Plant-based milks are on the rise. If you’re confused by which variety to try, Serena Lee has all you need to know.
Are you thinking of giving up dairy milk? Maybe you want to reduce your carbon footprint, prevent cruelty to cows, or for simply for health reasons? Now is a better time than ever to reach for plant-based milks. Dairy-free products are a rapidly growing industry, and supermarket shelves are lined with everything from soya to tigernut milk. But, which should you choose? Here’s the low down on the most popular plant-based milks. Plus, reveal their pros and cons, what they’re best used for, and which you might want to avoid using in certain recipes.
Before we begin, it’s important to note three big reasons for why dairy is dwindling and plant-based milks are expanding so rapidly.
Like humans, cows only produce milk when pregnant or when nursing their young. In order for humans to drink cow’s milk, female cows are continuously forcibly impregnated and made to give birth for all of their fertile years, before they are killed. Typically, when the mother gives birth to a son, the calf is killed, as males are not worth keeping, due to females being more profitable. This cycle exploits cows and kills calves, and so an easy and kind switch is simply to buy dairy alternatives instead of cows’ (or other mammals’) milk.
Researchers at the University of Oxford found that a 200ml glass of dairy milk results in almost three times the greenhouse gas emissions of non-dairy milks. Moreover, the study showed that the production of dairy milk also requires more land and water use than any plant-based milks
Health also plays a big part in the rise of alternative milks. Avoiding animal cholesterol and choosing dairy-free milks with lower amounts of saturated fats can help prevent heart disease. It’s important to note that palatability will be a factor in whether or not you stick to drinking dairy-free, as unsweetened plant milks can be a shock if you’re used to dairy milk, which contains lactose (a form of sugar). You might hear people tell you that unsweetened versions are superior to sweetened plant milks health-wise, but it really depends on your personal preference. Sweetened plant-based milks can always be used to help make the switch, and then unsweetened can be weaned onto later if that’s your end goal.
Best for hot drinks
Oat milk brand, Oatly, has become a household name among vegans. Their Barista edition, is a firm favourite in coffee shops across the UK, as it foams and has a subtle sweetness that works great as an alternative to the sweet lactose found in dairy milk. It’s amazing in both coffee and tea. Both Oatly Barista and regular Oatly (fortified or organic) work well in most hot drinks, as they don’t split like others. Pea milk, rice milk, and almond milk in particular will leave you with a separated and watery consistency to your hot drink. Stick to oat milk, or use soya if you’re avoiding gluten.
Best for savoury dishes
Coconut milk is traditionally used in many Asian recipes – for example, in satay sauce, green curries, and laksa. It has a distinctive flavour, so can be overpowering if substituting dairy milk in a dish that wouldn’t usually contain coconut. Tinned coconut milk is the go-to, as the coconut milk found in the drinks section is usually comprised of water with just a little coconut milk. But, note that coconut milk has higher saturated fat content than other plant milks. Unsweetened soya milk is also a great option for savoury dishes, as soy beans have a neutral flavour, and soya milk has a similar consistency to full-fat dairy milk. Just be aware that, as dairy milk intrinsically contains sugar, you might need to sweeten your recipe slightly, to make it as similar as possible.
Best for smoothies
Most plant milks work well in smoothies. Unsweetened varieties are generally good, as the fruit gives natural sweetness to the drink. To pack in extra micronutrients, you can use a fortified milk. Or, opt for hemp milk, which contains omega-3 fatty acids.
Best for cereal
If you’re eating an oat-based breakfast, adding oat milk to it can be boring, as the taste is similar. It’s a fine choice, but if you’re after adding another flavour to your breakfast, nut milks are great. Chilled almond is a hugely popular choice. Choose unsweetened for the healthiest option, and add naturally sweet foods like berries or banana to your breakfast instead. Cereals with cacao are delicious when paired with hazelnut milk, and cashew milk is perfect with granola. Rice milk is another good choice for cereal. It’s light, naturally slightly sweet, and can be paired with many cereals. For hot porridge, soya milk gives a creamier texture than many other milks, and makes for an indulgent, balanced breakfast
Best for baking
Soya milk is generally higher in protein than other milks and holds together well when used for baking. Oat milk also has a good balance of protein, carbs, and fat. Plus, it can also be used in place of dairy milk in recipes that need to go in the oven. Like with hot drinks, avoid milks with a consistency that changes vastly when heated – rice, almond, and pea, in particular. Coconut, cashew, and soya milk are also great for making into vegan ice cream.
Best for drinking straight
This one’s down to you. Commercial nut milks are, generally speaking, very low in nut content – many contain as little as two per cent nuts. This means they’re almost like flavoured water when drunk straight. Although making your own is easy and can result in deliciously creamy nut milks. There are both oat and hazelnut milks available in supermarkets that are full of flavour. Innocent make hazelnut milk so delicious it’ll barely make it to your cereal bowl before being drunk. Still, homemade has to be the tastiest option here, as you can flavour it however you like. Thick cashew milk with medjool dates and a pinch of pink salt is always great. Sweetness from whole foods, such as dates, allow for a natural balance of fibre and sugar.
Best all-rounder milks
Oat milk is great for its macronutrient ratio. Plus, it’s delicious in most drinks, has a high fibre content, and is environmentally a very positive choice. The University of Oxford’s survey showed that no other milk has less of an impact on the environment across all three areas tested – emissions, land use, and water use. Soya milk has one of the most complete nutritional profiles of all plant milks. The unsweetened varieties can be used in most recipes as a dairy milk substitute.