Does going dairy-free mean you have to give up your beloved morning latte? Nonsense. With plenty of plant-based milk substitutes available, there’s no reason to skip your daily dose of caffeine just to avoid one ingredient. Working to change lifestyle habits can be a daunting task, and we are here to help make this one a little less intimidating. Here, we evaluate five common, plant-based milk and how they measure up to regular cow’s milk in terms of flavour, texture, aroma and – for the health conscious – some nutritional aspects, like calorie, fat and sugar content.
Why consider ditching dairy?
Cow’s milk contains lactose, which can trigger bloating, diarrhoea and nausea for those who are lactose intolerant. If you’ve been experiencing these symptoms after downing your milk-laced cuppa, lactose-intolerance might be the reason.
“Hold on,” you say. “But I’ve been having milk all my life with no problem!”
Well, lactose intolerance can and does develop with age, and is referred to as Primary lactose intolerance. Our bodies require an enzyme called lactase to digest the lactose in cow’s milk, and the quantities of the enzyme in our gut can decline as we get older. Primary lactose intolerance is particularly common among Asians, with up to 99 per cent of ethnic Chinese lacking the “lactase persistence” trait that allows us to continue digesting lactose as we age.
On that note, let’s examine the pros and cons of different plant-based milk to accompany your daily brew.
The usual suspects
Flavour-wise, soy milk has a creamy, velvety taste and texture, similar to low-fat cow’s milk. As a plant-based milk, soy is cholesterol-free and low in saturated fat. It also contains no lactose, and is said to reduce LDL (“bad” cholesterol that contributes to fatty buildup in arteries), which makes it a good option if you are suffering or at risk of heart disease or high blood pressure. Some studies have also suggested the isoflavones content of soy is beneficial for cancer prevention, but you would need to consume a considerable amount of soy milk to enjoy these benefits – two or three cups of coffee a day is not likely to be enough.
First off, soy milk has a rather strong beany aftertaste. This isn’t necessarily a con though – soy does add an interesting dimension and depth to coffee that a lot of coffee lovers seem to enjoy, at least based on the soaring popularity of soy lattes.
Because soy milk has a high protein content it curdles when added to boiling hot or more acidic coffee (we’re talking the pH, not the acidity of the flavour profile). The trick to overcoming this is to warm the soy milk and pour a little into the bottom of your cup before adding your coffee in a gradual pour. This allows the hotter coffee to cool and avoid the curdling reaction. Also, consider switching to a less acidic coffee – this experiment suggests pH 4.7 is the lower safe limit for mixing with hot soy milk and most coffees range between 4.5 and 6.0 (with 1.0 being the most acidic and 7.0 being neutral on the pH scale).
Finally, if you are conscious about sugar intake, pay attention to the list of ingredients, particularly whether the soy milk contains cane sugar or sucrose. Many brands offer sweetened, lightly sweetened and unsweetened options to suit your preferences. If you’re just starting to switch over from cow’s milk, consider the lightly sweetened to ease yourself into it before going sugar-free.
Low in calories and fat, almond milk is a great alternative for the health-conscious coffee drinker. The nutty flavour of almond milk can complement lighter, smoother coffees, and even enhance their natural aroma and flavours.
Some commercial brands of almond milk offer sugar-free options containing stevia or other plant-based sweeteners. If you’re conscious about your sugar intake, that would be one less worry off your mind.
If you are allergic to nuts, you might want to give this one a miss.
The texture of almond milk is definitely not as creamy or full-bodied as cow’s milk, so if you love your coffee with lots of bold, milky flavour, this one is unlikely to appeal. To counter the watery aftertaste and enhance the texture, some brands blend in starchy rice syrups. Be sure to read the labels if you have dietary concerns about this.
Particular about the visual aesthetic of your coffee? Better snap your pictures quickly – the solids in almond milk will settle to the bottom of the glass soon after mixing. The solids might also leave a slightly chalky aftertaste and mouthfeel when you’re near the bottom of your drink.
A star ingredient in Southeast Asian cooking, coconut milk might just be the most decadent second-fiddle for your morning cuppa. Velvety with a strong tropical flavour, it adds a gorgeously full-bodied mouthfeel and turns your mundane morning cuppa into a luxurious treat for the taste buds (and your tired morning brain).
Coconut milk, even when unsweetened, has a delicate sweet fragrance and taste which heightens the natural coffee aroma, and mellows out any harsh edges of the brew – the best of both worlds if you prefer no added sugar in your coffee.
Coconut milk also stands up well to heat, so you do not have to worry about curdling no matter how hot or acidic your coffee is.
If you shy away from coconut-flavoured desserts, this milk is definitely not for you.
Coconut milk is also higher in calories and fat (that is the magic ingredient that gives that lovely luxe texture, after all). So if you’re watching your waistline, consider something less fatty. On the other hand, some proponents of coconut milk claim that the fats help increase satiety and reduce cravings for other snacks.
A good choice for those allergic to dairy and nuts, oat milk is a plant-based milk derived from soaking and blending steel-cut oats. It is mildly creamy, and adds a gentle fullness to coffee. The faint oaty fragrance is easily overpowered by coffee, so those sensitive to smells could see this as a good alternative.
While oat milk has a slightly higher sugar and calorie content, it is balanced with high fibre content, which provides energy, and prevents blood sugar spikes. It is also reportedly good for heart health.
Oat milk is also one of the most stable plant-based milk on the market, so you can treat it as you would cow’s milk.
Oats seem to have the fewest drawbacks out of any on our list – except if you’re gluten-intolerant. While oats are gluten-free, oat milk is often processed on equipment that comes in contact with gluten-rich food, which will contaminate the milk with enough gluten to trigger a reaction for those who are allergic. If that’s an issue then you’ll need to look out for gluten-free oats.
Rice milk has the least amount of protein and is the best option for coffee drinkers with lactose, nut and soy allergies. It is also the most neutral tasting milk of the five we have tried – a plus for those who like their coffee to taste like, well, coffee, with just a hint of creaminess.
Rice milk also carries a faint sweetness due to the starch content of rice, so you could hold on that teaspoon of sugar if you are subbing dairy with this in your cuppa. With no lactose or cholesterol, this milk is also ideal for those watching their heart health and blood pressure.
It’s also the least likely to trigger any allergies or intolerances, so if you have a hypersensitive gut, this is a good option for you.
For DIY coffee lovers, rice milk is also the most economic – simply soak the rice overnight, blend and strain out any solids, and voila: your very own homemade rice milk!
Unsuitable for diabetics, this milk has the highest carbohydrate content among all the plant-based milk, with none of the balancing fibre oat milk offer. This will add to the carb levels of your coffee and potentially cause slight blood sugar spikes.
Some final words
Whatever your reason for switching to a plant-based milk in your coffee, each has its benefits and shortcomings that may hinder or help your fitness goals and dietary concerns. Be sure to ask a medical professional for advice on any underlying health conditions you may have, and educate yourself before deciding on which milk to go for.
And, of course – enjoy your vegan latte!