With such a variety available, how do we know what the best vegan milk alternative is on the market?
This article aims to educate and inform you of the meaning behind going dairy-free. Then it’ll move on to looking at the nation’s favourite vegan milk focusing on their nutrition and the environmental impacts of each.
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What is vegan milk (a.k.a non-dairy)?
Society’s usual go-to milk is cow’s milk which has been considered a food essential for years. However, with a need to be more sustainable and ethical with our food, we are seeing far more people swap to vegan milk nowadays. Almost 25% of the UK population now drink plant-based milk.
Unlike usual dairy, vegan milk isn’t made with animal products. Vegan milk alternatives are plant-based. For example, soy, oat, almond and coconut are a few examples. Your average supermarket now stocks a good handful of options, and in general, the variety is enormous.
With that variety comes different tastes. Therefore, it’s about trying out the different options and finding the one that suits your preference and cooking needs best. Like me, you might choose to keep a few options in the fridge.
Why are people going dairy-free?
Did you know six in ten British adults NEVER consider where their food comes from?
Did you also know that humans are the only species that consumes milk in adulthood, and we’re also the only species to drink the milk of other animals – how mad is that?
Fortunately, that is changing. In recent years, more and more people are questioning the consumption of cow’s milk (and other animal products). Whether it be for ethical reasons, the impact on the environment or the associated health implications, the demand for dairy is falling.
As a nation, we are coming to learn the negative costs associated with the production and consumption of dairy. From female cows facing repeated impregnation with artificial insemination (AI), hormone treatment and their new-born calves being taken away from them within 48 hours of birth, the ethics are arguably non-existent.
The resources, land and food needed to rear livestock, and the subsequent carbon footprint from consuming dairy don’t look good either. Which is why you’ll find that many climate activists are pro-vegan.
Healthwise, the nutritional benefits of dairy are widely contented. Since dairy hasn’t always been in our diets, some argue we have EVOLVED to drink it after it first made an appearance in our diets some thousands of years ago. This may explain why some people are lactose intolerant and others aren’t.
You could also argue today’s demand has stemmed from years of powerful marketing, ingrained habit and conformity to the norm. What else would keep people drinking it when the key nutrients’ dairy is marketed for are available in other sources of foods and vegan milk?
Since vegan milk, as part of a balanced wholesome diet, can provide our body with the fuel it needs, the taste seems to be the final decisive factor; so how do vegan milk choices compare?
What’s the best tasting vegan milk for coffee?
When it comes to tea and coffee, the BIGGEST question asked among new vegans is, which plant milk is best? Search vegan Facebook groups and you’ll find streams of conversations discussing it (lol). After all, we’re a nation that relies on caffeine boosts to get us through the 9!
It’s simply a case of finding your own taste preference but search the same Facebook conversations and it’s clear the nation’s favourite is Oatly’s oat milk. Note, I did not get paid to name-drop (haha). This is genuinely my favourite go-to in my morning coffee and I see it recommended far more than others among online vegan communities. Mainly because it boats a creamy taste and texture like cow’s milk, plus its ability to froth for barista-quality coffee is dreamy.
One thing I personally love about drinking plant-based milk is that you’re never restricted to one. The variety available means you can experiment with different types in cooking depending on your recipes. Which makes cooking more interesting and your food far more flavoursome.
If you’re new to dairy-free, let me take you through the taste of the nation’s top choices along with the environmental impact of each. I think this will help you choose a few to start with on your next food shop.
The BEST vegan milk alternatives explained:
There are three main categories of vegan milk alternatives:
- The beans: soya, pea, chickpea.
- The cereals: rice, oat, millet, barley, buckwheat, spelt, quinoa, hemp.
- The nuts and seeds: almond, coconut, cashew, hazelnut, Brazil nut, tiger nut, walnut, sesame.
Now, I’m going to run through eight of the nation’s favourites.
Made using soaked soybeans, soy milk is one of the most naturally nutritional milk alternatives. Its high protein content provides all the essential amino acids, plus it’s low in saturated fat and cholesterol-free. Most soy milk is also fortified with calcium and extra vitamins.
It’s an easy substitute for baking and cooking, leaving you with a similar finished product with only a small variation in taste. Allergies to soy can be quite common, so many will have to choose another plant-milk product.
One thing to consider is it is very water-intensive and many rainforests around the world have been destroyed to make room for more soy. However, it’s important to note that over 70% of the world’s soy is fed directly to livestock in the form of feed. Only 6% is turned into human food. This provides more motive for living life without meat and suggests soy isn’t all bad if it were used for human food alone.
As the soy industry grows, a lot of soy is genetically modified and treated with pesticides. Therefore, look out for organic and GMO-free brands, or even make your own to decrease your environmental impact.
One of the most common nut milk on offer is almond. Almonds are soaked and blended with water to create nutty, creamy milk. It can be used for all sorts in cooking but works best for desserts and drinks.
Nutritionally speaking, it has 50% fewer calories than regular dairy milk. Almonds are also naturally high in antioxidant vitamin E which plays a key role in healthy skin and a strong immune system. However, it falls short on protein levels. It’s important to get fortified almond milk where possible otherwise, make sure you get those key vitamins elsewhere in your diet.
Environmentally, almonds are incredibly water-intensive in comparison to the other vegan milk alternatives. It takes an astonishing 1 gallon of water to produce 1 almond! This is quite concerning since most of the world’s almonds are grown in drought-stricken California. Despite this negative press, it’s important to stay open-minded on this. Dairy production needs far more water than any kind of plant milk and California produces more dairy milk than it does almonds (in dollar terms). Plus, the country uses more water to grow alfalfa (a nutritional forage) for livestock feed than it uses to grow almonds.
Oat milk is made similarly to almonds. Whole oats are soaked and blended with water to make creamy milk with an unsurprisingly oaty taste. This makes it great in cooking, smoothies and coffees.
Nutritionally, this milk alternative boasts lots of fibre and is often fortified with vitamins and minerals such as calcium, vitamin D, and riboflavin. All of which help your skin and eye health.
Oat milk is also one of the less environmentally damaging on the list. Oats don’t need as much water as other plant milk, and the oat industry is overall more sustainable given its low carbon footprint in production.
Quite different from the creamy coconut milk you find canned, drinkable coconut milk is made by blending grated coconut in hot water and separating the liquid. It’s a popular option for cooking and makes a creamy addition to meals – perfect for curries, soups, and vegan ice cream.
Due to its high-fat content, it’s also popular for vegan cheese making; but don’t fear the fat with this one. Coconut offers the type of fats known as medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). It’s been shown that these fat types benefit health and performance. Despite counting towards the amount of saturated fat in food as labelled, they’re processed differently by the body.
Coconut milk scores points for the environment too. The more demand for coconut, the more coconut trees will need to be planted. The more trees mean the more carbon that’s captured from the environment. This helps reduce the negative impact of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and enriches the soil. However, a lot of coconut farmers are very poor and suffer from low and volatile prices so you can support them by choosing Fairtrade coconut milk.
For individuals who suffer nut allergies, rice milk provides a good alternative. It’s made by boiling rice, pressing through a mill, and then straining to a liquid. Its texture works well with soups and sauces but maybe too sweet for savoury dishes as many contain added sugar.
Nutritionally, it has one of the lowest nutritional values of plant-milks pre-fortification. It’s low in protein so you’d need to make sure you’re getting all your key nutrients elsewhere in your diet if you choose this one. Unless you choose a well-fortified version.
Environmentally, rice milk is similar to almond milk since it requires a lot of water for production. However, it’s still less than that of dairy and globally, farmers have developed sustainable practices and irrigation systems to keep the environmental impact down.
Cashew milk is created by soaking deshelled cashew nuts in water, blending them into a paste and then straining to subtle, nutty milk. Cashews make some of the best vegan cheeses.
Brimming with minerals, fibre, protein and unsaturated fat, cashews are packed with even more vitamin E than almond milk. However, a lot of that is stripped from the nut when it’s made into milk. Therefore, it’s important to choose cashew milk which is fortified with nutrients and vitamins.
In India, where 60 per cent of cashews are processed, the ethics of their production is somewhat questionable. It takes cardol and anacardic acid to crack through the two armour-like shells of the nut before you reach the main tasty bit. This means many workers in this industry suffer from acidic burns to their hands as a lack of health and safety means they often aren’t provided with gloves. They also earn as little as £1.70 a day. Therefore, it’s important to do your research and choose brands who use ethically sourced cashews.
Hemp milk is derived from the seeds of the hemp plant. They’re blended with water to create a milk that’s similar in texture to cow’s milk. It may be more expensive than others on the list as it isn’t as readily available, but rest assured it’s gaining more popularity. Hemp milk has an earthy, nutty flavour and a creamy consistency. It can be used in place of cow’s milk in, for example, smoothies, coffee and cereal.
Whole hemp seeds are rich in high-quality plant protein, healthy fats and minerals. Plus, they’re a great source of calcium which we know is great for bone and teeth health.
One key benefit of hemp production is that all hemp-derived products can be recycled, reused and are 100% biodegradable. It’s like coconut in the sense that its production helps reduce global warming because it removes large amounts of carbon dioxide per acre – more than most plants.
Pea milk is made using yellow split peas. They’re ground into flour, then the protein and starch are separated. The protein is blended with water to make the milk. The taste and texture are similar to other kinds of vegan milk, and you can use it throughout cooking. However, due to its low-fat content, some recipes may need higher fat plant milk to succeed.
One noticeable difference between pea milk and other plant milk is its high protein content. It can offer up to a whopping 8g per serving. Along with protein, most pea-based milk is fortified with vitamins and minerals too. Plus, it’s soy, nut and gluten-free which makes it a great alternative for allergy sufferers.
Another positive side of investing in pea milk is its low environmental impact. Peas are native to areas that like lots of rain, which means farmers don’t have to drill for water and smaller amounts of irrigation are needed. Therefore, it’s an overall lower threat to the environment.
Comparison of vegan milk per 100ml:
Which vegan milk should I choose?
Nutritionally, most plant-based milk is fortified with all the key nutrients you need, so it will most likely come down to calories, carbs and protein. Soy and pea offer the best amount of protein, whereas oat and rice are high in carbohydrates and almond milk boasts the least calories.
Ethically, it’s hard to say the best as each has pros and cons. My advice would be to get the most ethical brand of whichever one you choose. Importantly, they’re all significantly better for the environment than dairy milk. Their climate and land impacts are much smaller, their overall water use is far less, and their impact on biodiversity is less.
Are there any other ethical points to consider when buying vegan milk?
Plastic bottles have a large carbon footprint and often end up in a landfill. Therefore, avoid plant milk which comes in plastic bottles.
Another question to ask is: does it come from a non-vegan company? Several of the companies behind well-known ethical milk brands are also heavily involved in the dairy industry. Look for strictly vegan companies to avoid funding factory farming and all associated animal rights issues.
There’s a huge range of plant-milks available to try, each with something different to offer. It’s not very easy for me to recommend one as the best. Instead, your choice depends on what your personal needs, tastes and diets are, as everyone is different.
I’ll let the choice be yours…
I hope you’ve found this useful and informative. Have fun with it, and enjoy living dairy-free – the cows will love you for it! Be sure to share with friends and others who are looking to venture into dairy-free.