An Alt-Milk Primer

A crazy-fast growing market for non-animal milk suggests a market in shake-up mode: Today’s quinoa milk may be tomorrow’s standard school cafeteria fare.


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Photo by Paul Haggard

Have a favorite cafe? Like your coffee creamy with milk, warmly frothed or maybe chilled from the fridge to cool a piping hot pour. Easy choices.

The hard part — and getting harder all the time — is choosing the milk. Low-fat, no-fat, whole fat: no big deal, familiar milk territory. Organic or non. But add to this: soy, almond, rice, coconut, oat. Even these are standard fare, at least in the growing milky urban landscape, not to mention hemp, spelt, pea, pistachio, macadamia, cashew, flax, quinoa milks. Plus, camel’s milk is on the rise, mostly outside the United States. So far.

What’s a milk drinker to do?

Fueling most of today’s milk options are health concerns. Generations of milk lovers are wary of the saturated fat in cow’s milk. Saturated fat (milk, meat, and cheese) is linked to high cholesterol and heart disease, though recent studies contradict some of the fat-evil thinking, fueling new rounds of research. Most experts, however, still advise limiting saturated fat, especially for anyone at risk for heart disease. There’s also concern about hormones and antibiotics in dairy milk, residuals from meds given mama cows. Then there’s the lactose intolerant, vegan, gluten-free, and dieting (to lose, or perhaps to gain, weight) contingent — all looking for the best creamy splash for their morning cereal or afternoon shake.

Camel milk aside, and with a nod to the small dedicated fans of fresh goat’s milk, the alternative milk boom is centered on plant-based concoctions.

Milk, it turns out, increasingly defined as a pleasant tasting cloudy or creamy liquid with some combination of nutrients, is pretty easy to make from many non-animal sources. Pulp, meat, or flesh from a nut, grain, or pod is soaked in water, pulverized then strained. Home-milk brewing is becoming a rage. But alt-milks are widely available in Bay Area stores and restaurants. 

Data supports this growing demand for alternative milks, and a steady shrinking back from the gift of cows. In 2018, people in the United States consumed on average 146 pounds of cow’s milk annually per person (all types), compared to 247 pounds in 1975. Cow milk sales dropped 25 percent in the past 20 years, according to the U.S Department of Agriculture.

Nondairy U.S. milk sales, by comparison, have grown 61 percent in the past six years, with the plant-based milk market valued today at over $2 billion, according to Mintel, a private marketing research firm. Plant-based milk sales grew by 6 percent in 2018-19, continuing a similar growth pace for the past few years, according to data from the Plant-Based Food Association.

This trend is global. Plant-based milks are valued at $16 billion globally today and estimated to grow to $22 billion by 2022, according to Innova Market Insights, a food and beverage market research company.

Soy, almond, and coconut milks are the most popular alt-milks, based on sales, but other plant-based milk sales are heating up. The crazy-fast growing market for non-animal milk suggests a market in shake-up mode. Today’s quinoa milk may be tomorrow’s standard school cafeteria fare.

Nutritionists, however, are waving caution flags. Just because milk doesn’t come from a cow doesn’t necessarily make it healthier. Almond or cashew milk, for example, is low in saturated fat and calories. But they’re also low or negligible sources of protein or calcium, abundant in dairy milk.

Read the nutritional labels, experts say. Be wary of flavors such as vanilla or chocolate, which often add loads of sugar. Watch for thickeners that may add artificial ingredients. And look for healthy fortifications such as calcium, and vitamins A and D.

Here are some basics from the world of milk.

Dairy or Cow’s Milk

The good: Lots of fat-content choice, from full-on to zero. Good natural source of protein, calcium, potassium, phosphorous, B-vitamins, and usually fortified with vitamins A and D. Baristas love the way cow’s milk foams in the espresso machine.

The think-about: Whole milk is high in saturated fat, scaling down to 2 percent, 1 percent, and fat-free. Some people can’t digest lactose, a sugar found in cow’s milk. Lactose-free milk is widely available.

The taste: The flavor of cow’s milk is milk defined, ground zero. The more fat, the richer the taste, and some people simply can’t deal with low-fat varieties. Others say they adjust just fine. Baristas love the way whole milk in particular froths.

 

• 1 cup whole milk (240 ml): 146 calories, 8 grams of fat, 8 grams of protein, 13 grams of carbohydrates, 13 grams of sugars

• 1 cup low-fat 2 percent milk: 137 calories, 5 grams fat, 9 grams protein, 13 grams carbohydrates, 12 grams of sugars

• 1 cup nonfat/skim milk: 83 calories, 0 grams of fat, 8 grams of protein, 12 grams of carbohydrates, 12 grams of sugars

 

Soy Milk

Widely available in many varieties. Plant-based from soybeans, soaked in water and ground or strained.

The good: Good source of protein and essential amino acids, lactose-free, often fortified with calcium, vitamin D. Lots of choices in fat content, sugar content, and flavor.

The think-about: Flavored soy milk can be packed with sugar and calories. Read labels or go with unflavored. Some people have intestinal sensitivity to soy products.

The taste: Creamy and milk-like, with a slightly earthy or nutty flavor. It can be a love or hate experience, but this is true really for all types of milk. 

 

• 1 cup unsweetened: 80-90 calories, 4-4.5 grams of fat, 7-9 grams of protein, 14 grams of carbohydrates, 9 grams of sugars

 

Almond Milk

The good: Low in saturated fat, low in calories, good source of vitamin E, usually fortified with calcium, vitamins A and D. 

The think-about: Not a great source of protein. Not nearly as nutrient-dense as the raw nuts, because of added water. Pea milk is sometimes added to boost protein. Baristas are usually willing to try but tell you that nut milks don’t foam well for espresso drinks.

The taste: Light and slightly sweet. Creamy but not thick. Though made from nuts, they don’t have strong nutty flavor.

 

• 1 cup unsweetened almond milk: 30-35 calories, 2.5 grams of fat, 1 gram of protein, 1-2 grams of carbohydrates, 0 grams of sugar

 

Oat Milk

The good: Very low in saturated fat, very high in protein, high in fiber, usually fortified with calcium and D. High in soluble fiber, which is associated with lowering bad cholesterol.

The think-about: Higher in carbohydrates than dairy milk; not a low-calorie drink.

The taste: Some people describe the taste as like eggnog, rich and sweeter than other milks.

 

• 1 cup: 140-170 calories, 4.5-5 grams of fat, 2.5-5 grams of protein, 19-29 grams of carbohydrates, 10 grams of sugars

 

Coconut Milk

The good: Low in calories, no carbs, lactose-free, choices in sweetness, thickness, fat content. Often fortified with calcium and vitamin A and D. Lots of micronutrients.

The think-about: High in saturated fat, not a great source of protein. Research on the dietary affects of coconut fat is a hot area, with some studies showing benefits to cholesterol, and others showing the opposite. A wait-and-see until a more conclusive picture emerges.

The taste: Thicker types have a subtle but distinct coconut flavor that many people love. Popular in cooking especially Asian and Indian cuisine. Lighter varieties have less flavor.

 

• 1 cup unsweetened: 45 calories, 4 grams of fat, no protein, almost no carbohydrates, 0 grams of sugars.

 

Rice Milk

The good: Low in calories, no saturated fat, lactose-free, good source of iron, sometimes fortified with calcium, B-12, and D. A good choice for people with gluten or wheat sensitivities.

The think-about: Almost no protein. Less nutrient-rich than cooked rice.

The taste: Mild and slightly sweet. Some say is a lot like nonfat cow’s milk. 

 

• 1 cup unsweetened, 130-140 calories, 2-3 grams of fat, 1 gram of protein, 27-38 grams of carbohydrates, 13 grams of sugars

 

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