Not so long ago, every brand of vegan milk catered to a tiny fringe market. But sales of non-dairy milks have exploded in recent years. Almond milk sales have been increasing at better than 50 percent a year, while cows’ milk sales are rapidly declining. As we’re about to see, many deep problems arise from the production and consumption of dairy products. So it’s exciting that vegan milks are gaining ground at the dairy industry’s expense.
Why Choose Vegan Milk?
What terrifies the dairy industry is that they’ve got no way to fairly compete. The taste and nutrition of vegan milks can be far superior to cows’ milk. Plus, cost to produce vegan milk (since there’s no need to house animals or dispose of their waste) can be much lower. As a result, dairy industry lobbyists worldwide are working feverishly to ban the word “milk” on vegan dairy alternatives. Try a few vegan brands of vegan milk and you’ll likely be impressed by the flavor. You can find these milks in chocolate, vanilla, plain, and unsweetened varieties.
There are a number of excellent reasons to choose vegan milk over cows’ milk:
- Most milk comes from cruel factory farms, produced from miserable animals kept under extreme confinement.
- Even at dairies that pride themselves on good animal welfare, the cows are inevitably sent to slaughter.
- Milk is full of lactose, a form of sugar that is poorly digested by most people of Asian and African descent.
- People who stop drinking milk often report that congestion, acne, and digestive problems spontaneously resolve.
- The dairy industry is a major source of methane, a greenhouse gas seven times more potent than carbon dioxide.
The Rise of Vegan Milk in Traditional Cartons
In the 1990s, vegan milks were such a tiny niche market that they were sold only in shelf-stable aseptic juice boxes. But as sales of these products took off, increasing sales made it commercially viable to begin using conventional paper milk cartons. With this packaging change, vegan milks could for the first time appear side-by-side with cow’s milk in the dairy case. Predictably, this move drove already surging sales even higher. Most supermarkets now carry at least one brand of vegan milk, and a good natural foods store will carry a dozen or more varieties.
Brands sold in aseptic packaging remain widely available. It makes sense to keep a few boxes in your pantry for camping trips, power outages, and disaster preparedness. These products typically keep for more than a year, but once opened they must be refrigerated and finished within a week or so. For everyday needs, it makes sense to purchase brands sold in the refrigerated section since the packaging is less wasteful and the cost is lower.
Vegan milks are made from a wide variety of beans, nuts, seeds, and grains. Most popular brands contain a base of soy, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, pea protein, hemp seeds, rice, or oats.
Countless varieties of vegan milk exist, and nutrition varies drastically from one product to the next. Some brands are incredibly nutritious, while others are scarcely more nutritious than sugar water. The three most important nutrients to consider are protein, sugar, and calcium. Additionally, Vitamin D and iodine deserve a mention. Let’s take a look at each of these nutrients.
Soy milks contain more protein than most other vegan milks—many soy milk brands offer nearly a gram of protein per ounce. Other vegan milks can contain shockingly little protein. Even though almonds are protein-rich nut, most almond milk brands provide only tiny amounts of protein. For instance, most soy milks contain around seven grams of protein per serving, compared to around one gram provided by most almond milks. Coconut milks usually have even less protein than almond milk—so little that you might consider them protein-free.
While soy milk offers an impressive nutrition profile, a product called Ripple, which is made from organically grown peas, is even better. In fact, Ripple’s unsweetened variety is probably the most nutritious choice of any widely-distributed vegan milk. The product has a bit more protein than does soy milk and 50 percent more calcium than cows’ milk. Ripple is also vitamin D fortified, and each serving contains omega 3s along with 32 milligrams of DHA.
Many vegans fall short of consuming optimal amounts of protein. So if you want to boost your protein intake, purchase a brand that delivers at least five grams per serving. Just check the product’s nutrition label for this information.
Thanks the processed foods industry adding sugar to practically everything, most people’s taste preference skews to sweet things. And since the sugar in vegan milk is invisible, you’ll have no idea how much sugar you’re actually consuming unless you check the nutrition label. It turns out that a half gallon of Silk’s vanilla-flavored soy milk has almost as much sugar as three full-sized Snickers bars (72 grams vs 81 grams.) By contrast, Silk’s unsweetened variety has just eight grams of sugar per half gallon.
Choosing unsweetened vegan milks will also save you a lot of calories. For instance, Silk’s “Original” soy milk contains 110 calories per serving, whereas the company’s unsweetened organic variety has just 80 calories.
It’s worth cultivating a taste for unsweetened vegan milk. You may be surprised by how quickly your preferences change once you start drinking it. Most vegan milks are made from ingredients that naturally have pleasing flavors, and added sugars don’t really improve the taste. Try switching to unsweetened for a few weeks and you’ll likely never go back.
Calcium, Vitamin D, and Iodine
Most brands of vegan milk contain at least as much calcium as cow’s milk. This calcium is usually from ground-up limestone,which is chemically pure and well-absorbed. It’s wise to choose a brand that contains at least 300 milligrams of calcium per serving. U.S. nutrition labels usually don’t list milligrams of calcium per serving. But if your vegan milk contains 300 milligrams of calcium per serving, the label will indicate 30% of the calcium RDA.
If you’re a regular milk drinker, much of your Vitamin D and iodine probably comes from cows’ milk. Raw unprocessed milk contains neither of these nutrients. So it’s certainly not cheating to cover your needs through supplements if you ditch dairy.
In the United States, regulations require that cow’s milk receive heavier Vitamin D fortification than what’s permitted for vegan milk. So, if you’re cutting milk from your diet, consider taking a Vitamin D supplement. Iodine is likewise an essential nutrient. Ignoring iodine intake is risky since deficiency causes goiters. If you regularly use iodized salt or if you take a daily multivitamin, your iodine needs should be covered. Eating seaweed regularly is also a good idea, since it’s one of the few foods that is naturally rich in iodine.
Homemade Vegan Milk Possibilities
If you like nut milks, be sure to try making your own. Not only is it easy to make vegan milk at home, you’re also likely to produce something cheaper and tastier than commercial brands.
Nothing could be easier to make. Try five parts water to one part cashews, blanched almonds, or hemp seeds. Add a few drops of vanilla or some cocoa powder, and then perhaps some sweetener. The great thing about homemade nut milks is you can use virtually any kind of nut. This lets you easily create a variety of delicious concoctions unlike anything produced commercially. Hazelnuts and Brazil nuts both impart terrific flavors to nut milk. Add some cocoa if you want to make something chocolaty.
If you own a Blendtec or a Vitamix blender, this is your golden opportunity to put it to use since these industrial strength blenders can liquify anything and everything. Also consider purchasing a nut milk bag (here’s one on Amazon), so you can squeeze out the pulp. Never throw this pulp away, as it’s nutrient-rich and can be cultured into a fantastic vegan cheese. If the possibilities of making nut milks and cheeses at home strike your fancy, you’ll want to get ahold of the This Cheese is Nuts or Artisan Vegan Cheese.
Making Soy Milk from Scratch
What about homemade soy milk? You can certainly make some, and very cheaply at that, but you might not like the results. That’s because the top soy milk companies use a secret weapon that you can’t buy for your home kitchen—they own expensive equipment designed to extract denatured proteins.
The problem here is that to make soy milk you’ve got to boil the soybeans until they’re soft. In doing this, some of the protein denatures. This denatured protein imparts a funny flavor to the milk that is, to put it kindly, an acquired taste. Throughout Asia, homemade soy milk has been widely consumed for centuries. Nearly everyone who grew up drinking the stuff thinks it tastes just fine. In fact, in any Asian grocery you can purchase traditional, locally-made soy milk that hasn’t had the denatured protein removed. This stuff has never caught on in Western cultures owing to its taste. But if you can remove the denatured protein—which every major Western soy milk producer does—you’ll have something that virtually everybody agrees is delicious.
It’s not that you shouldn’t try making soy milk at home, only that you shouldn’t assume your stuff will end up tasting anything like the top brands. So before you rush out to buy an electric soy milk maker, sample the traditional Asian-style stuff. You can buy this at most Asian groceries. Local soymilk is usually unsweetened and packaged in plastic gallon-sized jugs, and it tastes nothing like mass-market brands. If you don’t enjoy this traditional soy milk, you are unlikely to be satisfied with what you can make at home.
Discovering a vegan milk you enjoy may inspire you to switch to other dairy-free foods as well. There are excellent vegan alternatives to every dairy-based food you can think of, including: cheese, butter, cream cheese, yogurt, ice cream, and even coffee creamer. For more information, check out our page on vegan alternatives to popular non-vegan foods.
And if you’re looking for advice on shifting toward a totally dairy-free diet, we’ve got an extensive Dairy-Free Eating Guide to help you on your way.
Vegan Milk Brands
Here are the world’s top dairy-free milk brands.
- Blue Diamond Almond Breeze
- Oatly (Oat drink, chai, latte, and Barista Edition)
- Pacific Non Dairy Beverages (Soy, Almond, and Coconut Varieties)
- Ripple Dairy-Free (Pea-Based)
- Silk (Soy, Nut, Almond, Oat “Oat Yeah”, and Coconut Varieties)
- So Delicious Dairy-Free (Almond, Cashew, and Coconut Varieties)
- Trader Joe’s (Soy, Almond, and Coconut Varieties)
- Zen Soy
- Whole Foods Market 365 Everyday Value (Soy and Almond Varieties)
Here’s a terrific page listing all major brands of soy milk sold in Japan, including package photos for each. And here are four top brands that you can find in nearly every grocery: