The best dairy milk alternatives
Can't drink dairy milk? There's a whole host of other milks to choose from. Read our guide to soya, almond, hazelnut, coconut, rice, oat & hemp milk, including tasting notes, how they're made, how they rate nutrition-wise, and how best to use them
Looking for lactose free milks? Rude Health founders Nick and Camilla Barnard talk us through the best way to enjoy milk and its alternatives.
Some of us have to avoid dairy, others choose to, so we’re very lucky, these days, to have wide choices of dairy and non-dairy products.
Rude Health recently carried out a survey to find why people are increasingly choosing dairy alternatives over milk. It turns out that many of us just like to try new things. Others told us they were opting out of dairy because it was better for them. It’s easy to assume that dairy-free is automatically healthier, but whether you choose dairy or non-dairy, quality is crucial.
DAIRY VS DAIRY-FREE MILK
The recent rise of intolerances to foods can lead people to believe that the foods in question are unhealthy in themselves – this isn’t the case. However, the way the foods are produced may have changed and that can have an impact on how good they are for us. Producers compromise quality to make food last longer, and to be more uniform and cheaper.
Choosing a dairy alternative is a conscious choice, offering an alternative for those with allergies, wanting variety or a healthier drink. It would be reasonable to expect dairy-free drinks to be made from healthy ingredients but unfortunately that’s not always what happens. The shelves are swamped with ‘healthy’ plant-based milks that contain carrageenan, flavourings, emulsifiers, calcium carbonate, and are fortified with vitamins. Many of these ingredients and additives aren’t things you’ll have heard of, let alone have in your kitchen cupboard. They’re not proven to be healthy, and when used as fortifications may not be as bio-available (absorbable by the body) as when they occur naturally in food. It seems we’ve been blinded by health claims for dairy alternatives without looking carefully at what’s in them.
“Manufacturers use emulsifiers to provide the familiar mouthfeel of dairy in free-from milks, coconut milk and dairy-free ice creams, but their effects on our bodies are little understood.” Naomi Devlin, River Cottage
We expect to be able to buy healthy food when we don’t have time to make it. Buying a dairy alternative shouldn’t mean you have to lower your standards in terms of the quality of food and its ingredients. As consumers we shouldn’t expect anything less than what we would use to make our own nut drinks. That’s what we think. Our almond drink is made using rice instead of emulsifiers and thickeners, blended with organic roasted almonds, spring water, a drop of cold-pressed sunflower oil and a pinch of salt. It’s simple; a blend of ingredients we recognise.
WHAT ARE THE NUTRITIONAL BENEFITS OF LACTOSE FREE MILKS?
Each dairy-alternative drink, unless it’s fortified, has the inherent nutritional benefit and qualities of its very simple ingredients – water, nuts or grains.
If a drink contains oats, then it will have the nutritional benefit of the oats, but dairy-alternative drinks are enjoyable because they’re delicious and made from good-quality ingredients, not particularly because of any nutritional benefits. We believe that the rise of nut and coconut drinks is more about flavour and the broad health trends than specific benefits of any single ingredient.
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WHAT CAN YOU DO WITH ALTERNATIVE MILKS?
Dairy milk (especially when unprocessed) is a very complex food. In baking, you can use dairy-alternatives for flavour and for hydrating a recipe. Good coconut, almond, oat and hazelnut drinks can froth well for lattes and cappuccinos… and for tea, rice drink is most neutral, so works best. Hazelnut milk makes wonderful drinking chocolate.
Please note: we cannot guarantee the complete absence of dairy in the below alternatives. Always check the label!
Taste: Smooth, sweet and creamy.
Process: Dried soybeans are soaked overnight; once rehydrated the beans are ground with enough water to create the texture of milk.
Nutrition: Lower in fat than most other non-dairy milks, but higher in carbohydrate. We don’t recommend drinking it all day every day, as it has a higher concentration of protein than whole soya products.
Best use: The most similar to ‘normal’ dairy milk, and so can be substituted without any problems. Discover our best dairy-free recipes here.
Taste: Less creamy than soya milk with a subtle nutty hint.
Process: Blended almonds and water - very easy to make at home.
Nutrition: Almonds naturally contain a variety of essential vitamins and minerals. Choose unsweetened for daily use.
Best use: As versatile as milk because of its subtle flavour. Add to coffee at room temperature to avoid separation.
Here's our vegan banana bread recipe using almond milk.
Try our almond milk smoothie recipe here.
Taste: Thick and creamy… drinking on its own tastes (and looks) like an indulgent chocolate milkshake.
Process: Hazelnuts are gently roasted before grounding and blending with water.
Nutrition: A source of vitamin B12 that some say can help reduce tiredness.
Best use: Makes a delicious hazelnut flavour coffee or hot chocolate. Also a great replacement in baking for those who can’t, or choose not to, have dairy.
Taste: Refreshing yet full-bodied with a subtle hint of coconut.
Process: Watered down coconut cream mixed with rice milk.
Nutrition: Lower in calories, but higher in saturated fat than other alternative milks.
Best use: Great in porridge, cereal and blended in smoothies. Also the best option for savoury cooking, including soups, curries (try our easy curry recipes here) and stews.
Try our vegetarian curry recipe using coconut milk here.
Taste: The thinnest of the alternative milks, watery and not strongly flavoured.
Process: The rice is normally pressed through a mill to create a liquid and any remaining grains are then removed. It can also be made by boiling rice and blending, or by mixing rice flour with water and straining.
Nutrition: Shop-bought rice milk is usually fortified with vitamins and minerals, including calcium, vitamin B12, vitamin B3, and iron.
Best use: Not so good in coffee because of its watery texture, but great for children to drink with biscuits.
Taste: Deliciously smooth and naturally light.
Process: Simply blend oats and water.
Nutrition: Rich in fibre and contains naturally occurring sugar. Be aware that gluten-free oats are not always used, so check the label before buying.
Best use: Making even oatier porridge, or great in pancakes. Try our 3-ingredient banana pancakes recipe here.
Taste: A nutty flavour, but like rice milk, one of the thinner options.
Process: Crushed hemp seeds are blended with water and strained to remove any leftover solids.
Nutrition: Hemp is a trendy superfood that naturally contains 10 essential amino acids as well as being a great source of protein and vitamins.
Best use: The high protein content makes it great post-workout, either on its own or blended into smoothies (try our recipes here).
Please note: we cannot guarantee the complete absence of dairy in the above alternatives. Always check the label!
Words: Nick and Camilla Barnard
Written by Freya Richardson, July 2015
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