For obvious reasons, people across the world are spending more time at home – and taking the opportunity to examine their spending and dining preferences. If we’re being forced to adopt a new normal, shouldn’t it at least be an upgrade on the “normal” we used to have?
Did you know that cattle farming is more harmful to the environment than CO2 emissions from cars? Milk is a small but impactful area we can all consider upgrading on – whatever that means to you. Want something that tastes better? Easier on the wallet? Better for you? Better for the environment? Get out of old habits and try something new.
In today’s post, Samantha van Zweden breaks down the differences between the most common alternative milks available to try right now.
We might choose non-dairy milk alternatives for a variety of reasons, including dietary intolerances or allergies, preferences, sustainability, and flavor. When selecting an alternative milk, you need to consider a number of factors to find one that’s right for both you, both at home and in your place of work.
Plant-based alternatives to dairy milk are made using water and nuts, grains, and seeds. Non-dairy products have become incredibly popular in recent years, appearing more and more often in the dairy aisle.
Keep reading to learn more about five popular non-dairy alternatives to cow’s milk: soy, almond, coconut, oat, and rice.
Most milk alternatives are used in coffees, and different milks can act differently when heated and when combined with coffee. Some milks will have a strong impact on flavour, while others may taste closer to the mild sweetness of dairy.
Texture of the milk is also a consideration, particularly when it’s used in coffee or in baking or sauces. Play around with the milk you’re testing to see what it does when you use it in different applications.
- Soy: Creamy and nutty, sometimes chalky. Blends well with coffee. Importantly, it’s capable of creating a foam similar to that made with dairy milk, so a soy coffee can resemble a dairy one – though, especially for latte art, high-acidity coffee will ‘split’ soy milk. Soy milk can also curdle when boiled, so not necessarily the best for sauces.
- Almond: Nutty, watery, sometimes bitter. Sweetened varieties are best for use in coffee to counteract any bitterness in the milk. Additives can also make a significant difference – ‘barista blend’ almond milks will typically have stabilizers and thickeners to improve results for milk-based coffees (such as lattes), but these impact mouth feel of the final result. Can also be made at home quite easily by blending almonds with water and straining.
- Coconut: Sweet and creamy; impacts the flavour of coffee. Similar consistency to cow’s milk when cold, but can be difficult to get good texture when steaming.
- Oat: Fuller bodied than many dairy alternatives, with a slight oat aftertaste.
Oat milk is most similar to dairy when steaming for coffee – though tread carefully, as quality differs significantly by brand.
- Rice: Sweet and thin. Good cold, but difficult to steam well.
Nutrition and allergens
Approximately 65% of the world’s population are lactose intolerant - meaning they can’t handle the natural sugars in dairy products. The GI and fat levels in cow’s milk also differ to alternatives, which may be a factor for some consumers.
Most milks are now also fortified with vitamins and minerals (such as calcium and vitamin D) to help them mimic the nutritional profile of dairy milk.
- Soy: Soy milk’s nutrition profile closely matches dairy milk - both are high protein milks. Soy isn’t FODMAP-friendly, and high levels of isoflavones in soy can affect estrogen production if a large amount is consumed, leaving hormones out of whack.
- Almond: Under a quarter of the calories and less than half the fat of cow’s milk. High in antioxidants.
- Coconut: Equal amounts of saturated fat as in cow’s milk. Rarely allergenic.
- Oat: Shown to have a heap of health benefits - lowering cholesterol, lowering blood sugar, promoting fullness and satisfaction.
- Rice: Often sweetened and high GI, meaning it’s not great for diabetics, but it is the least likely to be tricky for people across a range of allergies (dairy, gluten, soy, nuts), making it a good and safe offering if you’re a barista or café manager.
There’s no denying some of these options are easier on the household budget than others – and if you’re considering alternative milks for a hospitality venue, you’ll want to think not only about price per unit, but also factors such as wastage.
For example, the diverse applications of coconut milk or rice milk can reduce the amount of specialty milks you keep on rotation in your fridges, keeping the milks fresh and reducing wastage while catering to a broad range of tastes and requirements.
You’ll also need to consider whether to pass this premium on to your customers by charging more for certain milks. Menu item pricing is determined by a number of factors, including your own budget and customer expectations (you can read about this in more detail here).
- Soy: Readily available through a number of providers and, these days, not much more expensive than dairy milk.
- Almond: Can be expensive, but given its current popularity in coffee, turnover of almond milk in a hospitality venue can be high. Can also be made in-house.
- Coconut: Around US$3 per liter, with a lot of brand options.
- Oat: Cheap to make and buy. It’s a good option for cafes and restaurants who pride themselves on keeping processes and production in-house.
- Rice: Only slightly more expensive than cow’s milk, but rice milk can be harder to source, with less brand options available.
Regular cow’s milk is known to contain antibiotics, pesticides and hormones. Also of concern to the sustainability of our dairy favorite are the greenhouse emissions (particularly methane) associated with the cows used for dairy production.
Many plant-based milk alternatives score higher (although some have their own significant environmental impact) than dairy milk in sustainability around land use, water use, and the energy that goes into production.
- Soy: The monoculture of soy production is a concern, but production rates highly for sustainability otherwise.
- Almond: Almond milk tends to use large amounts of water in production, requiring a huge amount of water to grow almonds. Producing a single glass of almond milk requires almost a whole shower’s worth of water.
- Coconut: Made by grating and squeezing coconut flesh - this milk uses less water than others in its production.
- Oat: Land and water use in the production of oat milk are by far the most manageable of the bunch.
- Rice: Like almonds, this is a water-hungry milk. Rice can be grown in fast-yielding crops, but they use a lot of water to grow.
The final word
By balancing factors around sustainability, cost, flavour and nutrition, you’ll be able to source alternative milks that make you and your patrons happy, as well as working well for your home or business.
And there are even more plant-based milks available than just those discussed in this article. Macadamia, hazelnut, hemp, pea, peanut, cashew… there’s a whole world of grain and legume milks out there, waiting to be discovered and loved.
Rather than grieving the loss of lactose, embrace these options for the unique flavours they offer – and have fun with them!
Have a question? We’re always ready to talk.
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