Perhaps the newest food trend of recent years is the exponential rise of ‘alternative milk’. Maybe this is in part down to the fad of a food allergy (that’s a story for another day), or maybe people are just interesting in trying milk substitutes. I definitely fall into the second category and practically forced myself to try them out. I first tried almond milk a few years ago at uni and thought it was vile. I’d expected to really like it, but it tastes nothing like almonds and was a sort of warm, bland, watery liquid.
I didn’t let this deter me and I was convinced that I would ‘get into’ almond milk. Someone told me to try the ‘original’ version (rather than unsweetened), and even though it’s unhealthier, I found this to be much nicer. There was a brief period of my life when I would have porridge made with almond milk and honey for breakfast every day and I felt like the hipster food blogger that I had always dreamed of becoming.
That phase didn’t last that long, mainly due to the extortionate price of 1L of almond milk compared with 4pts of cow’s milk, and as someone who doesn’t necessarily have an intolerance to dairy, it felt like a luxury that was a bit unnecessary.
Milk allergies affect approximately 2-3% of the UK population. Lactose intolerance is a common reason why people might opt for dairy alternatives. For those with lactose intolerance, the body doesn’t produce the enzyme lactase and so cannot break down lactose (the sugars in milk). Thousands of years ago, people stopped producing lactase when they reached adulthood and so milk was a foodstuff only for children. A chance mutation somewhere down the line meant that people continued to produce lactase throughout their whole life and so milk became the widely consumed beverage it is today.
There are now so many options that it’s difficult to know what the differences are. Even within the ‘dairy’ umbrella there are countless varieties. In this post, I’ve tried to outline the options within the dairy milk range as well as those of some of the more popular milk substitutes.
Cow’s milk is a natural product and is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of ‘milk’. It’s a good source of protein and calcium, and the three main options are whole, semi-skimmed, or skimmed. This refers to butterfat content: 3.5% butterfat content qualifies as whole milk, 1.5%-1.8% for semi-skimmed, and less than 0.3% for skimmed milk. Jersey Cream, Channel Island, or ‘Gold Top’ milk is a very rich, light-beige coloured milk with 5.5% butterfat content, from Jersey and Guernsey breeds of cattle.
Lactose-free cow’s milk is also available and is, as the name suggests, free of the enzyme lactose, which makes it a great option for those with a lactose intolerance.
Pasteurised milk has undergone pasteurisation, a process which rapidly raises the temperature of milk and quickly cools it again before bottling to keep it fresher for longer, as well as killing any bacteria in milk and making sure it is safe to drink. Milk sold in supermarkets to consumers is rarely unpasteurised.
Longlife or UHT milk is milk that has undergone ultraheat treatment. This is another process that extends the shelf life, by heating the milk to above 135°c, which sterilises the milk and kills bacterial spores.
Condensed milk and evaporated milk
Condensed milk is cow’s milk that has had the water removed. It is a very thick, cream coloured liquid. It often has sugar added, which extends the shelf life, but makes for a very sweet final product. It’s used mostly in baking and making foodstuffs like fudge, caramel, or sweets.
Evaporated milk has about 60% of the water removed. It is similar to condensed milk but without the added sugar. As such, it’s sometimes known as unsweetened condensed milk. Due to the lower sugar content, evaporated milk requires more processing to make it safe for extended shelf life.
Soy milk is the grandad of the dairy-free milk family and was the first on the scene. It’s been around for years and is especially popular in East Asian cuisine. It is made from whole soybeans, which are soaked in water overnight, then ground and mixed with water to give it the desired consistency. It is then heated to near boiling point to destroy protein inhibitors present in raw soybeans, then filtered to make it smooth.
Soy, or soya, milk, is a low-fat alternative to cow’s milk. Is has as much protein as cow’s milk, can help to balance cholesterol levels, and is free of lactose.
Almond milk is the fashionable choice. Almonds are ground in a blender with water, then strained to remove the pulp. Alternatively, mixing almond butter with water can also produce almond milk. It comes in a variety of options, including unsweetened (not mixed with sugar), and even chocolate flavour. It’s free of cholesterol, saturated fat, and lactose, but it’s a poor source of protein or calcium. It’s also apparently pretty poor for the environment, as almonds need millions of litres of water but are grown in drought-hit California.
Coconut milk is a popular choice in Southeast Asian and Caribbean cooking. Grated white coconut flesh is mixed with water, then squeezed through cheesecloth to make thick coconut milk with around 20% fat. To make thin coconut milk, with around 5% fat, the thick milk is soaked in water and then squeezed again.
Coconut milk is rich in fibre and many vitamins and minerals, and is lactose free. However, it’s very high in saturated fat and oil due to the high content of coconut oil, and whilst if eaten in moderation it can be okay, many nutrition bodies advise against the use of coconut oil for cooking.
I’m not entirely sure how one would go about milking rice but there you go. Rice milk is classified as a grain milk, and is made by pressing rice through a mill, or it can be made by boiling brown rice with a large volume of water and then blending the mixture. It can be quite a sweet option, but the sweetness comes from a natural process that turns the carbohydrates into sugars rather than from the addition of sweeteners.
It’s free from lactose, nuts, and soy, and contains the lowest number of allergens. It contains more carbohydrates than cow’s milk, but is lower in calcium and protein. It is also higher in sugars than almond or soy milk.
There are also other plant-based milks available, including oat, hazelnut, and hemp, but these might be a bit trickier to find in your local supermarket. All are made through similar processes although each have slightly different nutritional benefits.
Jokes. Not for human consumption (and also not milk from cats) but it did make me laugh when a carton came through my till at work and I scanned it after two bottles of whole milk and a carton of almond milk.
I hope this has enlightened you on the different varieties of milk substitutes (I’ve now written ‘milk’ so many times it looks weird, like it’s not a word. Like I’m seeing through the matrix). Many can be used interchangeably for dairy milk, and if the price point is putting you off trying them, remember that it’s very easy to have a go at making plant-based milks like almond, hazelnut, or rice at home.
If you do have a milk allergy, I hope this has been helpful in identifying how many different milk substitutes there are out there. And if you don’t have an allergy, then I’d encourage you to try them every now and then- it’s definitely worth mixing up your milk intake once in a while.
If you want to try cooking with milk substitutes and you’re looking for inspiration, why not try my Almond milk porridge?