Today’s topic: milk alternatives, the synonyms of which (milk substitutes; non-dairy milks; plant milks; plant-based milks) are almost as numerous as the varieties of the species: soy milk, almond milk, hazelnut milk, oat milk, hemp milk, sunflower seed milk, cashew milk, peanut milk, coconut milk . . .
(The official label on the CoffeeKrave research file for this article reads: “un-milks.”)
We considered conducting a taste-test of popular brands of milk-alternatives and writing up a review, with our own coffee-specific take on the subject. We were inspired by the various methodologies presented in other taste tests, which included sampling the milk alternatives straight-up in the company of a two-year old. The pairing choices presented in these reviews were also inspiring, and included sampling with Chips Ahoy! Cookies, with PB&J sammies (clearly not recommended for the nut-allergic), with pancakes and turkey sausage . . .
We ultimately decided to go an alternative route with our assessment of alternative milks. Taste tests are highly influenced by individual palates. One reviewer’s “sweet” can be another reviewer’s “cloying.” Taste profiles, additives and nutritional values also vary from one brand of a particular alternative to the next. We wanted to adopt an approach that would go beyond your standard review, and smooth out the YMMV (your mileage may vary) effect.
Our approach: We conducted a highly-unscientific but thorough meta-analysis of sorts. We reviewed a sample (n=25) of online milk-alternative taste tests and reviews. We made notes of which points were repeated, how often and with what emphasis. We also made careful note of context – is earthy being used in the sense of being pleasantly rich/complex, or in the sense of “tastes like dirt”?
Our objective was to find the points of consensus, and to present our best attempt at a relatively balanced perspective on the pros and cons of each of the top five milk alternatives – almond, coconut, hemp, oat, rice and soy.
Before we begin, one note of caution: Consult a doctor if you have any health or food allergy concerns. When in doubt, it’s best to get the green light from a health professional before adding something new to your diet.
Milk Alternatives: A Quick Reference Guide
Our quick reference guide to the un-milks, containing the points of consensus resulting from our review of the reviews:
Almond: Creamy; rich; nutty. Nutty aspect described along the range of very mild to pronounced. High in vitamin E. Not safe for individuals with nut allergies.
Coconut: Thick; rich; creamy. Sometimes described as fatty; cloyingly sweet. Coconut-y flavor described along the range of unnoticeable to pronounced. High in healthy saturated fats. Not recommended for individuals with nut allergies.
Hemp: Nutty; earthy; creamy. Sometimes described as grassy; vegetable-like; chalky. High in Omega 3 and 6 essential fatty acids. Not recommended for individuals with nut and seed allergies.
Oat: Oat-like and mildly sweet. Sometimes described as grainy; watery. Not recommended for individuals who are gluten-intolerant or sensitive. (Pure oats do not contain gluten, but oats are often processed in facilities that handle wheat, barley and/or rye.)
Rice: Light, sweet. Often described as watery. High in carbohydrates and sugar. Not much in the way of naturally occurring nutrients, but is typically fortified with vitamins. Best option for those who are concerned about food allergies.
Soy: Sweet. Bean-like. High in protein. Sometimes described as chalky; sour; tofu-like. May have a pronounced aftertaste. Soy is a common food allergen, and soy milk is not recommended for individual who are sensitive or allergic. Soy contains isoflavones, which have raised some health concerns as they may act like phytoestrogens (plant compounds with estrogen-like biological activity). Non-organic brands are likely made from genetically modified soy beans.
Milk Alternatives: Additional Considerations
If you are keeping an eye on your carbon footprint, it’s worth noting that soy and rice are high-input, intensively farmed crops. For an overview on other environmental concerns (including packaging and transportation), we recommend reading Grist’s guide to Navigating the non-dairy ‘milk’ aisle.
Keep in mind that alternative milks are a processed food. How you process the inputs directly affects the nutritional value of the outputs. Consider taking the Michael Pollan approach – “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” Almonds, coconuts, hemp seeds, oats, rice and soybeans are all ingredients our ancestors would recognize. (Almond milk’s popularity dates back to the Middle Ages.) Our ancestors would probably not recognize some of the additives in store-bought milk alternatives, including various thickeners and stabilizers.
If you are looking to avoid the additives, we recommend Slate Magazine’s tutorial for making almond milk at home: You’re Doing it Wrong: Almond Milk. (One in a series of highly entertaining “You’re Doing It Wrong” columns on the aptly named Brow Beat, Slate’s Culture Blog.)
For some thoughts on foam we recommend The Milk Chronicles: In Search of Vegan Cappuccino.
Are you rocking a milk-alternative ‘stache? Share your thoughts on un-milks with us in the comments below!
Featured image: Kelly Garbato
Content photo: mc559