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Plant-based milks: a biased guide

Searching for an alternative to dairy milk? Robbi Sher presents a personal guide

With plant-based milks experiencing a global renaissance, there are a number of reasons why you might want to try one. Maybe you’re environmentally conscious; a glass of cow’s milk results in almost three times more greenhouse gas emissions than any alternative and consumes nine times more land, according to an Oxford study. Maybe you’re concerned about animal welfare; dairy cows are forcibly impregnated in order for us to consume the milk intended for their calves (I’ll stop there, at risk of accidentally turning this into a piece of vegan propaganda). Maybe you’re tempted by some of the other benefits of ditching dairy; better skin, better digestion, no weird hormones, longer shelf life. Or maybe, like me, you’re just a bit lactose intolerant, and would rather not wind up looking three months pregnant after a cup of coffee. 

So, you’re standing in the underwhelmingly small alt-milk aisle in Tesco. Where to begin?

Soy milk

I’ll start with the most well-known. A safe all-round option, soy has a similar consistency to cow’s milk, and is a particularly good replacement in baking, cereal and pancake batter. Its flavour varies depending on the brand, but you can’t go wrong with Alpro (sweetened, obviously, I’m not a Neanderthal), which has a mild vanilla-y flavour. Their barista version is less tasty, but works wonders in a latte – its high protein content allows it to microfoam and gives the same glossy finish as cow’s milk. 

You may have heard rumours about the isoflavones (plant oestrogens) in soybeans causing breast cancer or feminization in men (polite for “man boobs”). These are completely untrue – the dairy industry just loves to circulate them. In fact, if we’re getting scientific, hundreds of studies show that soy protects against both of these things, as the less potent plant oestrogen blocks our excess oestrogen from binding to receptors. The only concern about soy is that, like cow’s milk, it’s a common allergen – so that’s something to watch out for. 

Almond milk

Almond milk is a lighter and more refreshing choice; perfect poured over a bowl of cereal. It boasts 50% more calcium than cow’s milk (though most plant-based milks are fortified to contain the same nutrients as cow’s milk anyway). It can also be used in baking, mashed potato etc. Some add it to coffee but I wouldn’t – barista almond has a slightly tangy, bitter taste which doesn’t compliment the flavour of coffee at all. 

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about almond milk’s sustainability (it uses a lot of water, and almond pollination puts pressure on bees and beekeepers). However, it’s important to keep in mind that the shortcomings of plant-based milks are insignificant compared with the environmental harm from dairy.

Coconut milk

There are two broad categories of plant-based milks; those that work as neutral-tasting replacements for cow’s milk, and those that are more noticeable. Coconut definitely belongs in the latter category.

I’m not talking about the super thick, tinned stuff that you might stir into a curry. This is the watered-down version that comes in a carton, but still manages to retain that distinctive creaminess. Coconut’s rich and exotic flavour lends itself well to breakfast and cream-based desserts, but it’s not one to keep as an all-purpose staple – I wouldn’t recommend it in coffee, unless you happen to enjoy coconut-flavoured coffee, which is just objectively grim.

Ethically, coconut milk can also be quite problematic, but not if you choose the right brand (one that’s certified Fair Trade and doesn’t exploit monkeys – most of the brands in UK supermarkets are fine). 

Oat milk (the winner)

Oat milk has surpassed almond milk as the fastest-growing dairy alternative, with its velvety texture and taste reminiscent of milk at the bottom of the cereal bowl (that’s a compliment). It’s not oversweet, the way soy can be. It performs well on all sustainability metrics. And it works as a perfect milk replacement in pretty much everything – especially coffee.

Swedish brand Oatly have seen their worldwide sales surge from $68 million in 2017 to over $200 million in 2019, with their chilled oat drinks; skinny, semi (my absolute staple) and whole. Their ‘controversial’ slogan “it’s like milk, but made for humans” got them sued by the Swedish dairy industry in 2015, but that didn’t faze them – their milk has become a barista standard in hipster coffee chains across the world. There is now a genuine website called Oatfinder which locates the nearest café stocking Oatly, just in case you’re wandering the North Pole and want to know how many kilometres you are from an oat milk cappuccino.

And the rest

I could go on – but we’d be entering more experimental (and expensive) territory. Rice milk: refreshing, sweet and neutral-tasting, but watery; you could pour a cup of it into black coffee and it would still be black. Hazelnut milk: delicious, but only really works in cereal – its flavour is too overpowering for anything else. Cashew milk: never tried it, sounds a bit pretentious. Tiger nut milk, pea milk, quinoa milk… alright, now you’ve got to be joking. 

People tend to adopt an all-or-nothing approach when it comes to plant-based milks. We talk about “making the switch”, as if picking up a carton of oat milk is synonymous with pledging to quit dairy for life. Most of the time, this isn’t logistically or financially feasible. “It’s about getting a lot of people to make small changes,” says Toni Petersson, Oatly’s chief executive, “and by doing that, creating a shift on a massive scale, rather than trying to turn everybody vegan.” 

Those who dismiss milk alternatives as a short-lived millennial fad should think again though – in a few years’ time, millennials will have the strongest spending power globally. Some say a worldwide shift towards plant-based milk is inevitable – the question is how fast.

Image via Flickr

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