For a humble dairy drinker, choosing milk is a no-brainer. While there are some decisions to be made – such as skim or full cream – for the most part, it’s a simple endeavour. Where it can get trickier, however, is navigating the rapidly expanding world of non-dairy milk. In the past 4 years, non-dairy milk sales have risen by 23% – while simultaneously, dairy sales are on a serious decline. Given that a third of millennials say they actively try to avoid dairy, it seems like non-dairy milk are here to stay – which means wider variety for those of us who prefer plant-based options.
But all this variety can be both a blessing and a curse! Not all alt milk is created equal. While soy milk might be your favourite for smoothies, it definitely isn’t the best choice for a frothy latte. And throughout the grocery aisle, milk can be drastically different. From taste to texture to nutrients to additives, there are a few things we should all look out for, regardless of whether you’re team Oatly or team Bonsoy.
Let’s pivot to dairy for some context. Cow’s milk has a great nutritional profile: it’s high in protein, an excellent source of calcium, and contains other vitamins which contribute to bone strength. Despite this, however, it’s not for all of us – it’s not suitable for vegans, up to 75% of the world is lactose intolerant, and dairy has often been linked to skin conditions such as acne. Enter: non-dairy options. Ideally, plant-based milk should fill the void left by dairy as completely as possible. This means milk which has a good amount of calcium, as well as being deliciously drinkable. There’s also one major thing that shouldn’t be in your milk: sugar. It can be hiding under a few names but evaporated cane juice or cane syrup is a common culprit.
Since most of us get enough protein in our diets, it’s generally okay if your milk isn’t a home run in that department. This leaves us with two main things to look for when choosing milk: high calcium content, and no added sugar. Often, brands will advertise these two features on the front of milk, making it super simple for us to choose. Alternatively, flip the bottle over and look at the back label – if calcium isn’t listed, that means it isn’t in there. Organic milk will often have low calcium content, as they strive to be ‘additive-free’ – but overall, calcium fortification far outweighs the benefits of organic certification.
But which milk is best? Well, there’s no one right answer – it really depends on your needs. Here’s a comprehensive primer to the pros and cons of non-dairy milk.
The Best Protein-Packed Non-Dairy Milk For Every Situation
Ah, the MVP of the plant-based milk world. Oat milk has become a cult phenomenon in the past few years, even leading to the great Oatly shortage of 2018. It’s popular for a reason – oat milk is the best for coffee, and that’s just a fact. It has a full-bodied texture which is very similar to dairy, and froths incredibly well. No sad, flat lattes here! Oat milk also has a relatively neutral flavour, which means your cappuccino won’t be overpowered by a nutty aftertaste. There really aren’t any bad uses for oat milk – it’s an all-rounder.
Almond milk has endless possibilities: pour it on your cereal, make a smoothie, use it in baking. The one area where it falls down, however, is coffee. Almond milk can curdle at high temperatures, which can lead to a very acidic, unpleasant coffee. It has a thinner texture than oat or soy milk, making it the best option for drinks which don’t require a ton of froth. It’s low in fat and has a subtle, nutty flavour. While there are plenty of brand choices, try to avoid the flavoured varieties. Almond content can range from 2% to 9%, so have a look at the bottle to see where your favourite ranks – more almonds is always better! This also rings true for other nut-based milk, such as cashew and macadamia.
The original non-dairy staple! Soy milk was the only vegan milk option for a long time, but it’s since been overshadowed by the newer, flashier milk on the market. It’s nutritionally quite similar to dairy milk and has a pleasant, slightly thick texture. The taste of soy can vary dramatically depending on the brand, but, like oat milk, it’s great for most uses. It can curdle in coffee, but most coffee shops will have a barista-friendly variety to avoid this. The flavour can be more pronounced than almond or oat, so avoid when cooking or baking milk-heavy dishes.
While rice milk has never garnered the mass appeal or cultural cool of other milk, it’s my personal favourite. With a thin texture and a light, naturally sweet taste, it works equally well in oats, smoothies, or iced lattes. It has the highest carbohydrate content of any non-dairy milk but is also the lowest in fat. Since it has low-fat content, it isn’t a great choice for hot drinks – it won’t foam up or result in the creamy consistency that traditional dairy milk has.
This is a recent addition to the alt-milk scene and comes at a time when hemp is popular across the board: in food, in beverages, in skincare. Hemp is a great source of protein, so it comes as no surprise that hemp milk is often high in protein. As well as this, it’s a great source of calcium and omega 3 fatty acids – that’s the kind of fat which promotes heart health. While it’s harder to find than some other milk, hemp milk is a great option for those who try to avoid soy. It’s thicker than almond but thinner than soy and could be the next big thing in the non-dairy world.
With the industry continuing to grow at the speed of light, more plant-based options will continue coming to market. So if you haven’t found your ride or die favourite yet, that’s okay – the next Oatly might be right around the corner.