What are the Best Alternative Milks?

The world of milk is changing.  As more consumers opt for a healthy, cruelty and dairy-free alternative, there’s been a plethora of alternative milks hitting the UK market. How do you find the best dairy-free alternative milks for you?

The team at Real Foods, Scotland’s largest independent retailer, provides the lowdown on the health benefits of alternative milk products, the best brands available, and answer some of the most frequently asked questions about alternative milk.

If ever you’ve asked yourself, “How do you milk a nut?”, then read on!

Why choose alternative milks?

It’s believed that one in four households in the UK now include dairy-free alternative milks on their grocery lists.

There are many reasons why alternative milks are chosen –health reasons, environmental concerns, or sometimes just for a variety of flavours to go with your muesli.

How popular are dairy-free milks?

With an increasing number of Brits choosing a primarily vegan diet, which made up 540,000 of the population in 2016, according to the Vegan Society, the popularity of dairy-free milk is expected to continue.

From 2011 to 2013, market research by Mintel highlighted that the non-dairy milk market had increased from 36 to 92 million litres. By the end of 2018, Innova Market Insights predicted that the alternative milk market would be worth over $16 billion globally!

How do I use plant-based milks?

It’s easy to incorporate vegan-friendly, alternative milks into your food. You can put it to your coffee or tea, use it with your morning cereal, include it in a homemade smoothie in soups, sauces and even in salad dressings.

If you have a sweet tooth, you can make your own rice pudding or ice cream, and as a milk replacement for any home baking.

Try a dairy-free milk in your favourite warming cuppa.

Why do we drink cow’s milk?

Dairy has always been easily available and traditionally, we have opted for cow’s milk for its range of nutrients, especially calcium, which helps us to develop and maintain strong and healthy bones.

Other important nutrients from included protein, which helps us to grow and stay healthy; iodine, which helps us with good brain and nerve functions, vitamin B12, which helps us maintain healthy red blood cells, and vitamin B2 (also known as riboflavin), which helps us to release energy from carbohydrate and protein.

For an in-depth understanding of the history, culture and politics of why we drink cow’s milk, you can read Milk! A 10,000-Year Food Fracas by Mark Kurlansky.

What causes cow’s milk allergies and lactose intolerance?

Many people struggle to digest lactose, a type of sugar found in dairy.

Milk allergies are particularly common in children, and 2-3% of British infants are affected, often show with symptoms of skin conditions such as eczema, as well as digestive issues.

Lactose intolerance is commonplace in adults and can cause health issues such as bloating, wind and diarrhoea.

Why do vegans not drink cow’s milk?

There are many reasons vegans and even non-vegans chose not to drink cow’s milk. From concerns about land use and water consumption in dairy farming to the ethical treatment of animals, the issue is complex and contentious.

Several mainstream documentaries, such as Food Inc.Milk?,  and Food Matters, have contributed to this awareness and shift away from our desire for consuming 100% cow’s milk.

Should I give up cow’s milk?

Dairy-free milk advocates and nutritionists alike will tell you the science that highlights why humans don’t need to opt for milk destined for calves, but giving up cow’s milk is a highly personal choice.

There are pros and cons for drinking milk to be considered, just as there are many pros and cons of alternative milks, particularly when you are considering the nutritional benefits of any particular product. Some households now limit their “real” milk consumption to just the occasional beverage.

Choosing an Alternative

When choosing a milk alternative, remember to ensure you maintain a healthy and balanced diet, which includes plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains, pulses and legumes to ensure you receive the right amount of nutrients.

While the dairy industry has had decades of research, plant-based milks have still not benefited from as many studies.

If you do want to keep drinking cow’s milk, we recommend that you seek out a local supplier of fresh, organic milk. Consuming a lot of dairy is not good for humans from a calorific and saturated fat perspective.

Can alternative milk really be called milk?

Ever since alternative milks have gained popularity, the dairy lobby have been upset that non-dairy products are being labelled milk.

In recent years, some dairy-free brands have responded by adopting the term mylk, or m*lk, or even drink or juice to describe their products, however the majority are happy to call themselves dairy-free milks. And yes, you can juice a nut!

The pros and cons of alternative milks

Alternative milks used to be a lot more expensive, but now, thanks to their popularity and economies of scale at play, alternative milks often cost the same amount as regular milk, and it is increasingly more convenient to purchase all varieties of them.

For example, at Real Foods, you can choose from over 100 alternative milk products, which include products that are kosher, palm oil free, gluten free, and organic certified.

When you drink an alternative milk, be aware that you will not get the same nutritional benefit as the “unjuiced” raw nut, bean or seed, which is why many commercial alternative milks are fortified with additional nutrients, such as calcium.

As with everything, drink your plant-based milks in moderation!

What to Avoid

If you are going to start consuming commercial alternative milks, then always read the ingredients label, as some have added sugar and sweeteners.

Check whether the alternative milk contains carrageenan, (food additive E407). This is a thickening agent made from seaweed, which experts believe is a possible carcinogen and linked to ulcers and gastrointestinal cancer. Instead, opt for guar or gellan gum thickeners.

Which dairy free milk is best?

For an independent review of alternative non-dairy, alternative milk brands, read Ethical Consumer’s report, which ranks 30 non-dairy milk brands on their ethical and environmental record

Can I make my own nut milk?

It’s easy to make your own nut milks at home, but they have a shorter shelf life and are not fortified with essential vitamins and calcium. Simply cover a bowl of raw nuts with cold, filtered water and let it sit for minimum of one hour. You can even let it sit overnight. Drain the water away, and rinse the nuts, before blending the soaked nuts with filtered water. Note that the less water you use, the thicker your milk will be.

If you are vegetarian or vegan and wish to make your own nut milks, be sure to supplement your diet with additional calcium from dark green leafy vegetables, such as kale, bok choy, broccoli and collard greens.

Can dairy-free milks be used in hot beverages?

Absolutely! In fact some varieties, such as Oatley’s Barista Foamable Oat Drink and the Califia Farms Barista Blend Almond Milk, is made especially for the purpose for use in hot beverages.

Can alternative milks be used for babies and young children?

Breastfeeding is recommended by the Department of Health for the first six months, and alternative milks should not be used to replace breastmilk or infant formula in babies.

Babies under one year of age should not be fed alternative milk drinks of any kind.

The National Osteoporosis Society (NOS) claims that by cutting out dairy in young children could cause osteoporosis in later life, however many families have successfully raised vegan children by ensuring any missing nutrients from drinking dairy are replaced with other foods. 

If you do wish to introduce alternative milks to young children, we advise you speak with your GP or health visitor.

What do alternative milks taste like?

Some alternative milks taste nutty, some are beany, some are creamy and some are watery. This often depends on the source that has been “milked” – (most commonly nuts, seeds and grains), and what, if anything, it has been fortified with. It’s very common nowadays to get sweetened and flavoured varieties too.

What is the healthiest plant based milk?

This really depends how you define healthy! Soya milk has the highest protein content, followed closely by almond milk, while soya milk has the lowest calories.

From a nutritional content perspective, rice milk and coconut milk contain the least nutrition. 

soya milk has the highest protein content of alternative milks

What types of healthy alternative milks are on offer?

Nut Milks

High in protein, nut milks are an ideal dairy-free alternative. Some are blended with other ingredients, such as rice or coconut milk.

The best nut milks are those with the highest content of nut, such as the brands Rude Health or EcoMil, but this can increase the price.

Ideally you should always opt for unsweetened versions to ensure you gain maximum health benefits.

Almond Milk

Almond milk is currently the most popular dairy-free nut milk. Naturally rich in vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin E, D, B2, B12, and low in cholesterol, almond milk is created by adding almond butter or ground blanched (skinless) almonds to water and then strained to remove the solids, leaving a creamy and nutty plant-based milk.

If you suffer from kidney stones then don’t drink excessive almond milk, because it is usually enriched with calcium oxalate.

Top Tip!

If you are seeking high quantities of vitamin E and fibre, then it is better you eat whole almonds, as much of the fibre in almond milk is removed with the skin.

Whole Almonds ORGANIC

Cashew Milk

Cashew milk is becoming increasingly popular, and is available from organic nut milk brand Provamel, with a mighty 6% roasted cashew nut content!

Whole Cashew Nuts ORGANIC

Hazlenut Milk

Unlike many other nut milks, hazelnut milk has a really unique and flavorful nutty taste. Brimming with the antioxidant Vitamin E, which is great for your hair and skin and a healthy heart, we highly recommend you try hazelnut milk in coffee and hot chocolate!

hazelnuts make a milk with a distinctive nutty flavour

Dairy-free, Plant-based Milks

Soya Milk

Made from the extract of soybeans, soya milk is ideal if you are seeking a high protein, low-fat alternative milk. It is often fortified with calcium and vitamins A, D and B2 (riboflavin) has long been the most popular alternative milk, making it readily available and affordable.

Soya milk has the highest amount of potassium of all alternative milks, which if good for regulating your blood pressure, and often contains isoflavones, which can reduce the risk of heart disease. Menopausal women may benefit from the phytoestrogens that soya milk contains, which help to mimic oestrogen, and can reduce hot flushes.

If you have an allergy or intolerance to cow’s milk, then try soya milk in a small quantity, as there is a chance you could be intolerant to soya milk also.

Top Tips!

Soya is one of the world’s most genetically modified (GM) crops, so we recommend you opt for non-GM, or ideally organic certified soya drinks.

There are many flavoured soya milks available, including chocolate milk, banana milk, vanilla milk, and strawberry milk.

apple flavoured soya milk

Oat Milk

Oat milk has grown in popularity in the last year. Ideal for coffee lovers with its creamy taste, it is great for a cosy night in. Oat milk suits nut and soya allergy sufferer alike.

Oat milk is high in fiber and can help maintain your blood cholesterol as oats contain beta-glucan. Naturally sweet, oat milk is great as a dairy alternative when baking. Oat milk is low in protein and has no saturated fat, so do choose a fortified version to get your essential vitamins and minerals.

Oat Barista Drink dairy free

Rice Milk

Made from boiled rice, rice starch and rice syrup, rice milk is a light and refreshing dairy-free milk ideal for those with nut or dairy allergies.

Rice milk is usually rather thin and watery compared with other alternative milks, so it isn’t great if you are seeking a creamy style milk. In its natural state, rice milk is high in carbohydrates and sugar, and low in protein, so again, opt for one that has been fortified with calcium and other essential vitamins.

Rice Drink ORGANIC

Coconut Milk

Different from the tinned versions that have been around for many years, coconut drinks are another great alternative milk. With a pleasant, nutty and natural sweet flavour, coconut milk drinks are naturally rich in potassium, and lauric acid, which is good for your cholesterol.

Low in protein, there’s not a great deal of nutritional value to coconut milk, and it can be quite high in saturated fats, but it’s a good addition for your tropical morning smoothie or for making vegan ice cream, thanks to its creamy texture.

Coconut Drink dairy free, Gluten Free, ORGANIC

Flax Milk

Ideal for women, due to its ability to maintain hormonal balance, particularly for pre-menopausal and post-menopausal women, flax milk is high in antioxidants. Made from linseeds, also known as flax, the milk itself has a similar consistency to rice milk, and is thin and naturally sweet.

Flax milk is ideal if you require additional fibre in your diet, and is rich in alpha linoleic acids, which help maintain a healthy heart, lower your cholesterol, and keep your blood vessels working well. For ultimate health, flax milks are fortified with vitamins.

Flax milk is usually sweetened, so be aware of your intake.

Top Tip!

Feeling adventurous and trailblazing? Try our other dairy-free drinks, such as Isola Bio’s Millet Milk, Provamel’s Organic Macadamia Milk, Rebel Kitchen’s Matcha Coconut Mylk, and the lesser known but highly nutritious tiger nut drinks that Real Foods offers.

Protein Milks

Pea Milk

You might be surprised to read that pea milk exists! It’s got fabulous nutritional value while still being lower in calories compared with cow’s milk! Buy vegan and gluten-free pea protein powder and add water to make your own pea milk or delicious flavoured shake. You’ll be getting a wonderful dose of protein, calcium and omega-3.

Did you know? Some alternative milks come with added pea protein as standard!

pea milk - great nutritional value

Hemp Milk

Hemp milk is a lesser-known but nutritionally sound option for alternative milk with its nutty, beany flavour. Made into a powder from hulled hemp seeds that you can mix with water, hemp protein is brimming with iron, omega-3 and omega-6, which are good for both your brain and heart. It is often fortified with calcium and vitamin D.

Which alternative milk should I use?

  • Great for coffee: almond milk
  • Good for tea: soya milk
  • Great for hot chocolate: oat milk, hazelnut milk
  • Good for cereal: almond milk, millet milk
  • Great for smoothies: coconut milk, pea milk, hemp milk
  • Good for porridge: oat milk, almond milk
  • Great for desserts: hazelnut milk, coconut milk
  • Good for curries and savoury dishes: cashew milk, soya milk, macadamia milk
  • Great for family use: almond milk, soya milk

Real Foods has one of the largest selection of high-quality alternative milks in the UK, that have been selected with care. Why not browse our online store or pop into one of our Edinburgh shops?

Author: Jen Marsden

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