How to choose the best long-life milk: product review

I've down all the investigations for you. I've compared different long-life milks (sometimes called ultra heat treated or UHT milk) available in supermarkets. The summary is here.

If the second or third ingredient in your milk is added sweetener in the form of raw sugar, cane sugar or rice syrup, how would you rate the milk?

Would you think it was healthy or flavoured?

How about the addition of limestone to your milk?

Is ground stone an intentional and natural food for humans?

These are some of the unusual features of some almond ‘milks’, one of many types of long-life milk substitutes available in the supermarket.

What is long-life milk?

Long-life milk is also called ultra-heat treated (UHT) which is the preserving method used to make it last a year or so without refrigeration. Once opened, long-life milk must be kept refrigerated and it’s life is drastically shortened to about 5 days, much the same as fresh chilled milk.

Long-life milk won’t help you live longer but it makes life easier because it is fantastically convenient.

You’ll find more than dairy milks in the long-life UHT milk aisle: rice, almond, quinoa, oat and soy to name the main ones.

How do non-dairy 'milks' compare with traditonal cow's milk and goat's milk?

Well for a start they are not really true milks at all. They are a created in a factory to be used in place of dairy milk.

Almond ‘milk’

You now know that the second or third ingredient in popular almond ‘milks’ is a some type of sugar and that some manufacturers add ground limestone.

With up to seven ingredients listed, almond ‘milk’ is hardly a natural product.

Whole almonds are a reasonable source of protein and are touted to be a good calcium source but when almonds only make up 2% of the ‘milk’, they no longer contribute much at all to the ‘milk’ except a hint of flavour.

Almond milk is typically low in protein and low in calcium compared with cows milk unless fortified with ground limestone or another calcium source.

Oat ‘milk’

Without the deliberate addition of calcium, oat ‘milks’ are also a poor source of calcium. Some oat milks contain added oat bran fibre (beta-glucan) which may help lower blood cholesterol levels.

Both oat and rice ‘milk’ tend to contain more carbohydrate per serve than cow’s milk.

If you’re switching to oat milk because you have a sensitive tummy, then you may be disappointed because some varieties declare the addition on inulin which is a no-go for people with FODMAP problems.

Soy ‘milk’

Soy ‘milk’ fills the majority of shelf space for milk substitutes. Organic, light, low fat, natural ... the descriptors are as endless as the ingredient lists which can feature up to 16 ingredients if the ‘milks’ are enriched with vitamins and minerals in an attempt to make them match cows milk or are a more basic blend of water, salt and oil blended with a few soya beans.

A switch from regular cows milk to soy ‘milk’ helps to reduce blood cholesterol but so too will a switch to low fat cows milk or sterol enriched milk.

Soya bean is a source of phyto-oestrogen which may help reduce some menopausal symptoms but if you are menopausal then you also need more calcium and soy ‘milks’ are not automatically good calcium sources. You may be gambling with an increased risk of osteoporosis for a small hit of phyto-oestrogens unless you check that calcium is added or you include another rich source of calcium.

Soya beans are gluten free but some soy ‘milk’ contain barley, a source of gluten, so be cautious if you need a gluten free diet.

Surprisingly, sweet sugars are added to many soy ‘milks’ in the guise of maltodextrin, cane sugar, malt extract or raw sugar; sugars are even added into those soy ‘milks’ with a healthy-sounding natural name.

Rice ‘milk’

Rice ‘milk’ is the favoured milk substitute for people with extreme food intolerance but some of commercial rice ‘milks’ are unsuitable because they are based on brown rice or have chick peas, canola oil and seaweed added.

Rice ‘milk’ is a low protein drink that is also lacks calcium and other essential nutrients unless fortified.

Quinoa ‘milk’

Quinoa ‘milk’ is new to the UHT milk aisle. Gluten free, lactose free and nut free, this new ‘milk’ might be, but quinoa ‘milk’ is sadly lacking in calcium, vitamin D and protein.

Coconut ‘milk’ beverage

This is not the same as coconut milk or cream used in Asian cooking but rather a drink positioned beside UHT cow’s milk as a replacement for cow’s milk. A non-dairy beverage that’s 20% coconut milk blended with water and lesser amounts of sunflower oil, brown rice, salt all held together and stabilised with guar gum.

With barely any protein and not a hint of calcium present, coconut milk beverage is a poor nutritional alternative to dairy milk. If you have a dairy intolerance and use this as your main ‘milk’ you will need a calcium supplement and a top-up on riboflavin, magnesium and zinc.

Will milk substitutes help you lose weight? Not necessarily.

All UHT ‘milks’ are a source of kJ (cals). Non-dairy drinks often contain as many kJ as full fat dairy milk because oil is added to improve the mouth-feel of the watery ‘milks’. Sunflower oil appears to be the oil of choice added to most milk substitutes.

But protein is also important in weight loss plans and many of the pretend UHT ‘milks’ are very poor protein sources.

If you prefer or need to use a non-dairy drink, match the nutrition panel on your product with the following: 

per 100 ml

at least 3 g protein

at least 100 mg calcium

If the nutrition panel doesn’t equal or exceed these values, you need to rethink your drink.

It is bonus if your non-dairy milk matches the numbers in the table above and has added vitamin D.

If weight loss is also a goal, then check the kJ value is 220 or less per 100 ml.

Does UHT treatment alter the main nutrients in cow and goat dairy milks?

No it doesn’t. Long-life ‘milks’ have the same main nutrient composition as the ‘fresh’ versions.

Long-life cow’s milk contains the same nutrients as the fresh fridge version. You’ll find full fat, reduced fat, lite, skim/no-fat varieties, some with added vitamin D, and others lactose free.

The 200 ml cartons are handy for school lunch boxes, for travelers and for those who find the larger cartons go off due to low usage.

Some food sensitive people feel much better when they switch to goat’s milk. The protein and fat structure are slightly different to cow’s milk and for some, this subtle difference means it is more easily digested.

As far as nutrition goes, goat’s milk still contains lactose, calcium and protein in similar amounts to cow’s milk. The UHT version is as good as the fresh fridge version.

Original version in newsletter and online as pdf April 2014, updated 2017