A guide to the best and most sustainable alternative milks

Glasses of vegan milk on concrete background with raw nuts scattered in front

Tianna Nadalin

Posted August 03, 2022

The popularity of plant-based milks has boomed in recent years, but are they really a sustainable alternative to dairy? Here’s everything you need to know about alternative milks.

Australia’s dairy industry is going nuts; literally. 

With increasing varieties of vegan ‘mylks’ hitting the market, choosing a bottle of milk has gone beyond just options for low fat, no fat, full cream, high calcium, high protein, soy, light, skim, omega 3, high calcium with vitamin D and folate, or extra dollop.

A quick wander down the long-life latte aisle of your local supermarket presents a plethora of plant-based and dairy-adjacent options for those seeking tasty alternatives to traditional cow’s milk.   

Soy might have been the original lactose-free trailblazer but, these days, almond, oat, rice and coconut milk are hot on its heels. 

And it’s not just milk that’s going moo-free. From yoghurt and ice cream to cheese and chocolate, consumer demand for alternative dairy options is seeing more brands jump on board the dairy-free bandwagon. 

Alternative milk myths

Consumer demand is driving the shift, with Australians’ thirst for dairy-free milk increasing year on year. In 2019, Dairy Australia reported that milk substitutes made up about 9.2 per cent of the dairy market in Australia, with oat milk the fastest-growing dairy alternative. 

And it’s not just supermarkets experiencing increased demand for dairy-free alternatives.

Cafes and hospitality venues are also pouring with plant-based options. 

While the sustainability merits of milk-alternatives are widely disputed, one thing they do all have in common is that they are lactose free. This does not, however, mean they are all allergy friendly. Alternative milks may not be appropriate for those with gluten, soy or nut allergies. 

Their nutrition profiles also vary. Some are higher in protein and calcium, while others are lower in fat and carbohydrates. When it comes to most vegan milks, however, the main ingredient is often water, which means most alternative milks are not naturally a strong source of nutrients.

To compensate for this, many are fortified with minerals such as iron, calcium and vitamin D - all of which are found in abundant sources in cow’s milk. This fortification process can often include the addition of sweeteners and other fillers, so it’s always important to read the label. 

Which vegan, plant-based milk is best for you, then, comes down to taste and personal preference.

So, whether you’re making the switch for health reasons, environmental concerns or are just curious to find out what all the dairy-free fuss is about, here is your ultimate guide to alternative milks. 


Almond and oat milk in glasses with raw almonds and oats in front

Almond, oat and soy milk are some of the most popular plant-based alternatives. Photo: Getty.

Pros and cons of common plant-based milk alternatives 

Soy milk

The OG and, in many ways, still one of the best. Soy milk consistently out-performs many of its plant-based brethren when it comes to sustainability. It requires significantly less land and water to produce, particularly when compared to rice and almond milk, and produces relatively low greenhouse gas emissions. 

The good: As well as producing a creamy and frothy milk for coffee, soy milk boasts a superior nutrition profile to many of the other plant-based milks.  It is rich in nutrients including B vitamins, fibre, potassium and magnesium. But perhaps its key benefit is that soy protein is considered a complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids, which must be obtained through your diet.  

The bad: Soy has gotten a bad rap over the years for containing isoflavones (a type of plant estrogen), which has been purported to cause everything from cancer to dementia. These claims have not been substantiated, with recent population studies suggesting regular soy consumption is likely to have either a beneficial or neutral effect on various health outcomes. Soy crops are often sprayed with chemical fertilisers or other pesticides, so look for organic or non-GMO options when you can. 

Almond milk  

Almond milk has been a mainstay on the plant-based milk scene for a while now. Its proliferation has seen it go from being something you’d only find in health stores to lining the shelves of your local supermarket. Second to soy, it was one of the earliest milks to be adopted by cafes and restaurants, owing to its naturally sweet, nutty flavour. 

The good: It’s the inoffensive taste that has made almond milk a popular choice among milk drinkers, particularly when mixed with your morning coffee or poured over your favourite cereal. It’s low in calories, fat and has less natural sugar than regular dairy, while still containing high levels of magnesium and vitamin E. 

The bad: Almonds are a thirsty crop, which has given them a bad reputation when it comes to sustainability. While they are the most water-intensive of the plant-based alternatives, they still require less water, produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and take less land than traditional dairy farming. 

Almond milk is essentially watered-down almonds that have been blended and passed through a sieve, which means many of the associated nutrition benefits are watered down, too. Look for organic, unsweetened varieties to maximise the nutrition profile. 

Oat milk

Oat milk’s meteoric rise through the milk halls of fame has been nothing short of remarkable. The deliciously creamy vegan blend has a silky texture.

The good: Other than its great taste, one of the best things about oat milk is that it is a relatively sustainable crop to grow, making it both a delicious and planet-friendly dairy alternative. Many brands use locally grown oats (including Pure Harvest, Sanitarium, Uncle Toby’s, Milk Lab and Australia’s Own, who sources oats from regional Victoria), meaning you’re cutting down on food miles, too. 

The bad: Oat crops are often sprayed with a glyphosate-based herbicide, more commonly known as Roundup, so it’s best to choose milks made with organically grown oats where possible. 


Man pouring milk into espresso coffee cup

Dairy-free drinkers are frothing over oat milk's silky, creamy texture. Photo: Getty.

Rice milk 

Rice is the great all-rounder when it comes to alternative milks, being a healthy (and safe) option for people with gluten, soy, dairy or nut allergies. 

The good: One of the best things about rice milk is that it is an affordable and friendly option for those with food allergies or sensitivities. It is low in fat, while also being a source of calcium and vitamins A, D and B12.

The bad: Rice milk is low in protein and high in carbohydrates, meaning it should only be consumed in small quantities by people with diabetes. Of the plant-based milks, it produces the highest emissions and is one of the thirstiest crops (second only to almond milk).  

Coconut milk

This exotic juice is not just for curries and pina coladas (although it’s great in those, too). The popular milk has become a go-to dairy substitute thanks to its rich, creamy texture. 

The good: Unsweetened coconut milk is low in calories and cholesterol, and delivers a reasonable hit of calcium, potassium and vitamin B12. It’s also nut, soy and gluten-free making it an allergy-friendly milk alternative. 

The bad: Coconut milk, and the coconut industry in general, have come under fire in recent times for having both unsustainable and cruel labour practices. A report by animal rights agency PETA even showed some farmers chaining monkeys to posts and forcing them to scale trees to shake coconuts loose. Our obsession with coconut-based products is also driving significant deforestation, with rainforests in the two biggest coconut-producing markets (the Philippines and Indonesia) being replaced with coconut palms at a rapid rate, threatening animal habitats and biodiversity. Fortunately, coconuts are more than just their milk: oil, cream, water and activated charcoal are all coconut by-products, which means they’re still ahead of palm oil in terms of environmental impacts. Look for certified fair-trade products where possible.  

Flax milk

When it comes to nut-free alt-milks, flax could be the king. It has a mild, nutty flavour and packs an omega 3 punch, making it a heart healthy addition to your daily diet.

The good: Flaxseeds are a rich source of omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, which promote good brain and heart health. If you’re on a primarily vegan or plant-based diet, it can be difficult to get enough polyunsaturated fats into your diet so flax milk can contribute to your recommended daily intake.

On the sustainability front, flaxseeds require less water to grow and are grown in such low quantities that they are considered niche crops.  

The bad: Being a niche crop means flax milks are not as widely available as your big four (soy, almond, rice and coconut). This also means it can be on the pricier side. 


Woman shopping for milk in dairy aisle of supermarket

The plant-based milk industry has exploded in Australia. Photo: Getty.

Hemp milk

Similar to flax milk, hemp milk is also a rich source of omega 3s. It has a creamy consistency and a slightly nutty flavour. 

The good: Seeds in generally require less water to grow making them an even more sustainable alternative than nut-based alternative milks.

The bad: Despite enjoying the taste of seeds in their whole form, some people report a bitter aftertaste with hemp milk. It is also less common than other alternative dairy options. 

Pea milk 

If you’re choosing your milk based on its sustainability merits, pea protein milk stacks up as one of the best. Although this is an emerging alt-milk category, most pea milks are fortified with additional nutrients and minerals, giving them a similar profile to dairy milk, only with less fat and sugar.

The good: Peas need up to 85 per cent less water than almonds to grow. They are also known as ‘nitrogen fixing plants’, which means they are able to pull nitrogen from the air and store it in their roots (most plants rely on the addition of nitrogen to the soil through fertilisers). Pea milk is also a rich source of plant-based protein. 

The bad: The reviews are mixed when it comes to pea milk’s flavour profile. Some people find it has a bitter taste and chalky texture, while others love how rich and creamy it is. 

Other nut milks

Pick a nut, any nut, and you can almost guarantee it’s already been used to make milk. One of the great things about plant-based milks is that they can be made from an endless array of ingredients. And nuts, with their varying degrees of deliciousness are an obvious choice for the dairy-free drinker who is looking to add a little variety. Almond is already ubiquitous; however, macadamia and cashew are starting to catch up. Other niche options include hazelnut, walnut and pistachio and peanut milks. 

Cashew milk: Cashew and almond milk are comparable in consistency; however cashews produce a creamier taste. Cashew farming has been criticised for its unethical treatment of workers, including the use of forced labour camps in some areas where cashews are grown and harvested. 

Macadamia: If you’re looking for a nut-based milk made using locally grown nuts, macadamia is pick of the bunch. An increasing number of brands are using Australian fruit, including Pure Harvest, Macamilk, Milk Lab and Australia’s Own. Macadamia are packed with the good, monounsaturated type of fat, which may help to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress in the body. 

Pistacchio: If you are choosing your non-dairy milk purely based on which is kindest to the planet, pistachios require half as much water to grow as almonds, and are on a par with oats as environmentally friendly crops.