Milk alternatives: are they actually good for you?

Barista pouring coffee
Plant-based milks are not necessarily the healthier choice, says nutritionist Claire Turnbull. Photo credit: Getty

I'll have an extra hot soy decaf latte with a caramel shot, thanks.

Took you a while to read that? Yeah, imagine having to take these coffee orders down on the reg.

It has become trendy for millennials to add this and add that to our coffee orders. Yep, I'm not blaming you, no one wants to pay $5 for a cup of lukewarm soil, am I right?

But it was only until I asked for a chai latte with almond milk, trying to sound all hipster while brunching in my activewear, when I thought to myself, is this really a healthier option?

More people are swapping out of cow's milk for other alternatives. It could be for moral reasons, allergies, or maybe they just prefer the taste? Each to their own, of course.  

But remember, long-life milk alternatives might be containing more ingredients than you think.

Healthy Food Guide nutritionist Claire Turnbull says that some of these milk alternatives are highly processed and some have less protein and/or calcium than cow's milk.

"Plant-based milks are a good alternative for some, but aren’t always necessarily healthier," she says, "just different."

Let's break it down:

Vitasoy almond milk for baristas 


Whole almonds (min 3.5 percent)

Activated or not, don't fool yourself into thinking that the 3.5 percent of almonds you're drinking provides as much fibre and protein as the raw ones you can snack on.

Raw sugar:

A lot of other milk options can often be sweetened with ingredients ranging from cane sugar to fruit concentrates. Dairy milk is naturally sweet because it contains an ingredient called lactose. However, these added sugars in milk alternatives are classified as "free sugars".

"Free sugars are something we need to limit from our diets," says Ms Turnbull.

According to the World Health Organisation, adults and children should reduce their daily intake of free sugars to less than 26g (6tsp).

Sunflower oil:

Added oils are used as a thickener and emulsifier, so it tastes smooth on the palate. 

Emulsifier (471, 322)

Emulsifiers are used to keep oil and water from separating. 

I do get slightly concerned though, whenever I see numbers on the back of a packet. "What did you get up to today?" "Oh, I just drank a bit of 322…"

Natural flavour:

How natural is natural? So natural that there isn't even a word for how natural an ingredient is?

Well + Good reports that in the US the  Food and Drug Administration maintains everything under this term must be derived from "real food", but there are more than 2,500 ingredient combos that classify as "natural flavours". 

Vegetable gum (407, 418)

Vegetable gums are used as food thickeners. 

Food acid (331)

Sodium citrate is a food acid used often for flavour or as a preservative.

Sea salt


The growing plant-based options mean we can often be indecisive when it comes to coffee orders.






We may be convinced that soy is low in fat; that almonds have a high fibre content; that coconut improves digestion... but make sure you're aware of the other ingredients present.

You could even try making your own homemade nut milk by chucking in a few soaked almonds in a blender with a dash of sugar. That way you'll actually know what you're drinking.







"It's about making an informed personal choice," says Ms Turnbull.