Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Which Vegan Milk Is Best? | Full Guide to Plant Milk

The demand for plant based milks is staggering, the increase in sales has grown exponentially in recent years and continues to rise. In 2017 the sales of vegan milk hit £367 million in the UK, that's an increase of 30% between 2015-2017, and globally the industry is estimated to be worth a colossal $16bn!

Producing cows milk emits four times more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than plant milk production, so the shift in popularity is being driven by people's concern for the environment, predominantly 16-24 year old's who in a recent study 46% of them said they felt the current food system is unfair to the environment.

The range of plant milks is a little overwhelming, with pretty much any plant product becoming fair game to be milked. So how on earth do you choose between the ever expanding options available?

Well settle down in a comfy spot and grab yourself a cuppa because this is going to be a long one, as we dive into the world of plant milks and compare which really is best. Unless you're just here to find out which milk is best in tea, then that answer is simple. Most people prefer soy or oat milk for tea as they both have mild inoffensive flavours that won't ruin the taste of your PG Tips!

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Is vegan milk better than dairy?

Is vegan milk better for the environment? Absolutely it is! Soy milk for instance produces 2 and a half times less CO2 emissions than dairy, it also uses two times less land and four times less water, some other plant milks have an even better footprint and research is always being done into more sustainable ways to produce plant milks.

Is vegan milk better for you? Yes, it most certainly is! Adult humans aren't supposed to drink milk, once we are weaned as babies our bodies lose the ability to process lactose, which is why more and more people are realising that they are lactose intolerant and it causes symptoms like stomach aches, sickness, bloating and diarrhoea. Dairy has also been linked to causing acne, with many people noticing significant improvements in their skin when they cut out milk and cheese. We have always been lead to believe that milk is great for our bones, but studies have shown that countries with little to no intake of dairy have vastly lower rates of osteoporosis and the countries who consume the most milk, cheese and ice cream have the highest rates of the disease! Studies have also shown that drinking lots of dairy results in higher rates of heart disease and cancer, and when you pair this with the fact that the dairy you consume contains the antibiotics pumped into all cattle, the question is why would you want to drink milk? Dairy really is scary.

Soy Milk

Nutrition per 100ml: 39 cals | 1.8g Fat | 2.5g Carbs | 3g Protein 

One of the oldest plant milks in the world, it has been produced in China since the 14th century. Today it is a staple in coffee shops and homes around the globe. Soy milk is a popular choice and by today's standards has quite a mild flavour so lends itself well to being used in hot drinks. It can easily be used in recipes that call for cows milk and it's fairly high in protein. Alpro soya light is my personal favourite in tea and can be likened to semi skimmed cows milk.
Impact on environment: Soy milk production is a little higher than oat and almond milk in terms of emissions, however the land and water usage are fairly low, Alpro is one of the biggest suppliers of soy milk in the UK and they source the majority of their soybeans from France not the rain-forests of the Amazon. 

Almond Milk

Nutrition per 100ml: 13 cals | 1.3g Fat | 0g Carbs | 0.5g Protein 

Roasted, unroasted, sweetened, unsweetened..... So many options! Almond milk has grown to be the biggest selling plant milk, in the US it has 64% of the market share. It's rich in Vitamin E which is great for your skin and helps lower inflammation. 
Avoid the sweetened varieties if possible as they are full of sugar and almond milk is tasty enough without this addition. It's low in calories and carbs so makes a great base for smoothies and makes a pretty nice latte. The mild almond flavour goes well in porridge and on cereal and it can be used in baking.
Impact on environment: Almond milk is obviously lower impact than dairy milk, the emissions of almond milk production are lowest out of the 4 big plant milks, (Soy, Rice, and Oat) but it does require the most water, a glass of almond milk requires 74 litres of water to produce which is about the same as an average shower. UK giant Alpro source their almonds from the Mediterranean so the food miles are lower than if they were coming from California which is known for producing the majority of the worlds almonds.  

Rice Milk

Nutrition per 100ml: 50 cals | 1g Fat | 9.9g Carbs | 0.1g Protein

Rice milk is a good alternative if you have a nut allergy and like to avoid soy products, it's pretty high in carbs and higher in calories per 100ml when compared to soy or almond. Rice milk has a very thin consistency and naturally sweet flavour which might not be to everyone's taste.
Impact on environment: Rice milk is higher on the emissions and water scale than soy, almond and oat milk but requires the least amount of land. 

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Oat Milk

Nutrition per 100ml: 57 cals | 2.8g Fat | 6.6g Carbs | 1g Protein

Oat milk is becoming more of a popular choice and I have seen it being used in a lot of coffee shops now. Oat milk has quite a rich and creamy flavour which some people might find a bit much, myself included, but oat milk giants Oatly now do whole, semi and skimmed versions. This is probably quite positive as the regular oat milk is quite high in fat and carbs when compared to it's counterparts.
Impact on environment: Oat milk is arguably the best for the environment as its production is low on emissions, land use and water.

Cashew Milk

Nutrition per 100ml: 23 cals | 1.1g Fat | 2.6g Carbs | 0.5g Protein

Cashew milk is really quite rich and creamy so this might limit its uses, I personally wouldn't use it in tea and I find it a bit rich for coffee as well. It goes nicely on cereal though and would probably be quite nice in your porridge. It's surprisingly low in calories and fat, considering how calorific cashew nuts are and for how creamy it tastes.
Impact on environment: Cashew nuts are relitively eco friendly to grow, they don't require as much water as the almond for instance and they help to prevent soil erosion. However most cashew nuts are grown in North Africa, India and Vietnam so they are certainly not doing any favours on the food mile battle if you live in the UK or US. In addition to this, once they are harvested they are very labour intensive to get to the point where they can be sold. Most cashew nuts are shelled by hand and the workers can experience injuries from doing this day in day out. There are some dark secrets the cashew nut trade is hiding regarding this, so from a human rights perspective cashew milk is probably another one that should be saved for special occasions rather than being your go to milk of choice.

Coconut Milk

Nutrition per 100ml: 20 cals | 0.9g Fat | 2.7g Carbs | 0.1g Protein

Coconut milk is delicious, but it does have quite a strong flavour so isn't a good choice for tea and will impart a very coconutty flavour on your coffee which isn't such a bad thing. Its uses are limited due to its strong flavour, don't use it in any baked goods you don't want to have a coconut undertone. It does make a good smoothie though especially if paired with pineapple or banana.
Impact on environment: Coconuts have low water needs however with the growth in popularity of the fruit it is having an effect on the way it's grown. As coconut trees get older they become less productive so farmers have to keep planting more to keep up their production levels. It's also grown in a monoculture which can harm biodiversity, not to mention that coconuts are only grown in the tropics, most often Indonesia which means that it's travelling a long way before it makes it to your table. Coconut milk should probably be a supplementary milk that you use rather than to fulfil your main needs.

Hemp Milk

Nutrition per 100ml: 24 cals | 1.8g Fat | 1.9g Carbs | 0.5g Protein

Hemp milk is definitely one of the healthier plant milks, hemp is a complete protein as it contains all of the essential amino acids, it's high in omega 3 and 6, it has a creamy flavour and is rich in calcium.
Impact on environment: The environmental impact is quite low, the cannabis plant is used for many different things now so the whole plant is harvested and used for various products such as clothing, CBD oil, and cosmetics, so very little is wasted. The plant itself it very hardy so doesn't require much in the way of pesticides, it also filters carbon dioxide out of the air which is good for the atmosphere.

Hazelnut Milk

Nutrition per 100ml: 29 cals | 1.6g Fat | 3.1g Carbs | 0.4g Protein

Hazelnut milk has a very strong nutty flavour, so not one for your cup of tea. It is very tasty though and goes well on cereal and in smoothies. Hazelnut milk seems to be quite high in carbs, the nutritional value above is based on Alpro hazelnut milk but I did notice quite a variation between brands. Innocent's version is a lot higher in calories, fat and carbs per 100ml, so you need to be careful when choosing the brand of milk as they are not all created equal.
Impact on environment: Hazelnut trees are very sustainable, they don't use much water and are drought resistant. They also sequester carbon back into the soil therefore improving its quality and they help reduce soil erosion. So they are a pretty good crop for the environment.

Pea Milk

Nutrition per 100ml:  35cals | 2g Fat | 0.9g Carbs | 3.2g Protein

Pea's require 85% less water to grow than almonds and are high in protein, but they have a chalky, powdery taste which you will already know if you use pea protein powders. Having said that, it is the highest in protein per 100ml compared to the other alternatives, but seeing as we don't need as much protein in a day as we are lead to believe, I'm not sure if this is really that much of a pro. I think taste and sustainability are the most important factors.
Impact on environment: Peas don't usually need artificial fertiliser and require little irrigation so are economical to grow, the only thing to look out for would be where they are being grown to minimise food miles.

Is homemade nut milk healthier?

Not necessarily. Generally we believe that home making anything tends to be healthier than the store bought version because it will be free of additives, preservatives, chemicals and all those hidden nasties that find their way into mass produced food. 

However with making your own plant based milks this isn't always the case, if you make your own then yes it will be free from anything other than nuts and filtered water which is a good thing. The bad side to this is that most plant based milks have been fortified with things like calcium, B12 and Vitamin D so if you do embark on making your own milk please take into consideration where else in your diet you'll be getting these vitamins and minerals. 

For instance, I drink soy milk in my tea and have a few cups per day so I'm getting my B12 requirements just by doing something I would always do on a daily basis anyway, if I was to swap that to a home made milk then I would need to add B12 into my diet either by a supplement or by eating nutritional yeast nearly every day.

But if you are interested in making your own nut milk, it's certainly satisfying to make things yourself. Here are a couple of the items you'll need to get started:

High speed blender- this is essential for blending your nuts into a smooth mixture, a BlendTec, Vitamix or a NutriBullet are the best options here. BlendTec and Vitamix have both been tested blending an enormous amount of items (not all food, they can blend mobile phones into dust) and they are really good quality blenders but they are more pricey. A Nutribullet will do the job ok if you are looking for something a little cheaper.

Nut milk bags - once you've blended your nuts with water, you'll need to strain the mixture to separate the pulp from the milk. You'll need bags like these ones on Amazon for under £7.

Does vegan milk froth?

Yes some vegan milks froth well and others won't froth at all. Plant based milks all differ quite a lot, some are very thin whilst others have a thicker consistency. Basically the higher the fat content of the milk the more chance of it creating a good enough froth fit for a cappuccino.
The top 4 milks for frothing and using in coffee are soy, almond, oat and coconut, unlike dairy these milks shouldn't be heated to more than 60 degrees Celsius or they might split. Heat them slowly without introducing too much air for the best foam.

There are barista versions available for some plant based milks that have added ingredients to enable them to froth better, if you're just using the milk for home use then I don't think there is much point in this, it's more for coffee shops and restaurants. 

So there we have it, the low down on all things plant based milk, hopefully you found this helpful and can go forth and find your favourite!


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