Even flavoured milk provides more nutrition than fake milks, new research has found.
The research, co-funded by Dairy Australia, has found milk to be the most affordable way to address nutritional gaps in the Australian diet.
It also refutes a popular belief that plant-based "milks" like oat, soy and almond are better for you.
CSIRO researchers have developed a Nutrient Rich Food Index to ranks foods based on nutritional composition.
All varieties of milk, including flavoured milk, scored better nutritionally than fortified and unfortified oat beverages.
The findings are important because consumer surveys show many people opt for plant-based "milks" because they believe them to be healthier than dairy.
The dairy industry believes about two per cent of Australian households are regularly buying plant-based milk.
Australian Bureau of Statistics data from the last financial year charted another small rise in the amount of dairy and meat substitutes being bought in Australia.
"The per person apparent consumption of dairy and meat substitutes was 20 grams per day in 2020-21, up a total of 29 per cent from 15 grams per day in 2018-19," ABS health statistics spokesman Paul Atyeo said.
Of that 20 grams, 17 grams came from Australians drinking dairy substitutes like almond and soy milk.
This official data bears out the claims from the dairy industry that the millions of dollars spent on plant-based and laboratory milk has so far failed to dampen demand for dairy.
Dairy Australia human health and nutrition policy manager Melissa Cameron said the latest research shows swapping milk for plant-based products could leave Australians missing out nutrients which are important for good health and wellbeing.
"All foods vary in their nutrient composition, and nutritional trade-offs need to be considered if consumers are wanting to choose certain foods, or change their diets for whatever reason, whether this be for financial, environmental or health reasons," Ms Cameron said.
"This research provides a nutrient profiling tool specific to Australian's dietary and nutrition needs, and my hope is that it provides greater guidance for health practitioners and consumers to ensure they know the foods and nutrients essential for good health."
Previous health research has shown many Australians are not consuming adequate levels of important nutrients, such as calcium and zinc.
Milk, including regular and reduced fat, was found to offer the greatest nutritional value per dollar spent when compared to both fortified and unfortified plant-based beverages.
The research was co-funded by Dairy Australia and CSIRO although Dairy Australia insists it had no influence over the study design, data collection or interpretation of results.
Dietitian and nutrition scientist Dr Joanna McMillan cautioned consumers against swapping certain foods for others which they believe to be more environmentally sustainable without taking a holistic view.
"Every food has a different nutrient composition and, as this new index demonstrates, swapping foods can have unintended nutritional consequences.
"More Australians are choosing plant-based diets in an effort to eat more sustainably. However, if milk - and cheese and yoghurt - eating occasions are replaced by less nutrient dense options such as oat beverages and other plant-based products, these nutrients must be made up for elsewhere in the diet. Evidence suggests that doesn't happen."
Dr McMillan said considering the environmental impact of individual foods only tells part of the story - sustainability needs to be considered in the context of complete dietary patterns, with sustainable food systems built that are affordable, culturally relevant and designed with the local context in mind."
The future of plant-based foods will be examined in depth at a Melbourne conference next week - Altproteins 22 - hosted by Food Frontier.
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