Not so long ago, vegan milks were an obscure and poorly selling product. 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 in decline. As we’re about to see, there are a multitude of problems associated with dairy products, so it’s exciting that vegan milks are gaining ground at the dairy industry’s expense.
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, and the costs of production (since there’s no animal care or waste involved) can be much lower. As a result, dairy industry lobbyists worldwide are working feverishly to ban vegan products from using the word “milk” on their packages. 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.
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, it became commercially viable to begin using conventional paper milk cartons—and to place vegan milks right alongside 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, and it’s sensible 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 are made from: soy, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, pea protein, hemp seeds, rice, or oats.
Given how many varieties of vegan milk exist, it’s no surprise that 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 they can practically be considered protein-free.
As impressive as soy milk is when it comes to nutrition, 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, 50 percent more calcium than cows’ milk, vitamin D fortification, and each serving contains omega 3s along with 32 milligrams of DHA.
It makes sense to choose a brand of vegan milk that contains a significant amount of protein, since many vegans fall short of consuming optimal amounts. So try to purchase a brand that delivers at least five grams protein per serving. Just check the product’s nutrition label for this information.
Thanks the processed foods industry adding sugar to practically everything, most people have a taste preference that skews needlessly 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, usually in the form of ground-up limestone. It’s wise to choose a brand that contains at least 300 milligrams of calcium per serving. Calcium milligrams aren’t listed on U.S. nutrition labels, but if your vegan milk has 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. Neither of these nutrients are found in raw unprocessed milk, so it can’t be considered cheating to turn to supplements to cover your needs if you ditch dairy. Many vegan milks contain Vitamin D, but few will have as much Vitamin D as cow’s milk thanks to current government regulations, so it can be wise for people quitting dairy to take a D supplement. Iodine’s an important nutrient that’s best not ignored, unless you want to risk a goiter. 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 Milks
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. To get started, try five parts water to one part cashews, blanched almonds, or hemp seeds. Add a few drops of vanilla and then perhaps some sweetener if you’re so inclined. The great thing about homemade nut milks is you can use virtually any kind of nut, so you can make a range of concoctions that are unavailable 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 are perfect for liquifying anything and everything. Also consider purchasing a nut milk bag (here’s one on Amazon), so you can squeeze out the pulp. Under no circumstances should you throw this pulp away, as it can serve as the basis for 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.
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 have a secret weapon that you can’t buy for your home kitchen—they’ve got expensive equipment 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. And that denatured protein will impart a funny flavor to the milk that is, to put it kindly, an acquired taste. In Asia, homemade soy milk has been consumed for centuries, and people who’ve grown up drinking the stuff think 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’ve got 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 go into it thinking your stuff will taste anything like the top brands. So before you rush out to buy an electric soy milk maker, it’s probably a good idea to sample the traditional local stuff sold at an Asian grocery (it’s typically sold in plastic gallon jugs.) If you don’t enjoy this traditional soy milk, your not likely to like the stuff you make at home any better.
Once you find a vegan milk you enjoy, you might be inspired 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.
Popular USA Vegan 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)