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Milk Alternatives

Wednesday, 13 October 2010 | Tags: ,

Whether you're allergic to milk, going vegan, or are just trying to find some low-fat alternatives, there are plenty of products to choose from these days. We do a taste test of a variety of non-dairy milk products to see how they stack up against each other, and the real thing.

The Basics

Four of the most common non-dairy milk alternatives are soy milk, rice milk, hemp milk, and almond milk.

Soy Milk

  • Soy milk is made from soy beans, a vegetable (legume). First grown in North America in the 1920’s as a soil nutrient crop, soy beans are now a major food crop.

  • Soy became popular as a food source in 2004 after studies showed it lowers cholesterol and has many heart health benefits. Since then, these benefits have been disputed and the debate continues.

  • Soy doesn’t contain lactose (milk sugar), which some people can’t digest, soy is actually a common food allergen in Canada.

  • Soy is used as an ingredient in many foods, including Tofu, miso, breads, sauces, dressings, cereal, chocolate, and much more. It’s also used in animal feed, especially cow feed.

  • Soy milk has a nutty flavour that can be sweet, depending on sugar content.

  • Proponents of soy milk say it’s a good source of protein, vitamins, calcium (if fortified), minerals (including vitamin D), and healthy fats. They also claim it lowers blood pressure, contributes to healthy brain development, and helps prevent certain cancers.

  • Critics of soy milk claim it doesn’t contain helpful nutrients, and that much of the soy produced in North America has been genetically modified such that its health benefits are further decreased, while unhealthy factors are increased.

  • Soy milk is available as sweetened and unsweetened, as well as vanilla, chocolate, and other flavours.

  • Common brands include Dream, Silk, Eden Soy, Natur-a, So Nice, and Vitasoy. It generally costs between $3-5 per 1.89 L carton.

  • Buying Tips:

    • For cooking, choose unsweetened soy milk since sweetened may be too much for some recipes.

    • Consider buying milk that has not been made from genetically-modified beans.

    • Soy milk doesn’t naturally contain calcium, so if this is a concern, buy products that have been fortified with calcium.

    • The healthiest choice is to buy products with the least amount of ingredients (e.g. Soy beans, water, salt), without any added preservatives.

Rice Milk

  • Rice milk doesn’t contain lactose, so is a popular alternative for those who are lactose intolerant or allergic to soy. Rice milk is also available as non-fat and gluten free.

  • Rice milk is available in organic and non-organic varieties.

  • It may contain thickeners like sunflower and/or canola oils, stabilizers like carrageenan, and/or zantham and guar gum.

  • Unlike soy, rice milk doesn’t contain much protein or other nutrients, unless it is fortified.

  • Popular brands of rice milk include Rice Dream, Natur-a, Ryza, and Eden Soy. It generally costs between $3 and 5 per 1.89 L carton.

  • Rice milk can also be found in vanilla, chocolate, and carob flavour.

  • It has a thin consistency and a light, subtle flavour that can be slightly sweet. It is considered a suitable replacement for milk in many baking recipes and sweet desserts.

Almond Milk

  • Made from almonds, this milk has been used throughout Europe and the Middle East for centuries because it keeps longer than cow’s milk.

  • Almonds are high in protein and antioxidants, and are known to reduce cholesterol and the risk of heart attack. They are also a good source of calcium, iron, fibre, vitamins E, B6, niacin, thiamine, riboflavin, and folate.

  • It has recently become popular in North America as a milk alternative, but it does contain nuts, so those allergic to nuts should steer clear.

  • Almond milk can be used as a cow’s milk substitute in most recipes, however its creamy, nutty flavour may not suit all dishes. It is a tasty addition to dessert recipes and sauces.

  • Almond milk is not as readily available as rice and soy milk, however. Blue Diamond Almond Breeze is the most common brand you will find in grocery stores.

Hemp Milk

  • Hemp is an ancient crop grown in Asia, and around the world.

  • The milk is made from the seeds of hemp plants, but they don’t contain THC, the component that makes people high.

  • Hemp seeds are considered to have many health benefits, including omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

  • Hemp milk is a good source of protein and contains calcium, fibre, iron, potassium, beta-carotene, thiamine, and essential amino acids.

  • Hemp is also considered to be easier to digest than soy, does not contain any lactose, and is a good alternative for those allergic to tree nuts (almond milk) or soy.

  • Sweeteners like honey can be added to the mixture.

  • Hemp milk generally has a creamy consistency and a slightly nutty flavour. It can be used in cooking as a cow’s milk substitute for recipes that suit its flavour.

  • If hemp milk is heated above 350F, it may lose its omega-3 fatty-acid benefits.

  • Hemp milk is not as widely available as soy and rice milk. Some brands include Hemp Bliss, Living Harvest Hempure, and Hemp Dream. It usually costs between $3 and 5 per carton.

  • It comes in non-fat, sweetened or unsweetened, organic or non-organic varieties, and can be original flavour, vanilla, or chocolate.

TASTE TEST

For an episode of Anna & Kristina’s Grocery Bag where we tested “The Skinnygirl Dish“, a cookbook filled with recipes that include milk alternatives, we decided to do a taste test to see how these products measure up to real cow’s milk, and also how they taste when pitted against each other.

We tested all four types both straight in a glass (chilled), and also in a simple creamy pasta sauce. The results were very different!

Straight up

  • The soy milk (Soy Dream) was not bad in the straight up test. It coats the tongue, which Anna liked (it tasted fatty), but Kristina didn’t.

  • The almond milk (Blue Diamond Almond Dream) was very sweet and didn’t appeal to either of us.

  • The hemp milk (Living Harvest Hempure) had a grainy texture and an unpleasant odour. Neither of us enjoyed tasting this one.

  • The rice milk seemed like skim milk, with a very thin consistency and little flavour. It was the least offensive of the bunch.

In a creamy pasta sauce

  • The rice milk didn’t fare well in the cream sauce test. Anna would have sent it back to the kitchen if she were at a restaurant, and if she’d made it at home, she’d toss it and start over.

  • The soy milk was marginally better than the rice milk.

  • The hemp milk in the cream sauce was still unpalatable for both of us.

  • For the cream sauce, the almond milk produced the best results, even though in the straight up test, it was overly sweet.

OUR TOP PICK

In our opinion, none of the milk alternative products measured up to the real thing. However, as a milk alternative for cooking, we chose to use the soy milk.

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