A straightforward guide to milk alternatives
Do you know your coconut cappuccino from your flax milk frappe?
When you wake up, what’s the first thing you think of? For me, it’s my morning latte.
Milk is a staple in our diets, we use in tea, coffee, cereal, smoothies, cooking, all largely within the first few hours of the day. Which means the rising trend in milk alternatives can’t have eluded you. You’ve seen them sliding into Costa’s menu and onto Tesco’s shelves. With options like cashew, hemp and quinoa, going to pick up a pint of milk has taken on a whole new meaning.
Some people don’t consume dairy milk because they're lactose intolerant, lead a vegan lifestyle or are concerned about the environment. But more people are opting for change just because they like variety and enjoy the taste of milk alternatives. With great options available, a coconut milk latte can be smoother and creamier than the real deal.
Most milk alternatives are basically a suspension of ground nuts, soy, oats, etc, in water, so when you add them to coffee there is a chance they will curdle. During the review we didn't have this problem with any of the nut milks we tested, probably due to stability regulators in the products. If you do find a separation problem, particularly with homemade nut milks, you could get around it in two ways: by heating the milk up slowly – have it in the cup first then slowly drizzle coffee after – or buy barista variety.
However, not all milk alternatives were created equal. They have different flavours and costs, some curdle, some don’t, some can be made at home or are great to cook with, some are full of vitamins and minerals, others sugar and additives, and their crops all have differing environmental impact – it’s a lot to think about.
At loveFOOD we aren’t doctors or health experts, so if you’re looking to make a drastic dietary change speak to a professional. However, if you're looking to dip your toes into the pool of the milk alternatives, we've got the lowdown on where each comes from, what they taste like and what they can do for you.
Soy milk (or soya milk, they’re the same thing)
Soy milk is made with either soybeans or soy protein, and often contains thickeners and vegetable oils to improve its taste and consistency. In their natural state, soybeans taste quite bitter, so the milk is heavily processed to mask the flavour. That’s why sweetened versions tend to be the most palatable.
In terms of nutrition, soy milk is said to be one of the best non-dairy substitute for cows' milk. It contains a similar amount of protein, but around half the number of calories, fats and carbohydrates. However, recently soy has become controversial, it was said to impact hormones, male fertility, and limit the body’s ability to absorb vitamins and minerals.
Soy milk has questionable environmental antecedents, as production is widely synonymous with deforestation, although 90% of imported soy is used for animal feed, fuelling the dairy and meat industry, with only 10% grown for human consumption.
If you want to make soy milk at home, you can. All you need are soy beans, water, a blender, a pot to cook it in and something to strain the milk, for example, a nut milk bag or a few layers of cheesecloth.
Almond milk is one of the most popular milk alternatives. It's made with either whole almonds or almond butter and water, and has a light texture and slightly sweet, nutty flavour.
Due to its sweet taste, almond milk lends itself to being used in lattes and smoothies. There are vanilla flavoured versions available which aren't too overpowering and pair particularly well with coffee. People who like sugar in their tea also tend to enjoy almond milk in their tea, but others can find it can be too sweet. Almond milk works as a substitute for cows' milk in desserts and baked goods. We did not find the almond milk we tested curdle, but you can buy barista varieties if you are concerned.
Almond milk is a much less concentrated source of the beneficial nutrients found in whole almonds, because it is mostly water, and compared to cows' milk, it contains less than half the fat, less than a quarter of the calories, and it is significantly lower in protein and carbohydrates.
Almond milk is very bad for the environment as almonds are mostly grown in heavy drought areas in California and they need a huge amount of water. It would be best to support local UK growers or to make almond milk yourself.
m*lkman 25% almond milk has a much higher almond content than most milks, which makes it thicker and more flavourful, and increases its nutritional value. We found Pip & Nut almond milk with honey & vanilla sweet and delicate, with a slightly nutty taste and vanilla fragrance.
Star buy: When we added Califia Farm unsweetened vanilla almond milk to coffee, its creamy, nutty flavours really sang through.
Oat milk is starting to take over from almond milk in popularity. Oat milks are made from the liquid leftover when oats are soaked in water.
They tend to be quite mild and neutral in flavour, like oatmeal. They are also naturally sweet, and we found one variety to taste like honey. It can be used to replace cows' milk in cooking (they thicken when cooked with) and taste great with cereal or in smoothies. You can also buy barista varieties specially made to be used in coffee.
Although, oats have been found to lower cholesterol levels the benefit has not been proven true for the milk. Unfortunately, oat milks are naturally low in protein, vitamins and minerals, and are not gluten free, however, some manufacturers do produce oat milks fortified with vitamins and minerals.
Oat milks are good for the environment: Oats require a sixth of the water that almonds require to grow. Oat milk is also easy and cheap to make at home.
Star buy: You will find Oatly barista edition popping up in coffee shops all around the country, and if it’s good enough for baristas...
Hazelnut milk is not as popular or as common as almond milk yet, although it has plenty of excellent properties. The process for making hazelnut milk is the same as soy, almond or any other nut based milks – the nuts are soaked, blended, strained, and sometimes boiled. Some brands also use roasted hazelnuts.
Hazelnut milk is brown in colour, creamy, nutty in taste, and slightly bitter, which means that it works well in coffee. You can also use hazelnut milk in baking and we suspect it works well in cocktails, too.
It's low in calories, contains no cholesterol and is a good source of vitamins B1, B2 and B6, vitamin E and folic acid. Nevertheless, it has double the carbs and one third the protein of cows' milk.
In terms of the environment, all plant-based beverages are better for the planet than dairy milk, because cows produce copious amounts of methane. Also, like almonds, which sap a ginormous amount of water from drought-plagued areas, hazelnuts also require large quantities of water, but they can be grown in areas where water isn’t scare.
Plenish Hazelnut M*lk containins just three ingredients (hazelnut, water and seasalt), perfect for an unadulterated hazelnut experience. Rude Health Hazelnut & Cacao is quite bitter but tastes lovely in coffee.
Star buy: Innocent unsweetened hazelnut was our resounding favourite, well-balanced and rich in flavour. We are so glad we discovered this gem and will now be using it in all future bowls of cereal, coffees and hot chocolates.
Coconut milk is one of the more expensive alternatives. Unlike coconut water, it is made from white coconut flesh, grated and soaked in hot water so that the coconut cream can rise to the top and be skimmed off. The remaining liquid is squeezed to extract the coconut milk, which is basically a more diluted and lower fat version of the coconut milk you can buy in cans and use in cooking.
Coconut milk has a silky texture and unmistakable coconut flavour. For this reason, it works well in lattes but not in tea, unless you’re a tea drinker who takes sugar. Coconut milk can also be used in cooking, for example in cakes or curries. To prevent milk from curdling, use lower temperatures and stir the dish often.
Coconut milk is high in fat; one glass of light coconut milk can contain 300 calories, double the amount in whole fat milk. However, coconuts are high in a wide range of vitamins and minerals including C, E, B, iron, selenium and magnesium.
Coconut milks are moderately sustainable. Growing coconuts requires less water than soy and produces less greenhouse gases than cows. The most important thing is to choose ethical brands. Coconut milk would not be easy to make at home.
Star buy: Innocent unsweetened coconut is pleasantly coconutty and reminds us of piña coladas.
Cashew milk is made from a mixture of cashew nuts or cashew butter and water. It's smooth with a hint of cashew flavour and could work well in tea as it’s not too sweet. It’s great for thickening smoothies, as a creamer in coffee and as a substitute for cows' milk in desserts.
Cashew milk contains fewer than one third of the calories of cows' milk, half the fat and significantly less carbohydrates, although less protein, too. Because the nut pulp is strained from the milk, a lot of the fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals found in whole cashews are lost in the milk.
The sustainability of cashew milk is better than cows' milk, although – once again – all nut milks require an abundant water supply. If you have concerns about the environment check your brand does not source cashews from areas where water is scarce. If possible, support local milk makers or craft your own; homemade cashew milk is easy.
Elmhurst Cashew milk is a barista-approved milk that is also foamable – ideal for cappuccinos and lattes. Plenish Cashew milk contains just water, cashews and salt if you enjoy your cashew milk in its simplest form.
Star buy: Alpro Cashew has a creamy texture with just a hint of cashew taste. It's fortified with vitamins and minerals making it a good alternative to cows' milk.
Macadamia milk is fairly new to the market. It’s made mostly of water and about 3% macadamia nuts.
It has a richer, smoother and creamier flavour than most milks, and tastes great on its own or in coffee and smoothies. Like all nut milks, there's a slight chance macadamia milk can curdle when heated to high temperatures or added to coffee.
Macadamia milk contains one third the calories and about half the fat of cows' milk. Again, it's also lower in both protein and carbohydrates.
It seems most macadamia milk brands are based in Australia, so consider your carbon foot print when buying them as there are more environmentally friendly, closer-to-home options.
To make your own, combine nuts and distilled water in a high-power blender and process for about five minutes, until smooth. Strain the macadamia mixture through a fine sieve lined with cheesecloth. Refrigerate the milk and shake before serving.
Unlike Provamel's other nut milks, which are grown locally in Europe, Provamel macadamia original drinksource their macadamias from outside of Europe. Milkadamia Original macadamia milk is fortified with vitamins and minerals but unfortunely manufactured across the globe, in Australia.
Rice milk is made from milled white or brown rice and water. As with other non-dairy milks, it often contains thickeners to improve the texture.
White rice milk is mild in taste and naturally sweet in flavour, much like rice pudding. It has a slightly watery consistency but works well in smoothies, desserts and with oatmeal. Brown rice milk is darker in colour, as you would imagine, and tastes distinctly of brown rice.
Rice milk can curdle in coffee and in presence of acids, although it didn’t when we tried it. To prevent this, you can buy barista versions or heat slowly before use. Rice milk does not thicken when you cook it like oat milk does.
Rice milk contains a similar number of calories to cows' milk, but almost double the carbohydrates. It also contains considerably less protein and fat. Fortified versions contain as many vitamins and minerals as cows milk but also added salt and sugar.
Rice is a water-intensive crop, so depending on what country it's grown in, it could be have a negative impact on the ecosystem. If you are concerned look into the individual brand you are choosing. It is possible to make rice milk at home, if you wish.
Rude Health brown rice milk is made from water, brown rice, sunflower oil and salt. It has no added thickeners.
Star buy: Rice Dream Original calcium enriched is deliciously sweet, despite having no added sugar, plus it’s been fortified with calcium and vitamins.
Hemp milk is made from the seeds of the hemp plant – the same species as cannabis – but the seeds contain only a trace of THC, too little to have any hallucinogenic effect.
Hemp milk has a hay-like smell, a very subtle flavour which is somewhat sweet, like cereal, with a watery texture. It therefore works best as a substitute for skim milk.
Hemp seeds are a good source of nutrients, including omegas, calcium, vitamin B12 and vitamin D and hemp milk is one of the most nutritionally rich, despite the whole value of the seeds not being fully transferred to the milk. Compared to dairy milk, it contains similar fat content and half the calories and protein.
Hemp milk is up and coming as one of the more popular options for baristas as it steams similarly to soy, but has more fat, so works well in cappuccinos and lattes.
Hemp milk is a sustainable milk alternative. Hemp is a non-GMO plant that grows without depleting nutrients from the soil and may not require chemicals to produce good yields. Hemp also takes less than a third of the water almonds need to grow.
You can make hemp milk at home by blending hemp seeds in water until smooth.
Quinoa milk is slightly more expensive than other milk alternatives and harder to source in shops. It's a flowering plant, from the amaranth family, and the edible seed is commonly consumed as a grain.
Quinoa milk, in its simplest form, is quinoa and water. It has a beige colour and tastes earthy and nutty like quinoa. It works well poured into porridge.
It contains a similar number of carbohydrates to cows' milk, but fewer than half the calories. It also contains significantly less fat and protein.
Quinoa milk is a very sustainable option. Native quinoa has an amazing ability to adapt to local climates and soils, which means there are now countless local varieties surviving in sometimes extreme climate conditions. (It can also thrive at 13,000 feet above sea level on only 100 - 200 mm of rainwater).
Quinoa milk is easy to make at home, all you need to do is blend cooked quinoa with water and then strain. You can also try blending in dates and spices, such as cinnamon, to improve its taste.
Riso Scotti combines quinoa milk with rice milk, providing a slightly smoother, sweeter flavour, and can be bought from Holland & Barratt. Eco mil quinoa drink is sugar-free and works well used in tea.
Flax milk is simply whole flax seeds or cold-pressed flax oil mixed with filtered water. It's creamier than many other milk alternatives, and sweetened flax milk works well in coffee or over cereal. It can be used as a substitute in both sweet and savoury recipes, for example pancakes, muffins, dips and soup.
Unlike cows' milk, flax milk contains no cholesterol or lactose, making it healthier for you. It also contains omega-3 fatty acids from the cold-pressed flax oil, but the milk is often fortified with vitamins and minerals, including A, B12, D and calcium, too. There is no protein in flax milk.
Flax seeds can be grown all over the world including the UK, which means they can be sourced locally. However, flax milk in the shop is likely to have been imported, so check the label or make your own – all you need is filtered water, flax seeds, medjool dates, vanilla, a sieve and a blender.
Pea milk is made by harvesting yellow split peas and milling them into flour. The flour is then processed, separating the pea protein from the fibre and starch. The former is further purified and blended with water and other ingredients, including sunflower oil, salt, and vitamins like B12.
Pea milk doesn’t taste like peas and it’s not green. Pea milks will vary in flavour depending on the brand (but the one we found was described as rich and creamy). Pea milk works well in a wide variety of dishes, including brownies, quiche and salad dressing.
Pea milk is better for the environment than cows' milk, as yellow peas grow in areas that receive lots of rain and need little or no irrigation.
As pea milk requires the milling and processing of pea, it's not impossible, but also not simple, to make at home.
Ripple original pea milk describes itself as rich and creamy, and has 8g of protein per serving. They also have an unsweetened variety Ripple unsweetened original with zero sugar and a vanilla flavoured milk Ripple vanilla which sounds delicious.
Other plant-based milks (spelt, walnut, sesame, chestnut, peanut, tiger nut, blended)
There are now so many varieties of plant-based milks it's hard to keep track of them all. During our research we found spelt, walnut, sesame, chestnut, peanut and tigernut, but there are fewer brands who offer them and they're more difficult to find in shops.
If you were looking to make any of these varieties at home, they more or less follow the same procedure: blend the chosen nut or grain with water, agave syrup and salt for flavour and then squeeze through a fine sieve.
Spelt milk is similar in nutritional value to almond milk. However, spelt is a cereal and an ancestor of wheat, so it contains gluten. Peanut milk tastes similar to other nut milk varieties but with a strong peanut flavour, tigernut milk is the same and tastes of brazil nuts, as does chestnut milk but with chestnuts. We didn’t get a chance to try walnut or sesame, but we imagine they follow the same trend.
It makes sense that milks taste like their nut counterparts, but nonetheless it can take you off guard when tasting the liquid verson for the first time.
We also found blended plant-based milks varieties available, made to mimic dairy milk using a combination of ingredients – for example, coconut cream for richness and rice milk and almond milk for sweetness.
Eco Mil Chestnut instant drink is really quite different to any products we’ve tried before, as it has a chestnutty and Christmassy flavour. We also liked that it's powder form, so should last longer in the cupboard and could be useful for travel. Rude Health peanut milk tastes curiously peanutty.
Star buy: Rebel Kitchen Whole Mylk is a blend of coconut cream, brown rice and cashew milk, designed to mimic the qualities of whole fat dairy milk. At once this milk is silky, sweet and rich, it tastes tremendous when used to make tumeric milk or a regular latte.
Goats' milk can have a strong and distinctive farm yard flavour, with a savoury, salty edge. It can be used in most recipes to replace cows' milk but there will be a noticeable flavour difference. Unlike many nut milks, goats' milk will not curdle in tea, coffee and hot chocolate.
Goats' milk is nutritionally similar to cows milk, but contains no lactose. As such, the body’s digestive enzymes find it easier to break down, so people with lactose and other intolerances prefer it as they get less bloating and discomfort. A downside is goats' milk can prevent B12 being absorbed by the body which causes anemia, fatigue and weakness.
Is it sustainable? Goats' milk is relatively sustainable as goats can thrive in many different environments where cows cannot, and goats also produce less methane than cows.
Bonus: Many people find that with no lactose, goats' milk is perfectly fine to give to their dogs. We know several dogs who go over the moon for a bowl full.
We found Waitrose semi skimmed goats' milk tastes less goaty than their whole goats' milk and more creamy than regular cows' semi skimmed milk.
Star buy: Waitrose full fat goats' milk is rich and creamy like cows' milk but with a very slight goats' cheese aftertaste.
Sheeps' milk comes from sheep farms across the UK. It's rich and creamy with a distinctive sheepy flavour. It's perhaps a bit too rich to drink on its own, but excellent in homemade cheeses, yoghurt and desserts such a panna cotta and ice cream.
If you are going to drink sheeps' milk, it contains up to twice as many minerals as cows' milk, such as calcium, phosphorus, zinc, B group vitamins and it’s a rich source of iodine. However, be warned, it contains double the fat and more calories than cows' milk.
Sheeps' milk is more difficult to source that goats' milk or cows' milk as it is not stocked in supermarkets. You could try your local farmshop or take a look at local stockists. Prices tend to be a fair bit higher than goats' milk, for example £10 for two litres.
Sheep are a hardy species that thrive on hillsides and other areas where cows may not and they also produce less methane than cows, making them a sustainable source of not just milk, but meat and wool.
Top Paddock Sheep Dairy (pictured above) is based in West Sussex, where you can bulk buy one and two litre bottles of frozen sheeps' milk and they will deliver it to you. The Sheep Milk Company in Lancashire also delivers sheeps' milk as frozen, bulk orders and they have sheeps' curd for sale too.
Lactose-free versions of dairy milk are fine for lactose-intolerant people to consume, because the source of dietary difficulty has been removed. The lactose is not physically extracted, but broken down by enzymes into sugar.
Lactose-free milk tastes slightly sweeter than regular milk but it can be used as a milk substitute in anything.
Nutritionally, compared to whole cows' milk, Arla lacto-free whole milk contains ever so slightly less calories, carbohydrates, proteins and fat.
Arla Lacto-free whole milk, despite my initials fears, tasted just as creamy and delicious as regular dairy whole milk. They also have Arla Lacto-free semi-skimmed milk which is slightly lower in fat and calories.
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