The health properties of oats are well known: they are rich in fibre, especially cholesterol-lowering beta-glucans, and, being a low glycaemic index food, provide a long-lasting energy drink that is favoured by many athletes. "Studies have shown that oats are better than sports drinks at boosting endurance levels," says Louise Sutton, a dietician at Leeds Metropolitan University. Commercial oat milks (such as Oatly) are widely available, but you can also make your own. Fill a large jug with one-third oats and two-thirds water. Mix, and leave overnight. The next morning, sieve the mixture and you will be left with a milky liquid that can be drunk as it is or used in place of cow's milk in some recipes.
Soya went mainstream when we were able to ask for it in our lattes at Starbucks. Now, it is not only the lactose intolerant who drink it - some people drink it for its health benefits. The UK's Joint Health Claims Initiative, an independent consumer and trading standards panel, has given the go-ahead for manufacturers of soya-rich foods to announce their products' heart-protecting benefits. After reviewing more than 50 scientific studies, experts agreed that consuming 25g of soya protein daily, as part of a diet already low in saturated fat, may help to reduce the risk of heart disease. Research has also shown that soya is helpful in warding off breast cancer and in preventing osteoporosis in menopausal women. "It is a low-fat food and a good source of protein for vegetarians and vegans," Frankie Phillips, of the British Nutrition Foundation, says.
"Unpasteurised" milk straight from the cow is being touted as a cure-all for ailments ranging from psoriasis and high blood pressure to chronic gut problems among health-conscious New Yorkers. And the trend is catching on here. Proponents claim that pasteurising milk destroys good bacteria, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, as well as bad, thereby negating the gut-protective properties of whole milk. Heat treatment also results in a 10% drop in B vitamins and folate while vitamin C levels plummet by a quarter. Heat treatment also changes the protein composition of milk. You can buy raw milk in England and Wales - it's sold in green-topped bottles - but only through restricted outlets such as farm shops. It cannot be bought in supermarkets and in Scotland it has been banned.
Both are becoming more popular with people who are lactose intolerant. Goat's milk has a slightly salty taste that won't suit all palates. It is nutritionally similar to cow's milk, but contains a substance that binds with vitamin B12 to prevent it from being absorbed. A vitamin B12 deficiency, with similar symptoms to iron-deficiency anaemia, has been found in some young children fed on it. Sheep's milk has a rich, bland, slightly sweet taste. It contains up to twice as many minerals, such as calcium, phosphorus and zinc and the important B group vitamins, as cow's milk. It is higher in fat and calories than cow's milk. For stockists go to sheepdairying.com.
It may be drunk widely in Asia, but it is not what you might expect to find on supermarket shelves in Leighton Buzzard. Yet buffalo milk from a Bedfordshire farm has become so popular since it went on sale in a local Waitrose that customers now travel miles to buy it. The reason, in addition to its allergen-friendly composition, is that it is highly nutritious, with 11.5% higher protein, more vitamins and minerals (including calcium and iron) and 43% less cholesterol than cow's milk. Visit buffalogold.com.
It is perhaps not the most obvious source of milk, but fortified rice milk (made from brown rice) contains as much calcium and as many vitamins as cow's milk, and less fat than soya milk. Its main health benefit comes from fibre, which helps to reduce cholesterol and keeps blood-sugar levels constant. It has a consistency similar to skimmed milk and is a good replacement for cow's milk in cooking, although it tends to have a sweeter taste. Most commercial rice milks (such as Rice Dream) are fortified with calcium, vitamin D and vitamin A, so they are good for building bones. And they are low in calories, with only 278 a pint compared with 370 a pint in whole milk.
Considering that coconut oil is high in saturated fat, the fresh, sweet-tasting milk from the heart of the coconut is surprisingly low in calories (it contains 228 a pint). Coconut milk sold in supermarkets is not usually fresh and is produced instead by squeezing liquid from grated coconut flesh and water. Its nutritional and calorific value is lower than the fresh stuff. Coconut milk can be served as a drink, although it is more often used as a marinade in cooking. Its protein content is very low compared with cow's milk.