The Lowdown on Plant-Based Milks

When soy milk entered the market not too long ago, it was mostly in specialty stores that catered to vegans, weight watchers, and the health-conscious. Now these communities are no longer as small as they used to be–and groceries are responding by stocking their shelves with plant-based milk.

Since then, going vegan or organic no longer meant skipping out on whipped cream, lattes, and other gustatory treats. Starbucks and other coffee chains now allow customers to request soy milk in their coffee. Tofu, the soy equivalent of cheese in milk production, features prominently in vegan and vegetarian cuisine. Entire websites and restaurants have been put up around the emergence of milk alternatives, which it seems can be made from anything that grows off the ground.

Indeed, the challenge for anyone looking for a cow’s milk alternative isn’t finding one, but choosing from the dozens on the shelf. These “alternative alternatives” include coconut milk, almond milk, peanut milk, and barley milk. Each one touts a long list of health benefits, from digestibility (good news for the lactose intolerant) to lower fat content to a smaller carbon footprint.

A difference worth noting is that each type of milk has its own distinct taste, unlike cow’s milk which is fairly uniform. Almond milk works well  for cereals because of its sweet, nutty taste. Coconut milk’s heavy texture makes it great for soups, barley and other grain milks make great flavored drinks, and soy milk is a staple for vegan desserts. Taste is in fact the biggest deciding factor for consumers, although it’s not the only one.

For instance, many people have switched from soy to almond milk for health reasons: the latter contains 2.5 grams of unsaturated fat per cup, twice the amount found in 2% cow’s milk. It also has fewer carbs, making it a popular choice for dieters. Coconut milk, a longtime favorite in Asia but new to Western groceries, contains 50% more calcium than cow’s milk, although the added sugar turns off weight-conscious buyers. Grain milk is heavier in carbs but often comes fortified with calcium, just like its dairy counterpart.

Both soy and almond milk can be used in place of dairy milk, although the reduced fat makes them hard to whip. In this case, experts suggest, unsweetened versions make the best alternatives. Silk, a leading soy milk brand, recommends thickening soy milk in custards and pudding with several tablespoons of cornstarch.

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