genuine mulberry bags Is soy milk better for you than cows’ milk
Not so long ago there was only one type of milk: it came in a glass bottle, it had a shiny metal top and the milkman left it on your doorstep before the sun came up. This milk came from cows and most people drank it.
These days plain old cows’ milk is viewed with a certain amount of suspicion and it’s often believed to be the cause of health issues ranging from high cholesterol to excess mucus production. Our increasing distrust of cows’ milk has conincided with a dramatic increase in the number of dairy alternatives you can buy.
One of the most popular of these is soy milk, which comes from soy beans, and is regarded by many as a far healthier choice. But is this really the case?
“Soy isn’t automatically a better choice than dairy in every case,” says accredited practising dietitian Denise Griffiths.
“If you’re having full fat dairy, then soy might be a better alternative, but if you’re making good choices with your dairy products then there’s no need to switch.”
Complete foodGriffiths says there’s nothing in the scientific literature to suggest we all need to replace cows’ milk with soy milk. Both are good sources of protein and a range of other essential vitamins and minerals, although cows’ milk is naturally a better source of calcium.
“The reason we drink [cows’] milk as humans is because it is one of the most complete foods in our diets and it contains many of the nutrients that we need,” she says.
“The calcium in dairy foods is really easily absorbed by the body, especially in comparison to plant foods that contain calcium, such as broccoli, as the body isn’t always able to get the calcium out of these plant foods.”
We need calcium to help us maintain healthy bones and other essential processes in our body, which is why it’s recommended that we aim for two to three serves of low fat dairy every day.
(For more on the importance of calcium, recommended daily intakes for all age groups, and what makes a serve of calcium, check out our feature Boost your bone bank).
Dairy foods contain vitamins A, B12 and D and other essential nutrients. Unfortunately full fat dairy also contains a lot of saturated fat, which is one reason why some people make the decision to switch to soy. (You want to avoid saturated fat as it increases your cholesterol levels and your risk of heart disease.)
But if you’re having reduced fat cows’ milk, and other reduced fat dairy foods including yoghurt and cheese, then you’re getting all the goodies you get from full fat dairy and a little bit extra calcium (there’s more calcium in reduced fat dairy products).
However, soy is a great alternative if you’re lactose intolerant or allergic to dairy, or for those with ethical issues around consumption of animal products, as long as it’s calcium fortified.
Soy’s selling pointsBut it doesn’t have to be all or nothing when it comes to soy versus dairy.
Soy milk and other soy based products including tofu, soy cheese and yoghurt are good sources of iron, fibre (which you don’t get in dairy) and other vitamins.
Soy foods also contain antioxidants known as isoflavones, which are phytoestrogens.
Phytoestrogens are compounds found in plant foods such as legumes, flaxseed and soy based foods that may mimic the hormone oestrogen in some circumstances. Some research suggests eating foods that contain phytoestrogens may have health benefits including a reduction in risk of certain hormonal cancers (breast and prostate) and a lessening of certain symptoms of menopause, for example hot flushes.
But one of soy’s key selling points is that it’s lower in saturated fat than dairy.
“It’s a plant based food . so it has less saturated fat than animal products, especially dairy products,” Griffiths says.
She says we could all benefit from substituting some serves of dairy for soy products after all, a varied and balanced diet is likely to be a healthy one.
“It’s great to include a wide variety of foods in your diet. and making sure that in your shopping trolley you have a range of products so that you’re covering all your different nutrients,” she says.
Denise Griffiths is an accredited practising dietitian who works at Curtin University in Western Australia. She is also a spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, which has a corporate partnership with Dairy Australia. She spoke to Claudine Ryan.