Maybe you've realized that liquid made for baby cows should go toward baby cows. Maybe you've recently developed lactose intolerance and now you're ready to give up dairy products completely. Maybe you're just curious about all of these crazy milk impostors popping up in your supermarket.
Regardless, it's about time someone talked about the real differences between milk substitutes. I've been an avid milk-avoider for years, and inspired by the increasing non-dairy milk trend, I did some research to set the record straight on six common milk alternatives: soy, coconut, almond, rice, lactose-free, hemp and pea.
You may also have noticed the variations within milk alternative categories, including vanilla, original and unsweetened. In my humble opinion, unsweetened milk is reminiscent of eating cocoa powder and expecting chocolate flavor: bitter in every sense of the word. Vanilla is like the original but slightly more, well, vanilla-y—it's the best if you want to drink a glass of straight milk.
In the list below, I'm basing my analysis off the original versions of each milk, which are slightly sweetened.
1. Soy Milk
Soy milk is the most well-known alternative milk product, primarily because it has been on the market the longest. It was introduced to U.S. markets in 1979, while the current best-selling milk alternative, almond milk, began as a niche product that wasn't even sold by the popular brand Silk until 2010.
This classic milk alternative is widely available in stores and coffee shops. It's a good medium consistency, like reduced-fat milk, and it has an ever-so-slightly sweet flavor on its own. The main downside is that it starts to separate after about a week—but, for the most part, that's an easy fix: just make sure to shake the bottle before you pour.
Best in: coffee and adult-level cereal (I'm looking at you, Cheerios).
2. Coconut Milk
Starbucks was such a tease this summer, offering a specialty coconut-mocha latte that was literally just a coconut milk version of a mocha latte. Sorry guys, but coconut milk doesn't taste like coconut: it just tastes like milk.
Coconut milk is made by blending shredded coconut meat in hot water and then straining out the coconut pulp. The final result is amped up by some additional saturated fat content, which gives coconut milk a nice creamy texture.
#SpoonTip: Coconut milk and coconut water are not the same thing. Coconut water is the liquid that comes from the inside of a coconut and is sold as a type of natural sports drink. Manufacturers of coconut milk use plain H2O (not the water from inside coconuts) when making their product.
Best in: a nice glass by itself with a couple of cookies or a biscotto.
3. Almond Milk
Almond milk is like soy milk's quirky little brother: amazing but often overshadowed. That said, in the last few years, its sales have increased dramatically, and now almond milk is beating soy in sales of plant-based milk alternatives 55% to 35%.
It's a simple blend of lightly roasted almonds and water that has been strained for smoothness. It's creamy, doesn't taste too sweet and lasts a long time in your fridge without separating. There's no downside: everything about almond milk is amazing.
Best in: smoothies, cereal, coffee (and everything else IMO).
4. Rice Milk
I know what you're thinking: how the hell do they make milk out of rice? Much like other milks, the main ingredient in the name (in this case, rice) is cooked and blended with water, and then the pulp is strained away.
But if we're considering consumer experience (and not the odd process of production), rice milk tastes great. It has a thin consistency and it's naturally sweet, but I'd still stick to the original rather than brave the unsweetened version. The best thing about rice milk is its long shelf life: it lasts a good six months to a year before it expires, so you can easily buy it in bulk, refrigerate the one you're using and leave the extras in your pantry.
Best in: tea and coffee.
5. Lactose-Free Milk
Best In: anything that you'd use regular milk for. The sweetness is more of an aftertaste, so it's virtually the same as regular milk.
6. Hemp Milk
Hemp milk is made by blending hemp seeds with water, and the original flavor has a small amount of brown rice syrup added as a sweetener. It's sweet, though not nearly as sweet as rice milk, with a nutty aftertaste despite its somewhat watery consistency.
Best in: a glass served up with some pancakes or waffles.
7. Pea Milk
Ripple is a very new product that made its store debut in 2015. It's made from yellow peas, but because the company's patent is pending, I can't elaborate much on the process. If I had to guess, I'd say it's likely to be made using the same blend-and-strain method used for other milk alternatives.
It's very creamy and certainly rivals my love for almond milk, but there's a hint of pea aftertaste, which is a bit off-putting. Plus, it's a little expensive at $6 for 48 oz. To put that in perspective, Ripple is $0.125 per oz. while the almond milk I bought was $0.0625 per oz.
Best in: savory recipes like pasta sauce or creamy soups.
Keeping in mind the general process for producing milk alternatives—cook the product, soak it in water and strain away the pulp—certainly makes them less intimidating. I've been drinking non-dairy milk for a couple of years now, and while each kind has its pros and cons, almond milk will always have my heart. As a special treat, you can even find coffee creamer, eggnog and other drinks made out of alternative milks at Trader Joe's. It's a good era to be vegan, folks.