Which type of milk should I drink?

Regular cows’ milk is the most common type of milk available in the supermarket. You can buy regular fat, reduced-fat and low-fat (skim) milk varieties depending on your needs. As a rule, reduced-fat milk is not recommended Australian children before the age of two.

There are a number of other types of milk available, such as A2, lactose free, soy, rice and nut milk. Not all of these types of ‘milk’ are equal in terms of the nutrients they provide. So reading labels and understanding the differences is important, especially when making food choices for growing children. Having at least two and a half serves of milk, cheese, yoghurt and/or alternatives, is important for Australians.

Milk contains many proteins, one of which is called beta-casein. A1 and A2 are two common forms of beta-casein. Most cow’s milk that we currently buy in supermarkets has a mixture of A2 and A1 beta-casein (about 60% A2 and 40% A1). However there are some brands which only contain the A2 type of beta-casein.  Emerging research, which includes human studies, suggests that selected consumer groups who limit dairy intake owing to digestive discomfort may be able to consume A1 beta-casein free milk without adverse effect. Either type of milk is healthy and safe to drink, so the main message is to drink either regular milk (containing A1 and A2) or milk containing only A2 protein. Both are nutritious, so it comes down to personal choice.

Lactose-free milk is designed for people with lactose intolerance. Lactose is a naturally-occurring sugar found in dairy foods. It is normally broken down or digested by the body using an enzyme called lactase. However, people with lactose intolerance don’t have enough of this enzyme to properly digest lactose, resulting in lactose intolerance. Lactose-free milk has been processed to break down the lactose before packaging, making it a suitable type of milk to drink by people who are lactose intolerant. For people with lactose intolerance, up to 250ml of cow’s milk may be well tolerated if broken up throughout the day and consumed with other foods.

Soy milk is also lactose-free and therefore suitable to drink by people who are lactose intolerant. Many people also choose to drink soy milk due to taste preferences or because they are following a vegan diet. Soy milk is not naturally high in calcium but there are many brands that have been fortified with calcium. If you drink soy milk, choose a calcium-fortified brand to help ensure your daily calcium intake is adequate.

Rice milk is made from rice. It is naturally lower in protein and calcium than regular milk. Rice milk is lactose-free and suitable for vegetarians and vegans. If you are choosing rice milk, choose one that has been fortified with calcium and protein. Rice milk is not recommended for children due to its low protein and calcium content.

Nut milks, like almond (unless fortified) are typically much lower in calcium and protein than cow’s milk, and are also lower in saturated fat and energy (kilojoules). They are lactose free – so are suitable for people with lactose intolerance. Nut milks are an option for those following a vegan diet, so do not eat dairy foods, but the Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend those avoiding animal foods have calcium-fortified products, and seek advice from a health professional about whether they need to take supplements. Nut milks are not equivalent to a handful of whole nuts as ‘milks’ contain less than 10% nuts.

An Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) can provide expert advice if you require further information.