-based milk alternatives, leaving out both goat’s milk and camel milk. But for reference, Pauls one litre goats milk retails for $4.99, while camel milk is harder to come by and averages a price of $20 per litre as a result.

In comparison, the average cost of standard dairy milk is around $1.44 per litre, with some companies like Coles and Woolworths even offering milk for as little as $1 per litre.

To put this into perspective for your household budget, if you went from buying three litres of diary milk for $4.32 per week to three litres of a milk alternative for $7.50 (using a median price of $2.50 per litre), you would end up spending $165.36 more per year on your milk choices. If you got the most expensive milk alternative listed ($6.95 per litre), you would spend a total of $361.40 per year for just one container a week.

When it comes to actually ordering coffee with a milk alternative, most places offer soy for an extra $0.50, while almond milk usually adds $1 to $1.50 to your coffee order.


Which milk is the best?

For some people the benefits of not drinking dairy milk outweigh the cost of the alternatives, which brings up the question of which milk is best?

The answer varies depending on the reasons for choosing a milk alternative and also on personal preferences, with things like taste, nutrients and production all affecting the milk alternatives people choose.

In terms of nutritional composition per 250ml, cow’s milk has around 147 calories, 8.1g fat, 7.9g protein and contains 33% of the daily calcium requirements. According to an infographic from, the closest alternative is goat’s milk, which has 169 calories, 10g fat, 9g protein and 33% of the daily calcium requirements.

For people choosing a milk alternative as part of weight management or weight loss plans, the lowest calorie option is almond milk (60 calories per 250ml), followed by skim cow’s milk (86 calories). The highest, on the other hand, is coconut milk, which has a whopping 467 calories per 250mls.

People looking for a low fat milk alternative, on the other hand, might prefer rice milk, which has just 2g of fat per 250ml, while those wanting a protein hit are best with cow’s milk, goat’s milk or soy milk (7g per 250ml). In terms of calcium, almond and soy are the best plant-based options, offering 20% and 25% of the recommended daily intakes respectively, compared to 2% and 4% for rice and coconut milk.

But there are all kinds of other benefits to these various milks that people might want to consider. Almond milk, for example, is high in Vitamin E and has no cholesterol in it. Meanwhile, rice milk is cholesterol free and has no saturated fat, coconut milk is creamy and filling (so people may drink less of it), soy milk is rich in calcium and oat milk is high in fibre and folic acid.

Problems with milk alternatives

There are a number of downsides to milk alternatives, and almost everyone seems to have a different opinion on what’s good and what’s not. Here are some of the biggest critiques against various milk options.

Goat’s milk: Goats milk can be hard to find in regular stores, contains lactose, and some people find the taste unpleasant. Health professionals also warn that any animal-based milk that is unpasteurised (ie “raw” milk) carries a risk of incubating bacterial diseases.

Soy milk: The widespread use of soy has led to concerns over production practises, specifically in regards to genetic modification. The high concentrations of phytoestrogen in soy has also been linked to breast cancer and hormonal disruption in both females and males. Recently, popular soy brand Bonsoy was also linked to iodine poisoning in Australia, so it is important to be familiar with all of the ingredients used.

Almond milk: The ingredients are the biggest concern when it comes to almond milk, with many brands adding sugar and flavouring, as well as fortifying products as a way of making it more appealing to the wider public. There’s also very little protein in almond milk, which means people may need to find other sources to get sufficient protein in their diet.

Rice milk: Rice milk is low in calcium and protein and, depending on the composition of the brand chosen, it can also be a high GI (glycaemic index) food.

Coconut milk: While it used to be associated with Indian and Asian cookies (ie curries), coconut milk is now making its way into coffees and other foods. But it’s high fat and high calorie content makes this milk one that should be consumed with restraint.

Oat milk: Oat milk is not gluten free and contains less protein than cow’s milk. Non-fortified oats milk is also low in calcium and other nutrients typically associated with milk and can be harder to find than other milk alternatives.

Quinoa milk: While high in calcium and protein, quinoa milk has been described as tasting “musty” and is not as readily available as other milks.

Camel milk: Camel milk is said to taste nothing like regular milk, often described as having a very salty taste. The camel milk currently sold in Australia is also classified as raw milk, posing serious health risks if it is not stored and transported at appropriate temperatures. But then again, the $20/litre price probably puts most people off anyway.

Other milk alternatives you might see in a health food shop – such as hemp milk or hazelnut milk – also have their pros and cons with flavour and texture the most common downsides.

The bottom line here is that if you want to choose a milk alternative, go with the one that fits your specific goals and lifestyle preferences the best. It may mean doing a bit of research into all of these options, but at least then you will be able to make the most informed decision about what milk you choose.

Whether you currently drink cow’s milk or have chosen a different kind of “milk” for most of your drinks and meals, there is no doubt these options are here to stay. In fact, as milk alternatives become more and more common, it is also looking like “specialty milk” could be the next big thing in the diary and health food industries.

Images (top to bottom): Milk and glass, source: condesign; milk alternatives, source: (Flickr); latte art, source: Frettie/Wikimedia Commons.



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