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guide to vegan milk

Ultimate guide to vegan milk

20 Jan 2022 • 6 min read

Not sure if you’re choosing the right milk drink for tea, coffee or cooking? Here’s our round-up of the best plant-based milk to suit your tastebuds and daily lifestyle.

Are you switching to a vegan diet and aren’t sure what you should drink instead of regular dairy milk?

As we all know, dairy foods and milk are a good source of calcium for non-vegans, and can help keep bones strong and healthy.

If you’re vegan, then it’s possible to get calcium from other food and drink sources, including different types of fortified non-dairy drinks.1

Finding these vegan milk substitutes can seem like a bit of a quandary initially.

But when you take a minute to lift the lid on the non-dairy milk options that are out there, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

What’s more, we know how busy most people are these days, so we’ve done all of the lid-lifting for you. That’s right, we’ve done our research and created a list of dairy-free milk, right here in this article.

All you need to do is keep reading and take note of the collection of vegan milk alternatives (you can thank us later!)

In this article, we’ll discuss

  • Why to opt for plant-based milk
  • Which tastes most like cow’s milk
  • 11 of the best milk alternatives
  • The health qualities of vegan milk
  • The best alternatives for specific drinks
  • Vegan milk recipes
  • Things to consider

Why opt for an alternative?

Some people may decide to try non-dairy milk for the first time or make the full-on switch to plant-based milk because they fancy a change, whereas others may do so for health or lifestyle reasons.2

One of the main reasons for drinking non-dairy milk over dairy milk is deciding to follow a vegan, non-animal-derived diet.

And seeing as dairy milk typically comes from cows or sheep, it’s one of the products that’s not found within the vegan diet.

In the meantime, the reasons for people drinking milk alternatives are extremely varied.

Some people are allergic to dairy milk (usually lactose) and wind up getting a bad stomach, headaches or allergic reactions when they drink it.

Others may switch from dairy because they don’t like the texture or the way it tastes or smells.

Common reasons to drink milk alternatives – at a glance

  • Lactose intolerance
  • Milk allergy
  • Don’t like milk, but still need some form of milk for cooking
  • Vegan diet or lifestyle
  • Crohns and colitis or inflammatory bowel syndrome
  • Concerns over antibiotics, pesticides or hormones

What milk alternative tastes the most like milk?

Now that’s a very good question!

Actually, is it even possible for a milk alternative to replicate the taste of milk?

Well, we’ve done some research and word on the street is that of all the plant milk options out there, it’s soya that happens to taste the most like milk.3

On the whole, this particular variety of vegan milk is mild and creamy, just like milk!

However, it’s worth bearing in mind that the level of mildness and creaminess can vary, depending on the brand of soy milk you buy.

Soya (or soy) milk is made from soaking and grinding soy beans, and has been a traditional part of the Asian diet for thousands of years.4

Soy milk tends to be that teeny bit sweeter tasting than the other milk alternatives out there too. So if you want to make the switch to a milk alternative, but don’t want to actually taste the swap, soy milk’s most certainly your best bet.

Of course, there’s no stopping you from sampling all of the various plant milk options yourself, and then deciding on the best milk substitute based on your personal preference.

Cartons of soya milk are kept on both supermarket shelves and in the fridges, the former of which have a longer lifespan.

But once you’ve opened a carton of soy milk, you have around 5 to 7 days to use it.

Just like dairy milk, if soy milk goes off, you’ll know about it because it will slightly smell and the texture will change when you pour it.

Handpicked content: Benefits of soya drink

11 of the best milk alternatives

Read on for our top milk alternatives...

  1. Oat milk

As the name suggests, oat milk is made from oats that have been blended with water. As with almond milk, the water’s strained from the mixture to produce oat milk.

Nutritional profile: One cup of unsweetened oat milk, such as Oatly milk, contains around 90 to 120 calories.

Interestingly, shop-bought oat milk often contains a similar amount of vitamins and minerals as traditional cow's milk because it’s been fortified by the manufacturer with additional vitamins and minerals. 5

  1. Soy/soya milk

An Asian cooking staple, soy milk is the product of soaking soya beans overnight, stripping them of their skins and then blending them with water before straining them.

The liquid’s then heated and cooled; it’s at this point that it’s ready to drink/cook with.

Nutritional profile: 100ml of soy milk usually contains around 2.4g of protein, 1.6g of fat and 0.5g in carbohydrates and 0.2 in sugar.

Many shop-bought varieties are also fortified with added nutrients, including calcium and Vitamins D and B12.6

  1. Hemp milk

Is usually made from a combination of hemp seeds and water to provide a plant-based alternative to cow’s milk that tastes earthy and creamy.

Nutritional profile: 1 cup of hemp milk contains 60 calories, 3g of protein, 4.5g of fat, 233mg of calcium and 1.9mg of iron. It’s also a good source of phosphorous, potassium and zinc.7

  1. Almond milk

Is made from a combination of ground almonds and water. Once filtered, this mixture then becomes almond milk.

Look out for sweetened and unsweetened versions of almond milk on the shelves.

Nutritional profile: One 240ml cup of unsweetened almond milk contains around 30 to 50 calories, 3.43g of carbohydrates, 2.5g of fat and 1g of protein.

Most almond milk varieties tend to be fortified with extra nutrients, such as calcium, riboflavin, vitamin E and Vitamin D.8

  1. Rice milk

A lot like the alternatives we’ve mentioned above, rice milk’s made with just two main key ingredients – milled rice and water.

The process of producing it involves boiling the rice in water, blending it and then straining the mixture.9 

Rice milk actually happens to be the one milk that most people can tolerate; it’s lactose-free milk and obviously doesn’t contain any nuts or soy.

Nutritional profile: 1 cup of rice milk contains 113 calories, 22g of carbohydrates, 2g of fat and 1g of protein. It can also be fortified with calcium and Vitamin D.10 

  1. Cashew milk

Another popular vegan milk alternative is cashew milk. Again, it’s mainly made from whole cashews and water.

Usually, this type of vegan milk is made by shelling the nuts, lightly toasting them, soaking them in water, ground into a paste before being blended with more water to thin out the consistency.

Nutritional profile: 1 cup of cashew milk contains 130 calories, 8g of carbohydrates, 10g of fat and 4g of protein.11

  1. Coconut milk

Isn’t the same as coconut water and there are two varieties too – thick or thin.

Coconut milk is made by boiling coconut flesh in water and then straining the mixture to produce thick coconut milk. Meanwhile, thin coconut milk’s made by double straining the mixture.

Nutritional profile: One 244g cup of coconut milk contains around 75.2 calories, 7g of carbohydrates, 5g of fat and 0.5g of protein.

It also contains various vitamins and minerals, including Vitamin C, iron, potassium, copper, selenium, carbs, protein and fibre.12

  1. Pea milk

You may not have heard of this before, but pea milk is actually a thing.

While it’s not made from the green garden peas we’re used to serving up on our dinner plates, it’s still made from peas – yellow ones.

These peas are turned into a powder and then transformed into milk through a process that involves applying heat and pressure to the mixture.13

Nutritional profile: 1 240ml cup of unsweetened, original Ripple milk contains 70 calories, 8g of protein, 0g carbohydrate (that’s right, zero carbs) and 4.5g of fat, as well as potassium, calcium, iron and Vitamins A and D. (For more information read, ‘What is pea milk?’)

  1. Flax milk

A lesser-known alternative to traditional dairy milk is flax milk. This milk has a slightly earthy, nutty flavour so if that’s your jam, this might be the option for you.

The process of making flax milk involves blending flax seeds (or ground flax seeds) with water, before being strained.

Nutritional profile: 1 cup of unsweetened Malibu Mylk flax milk contains 45 calories, 4g of carbohydrates, 3g of fat and 2g of protein.14

  1. Walnut milk

Another healthy substitute for milk that also happens to be vegan is walnut milk!

This one is also a newbie compared to other classics like soya, almond or oat – but it’s a great one to try yourself if you feel like giving it a go.

Nutritional profile: 1 240ml cup of walnut milk contains 130 calories, 5g of carbohydrates, 11g of fat and 3g of protein.15

  1. Hazelnut milk

And last but not least, we have another nut milk – and this one comes from hazelnuts.

Available to buy in-store or to make from home, hazelnut milk has a mild, nutty taste – with a slight natural sweetness.

Nutritional profile: 1 240ml cup of hazelnut milk contains 139 calories, 7g of carbohydrates, 11g of fat and 3g of protein.16

What's the healthiest milk alternative?

In a nutshell, dairy milk tends to be best when it comes to nutrient quality, and soya (soy again!) is believed to be a good substitute from a nutrition provision perspective.17

Dairy milk health qualities

Dairy milk provides us with important nutrients, including calcium, protein, Vitamin B12, Vitamin A, Vitamin D, riboflavin (B2), zinc, phosphorus, and iodine.

It plays an important role in bone health and is a particularly rich source of dietary calcium.

Soya milk health qualities

Soy (full and low fat) milk is a good source of plant protein, carbohydrates and B vitamins.18

Most brands of soy milk have been fortified with calcium, making them nutritionally comparable to dairy milk.

Soy milk also typically contains more protein than other plant-based alternatives and contains healthy unsaturated fats, as well as fibre.

Almond milk health qualities

Nut drinks, such as almond milk are mainly made from ground nuts and water.

Almonds are recognised as being a good source of protein.

Almond milk is low in saturated fat and contains some healthy unsaturated fats, as well as Vitamin E, manganese, zinc and potassium.19

Beware though – some almond milks contain quite a bit of sugar, so keep an eye on those sugar content stats…

Oat milk health qualities

Oat milk is a source of fibre, Vitamin E, folate and riboflavin.20

It’s also low in fat and is naturally sweet, containing double the carbohydrates of cow’s milk, which means it may not be suitable for people with diabetes.

Oat milk can also be low in protein and calcium, so where possible, look for brands that have been fortified with protein and calcium to maintain these levels.

Coconut milk health qualities

Coconut milk may be relatively low in protein and carbohydrates, but has less saturated fat than you may think.

Some brands of coconut milk also contain added sugars too, so this is something to be aware of.

As with nut drinks, it doesn’t naturally contain calcium and therefore isn’t a suitable nutritional substitute for dairy milk.

Rice milk health qualities

Rice milk is naturally high in carbohydrates and sugars, and has a high glycaemic index.21

This means the glucose it contains is quickly released into the blood, meaning it may not be suitable for people with diabetes.22

It’s also particularly low in protein and needs to be calcium-fortified. Rice is the least likely to trigger allergies of all of the milk alternatives.

Cashew milk health qualities

Although cashew milk is relatively high in fat, the majority of it comes from healthy fats, which have been known to support heart health, as well as many other health benefits.23,24

Also, cashew milk provides a lot of magnesium, which is an essential mineral that’s needed for a variety of processes in the body, from blood pressure regulation to nerve function.25

Fortunately, cashew milk is available in both sweetened and unsweetened varieties – and it’s pretty easy to make at home too!

Coconut milk health qualities

Most cartons of coconut milk act as a great source of vitamins and minerals, including calcium, Vitamin D and even Vitamin B12.26

The coconut milk alternative to dairy milk is also lower in fat than you probably think. Confusingly, coconut milk from a can that’s used in curries, smoothies and sauces, often goes by the same name – and this thick coconut produce is high in fat.

This means that coconut milk from a carton is a great healthy choice if you’re reducing or completely eliminating your intake of dairy.

Pea milk health qualities

If you’re a gym bunny who loves to pack in as much protein as possible, you’ll be pleased with the nutritional profile of pea milk.

Just one cup of pea milk contains 8g of protein (which is the same as cow’s milk!) so pair this with your protein powder and you’re off to a great start.27

Not only this, but pea milk has no carbohydrates and a moderate amount of fat – making it a great choice if you’re dieting.

Flax milk health qualities

This plant-based milk newbie also has some impressive health qualities.

Flax milk is high in fibre, rich in alpha linoleic acids – which have been shown to reduce inflammation and prevent some chronic diseases.28

It’s also rich in potassium, calcium, vitamin A, vitamin D and iron, nutrients which may be lacking if you’re vegetarian or vegan.29

Walnut milk health qualities

Unsweetened walnut milk is another plant-based milk that is low in carbohydrates.

What’s more, it’s also rich in antioxidants, fibre and essential fatty acids – thanks to the nature of walnuts!30,31

Hazelnut milk health qualities

Similarly, hazelnut milk is also a good source of antioxidants. But it doesn’t end there.

Hazelnuts themselves are also high in ‘healthy’ mono-saturated and polysaturated fats, including omega-6 and omega-9.32

Best milk alternative for tea

Tea fans, rejoice, you can still enjoy a satisfying cuppa when you switch to dairy-free milk!

The first step is to choose a milk alternative that won’t curdle in boiling water, and doesn’t overwhelm the delicate flavour of tea.

Oat milk wins the prize, according to the charity Veganuary.33

This is because it happens to be stable at high temperatures and tastes neutral.

Plus, it’s low in fat and high in beta glucan, a type of soluble fibre that can maintain normal help lower levels of cholesterol.34

Best milk alternative coffee

Like tea, your cup of joe also needs a creamy milk that doesn’t split in hot water – so step forward hemp milk.

Made from whole hemp seeds, it has a subtle nutty flavour, and is a source of essential fatty acids.

It’s also a complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids your body needs.

Not sure about the slightly nutty taste? Grab a carton of soya milk instead.

Top tip for making a cup of tea or coffee: Let it cool down and constantly stir whilst pouring the hemp milk in, otherwise it will separate and curdle, and you’ll have to start all over again!

Best milk alternative for porridge

With its creamy texture and sweet flavour, coconut milk is perfect for porridge.

Made from mixing coconut flesh with water, it’s low in sugar, but also a source of saturated fat, so consume in moderation.

Best milk alternative for baking

It’s important to choose a plant milk that complements the other flavours in your cakes and desserts.

However, creamier nut plant milks – such as hazelnut, cashew and coconut milks – will add a sweet flavour and therefore may make your baking too sweet.

Best milk alternative for smoothies

For a tasty, slightly nutty smoothie, you need almond milk, made from ground almonds mixed with water.

It’s low in calories and saturated fat, and, like hazelnut milk, is naturally high in Vitamin E too.

Best milk alternative for white sauce

Making a vegan lasagne?

Soya milk won’t curdle when heated, but has a neutral flavour that complements the sauce – though of course you’ll need the unsweetened version for a savoury dish.

It’s a solid milk health-wise too – it contains as much protein as cow’s milk, is low in saturated fat and a source of potassium, which contributes to normal functioning of the immune system for healthy nerves and is gluten free and lactose free.36

Best milk alternative for hot chocolate

Love a hot chocolate before bed (or any time of day, come to think of it?!)

Hazelnut milk is thick and creamy and the taste isn’t too dissimilar to chocolate milkshake.

It also happens to make a delicious hot chocolate with a hazelnut hit.

Best milk alternative for pancakes

You can use oat milk to make an even oatier-tasting bowl porridge or pop some in your pancakes. Even better, why not give this three-ingredient recipe a go?

Oat milk pancakes recipe

Ingredients

  • 300g wholewheat flour
  • 300g oat milk
  • 1.5 tbsp of egg replacer or 1 egg
  • 50g water (if not using 1 egg)
  • Lemon juice (optional)
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda (optional, only use if you're also using lemon juice)
  • Oil for frying

How to make oat milk pancakes

1

Mix the flour, milk, egg (replacer) and lemon juice until you've got a smooth batter.

The batter should be thin enough to just slightly spread out, but it shouldn't flow easily. It should be firm enough so you can scoop it on to the hot pan.

2

Leave it to stand until you need to use it (max. 30 minutes, otherwise store it covered in the fridge until you need it). This helps hydrate the flours and the egg replacer.

3

Add the baking powder and baking soda. Adding these at the end prevents them from doing their work well before the pancakes are in the pan.

4

Heat a pan on a medium fire and depending on the type of pan you're using, coat it with a little oil.

5

Take a good serving spoon full of batter and place it on the pan, flatten slightly if necessary.

6

Add your topping to the pancake, do this when they're still pretty liquid so the toppings have a good hold on to the pancake.

Since these pancakes are quite thick it is easy to add quite a lot of topping without breaking them upon flipping!

7

Turn the pancake when the top looks like it is just starting to set. At this point it should be easy to flip without everything breaking apart.

8

Bake until the pancake is fully cooked, all you need is a few more minutes on a medium heat at this point.

Things to consider when using a substitute

If you’re planning on drinking dairy-free milk, you’ll most probably have gauged by now that there are quite a few different options to choose from.

There’s an awful lot of advice, research and key findings about all of the different milk alternatives out there too.

So, given all this, what are the main points to think about when selecting the best milk alternative for you?

First and foremost, take your time when deciding which milk alternative to drink; you may even find that you have to try a few until you settle on just one.

Or you may decide to stock up and use different plant milks for different things – e.g. soya milk for your white sauce, oat milk for your tea, hazelnut milk for your baking, and so on…

But if you’re wondering what the key things to consider when using a milk substitute are, then it’s most definitely got to be:

  • The sugar content

As we mentioned a bit earlier, some plant milks do contain added sugar.

So make sure you check those sugar content levels and, if you can, always choose the unsweetened version, if there’s an unsweetened version available.

  • Fortification

Most non-dairy milk is fortified with minerals and vitamins, such as calcium, Vitamin B12 and D.

Again, check those labels, and if the milk has been fortified in these areas and more, that’s a good thing.

  • The taste

What may taste good to some people, may not taste good to others; it’s all a question of personal preference.

You may prefer a nuttier flavour or a sweet aftertaste, and with all the different plant milks on the market, we’re sure you’ll find plant milk that hits the spot.37

A final few words about milk alternatives…

Feeling ready to make the switch to non-dairy milk now? If you are, there are plenty of different options for you to work your way through and decide which one you prefer the most.

In recent years, more-and-more plant-based alternatives have arrived on the market, providing people with even more non-dairy milk options.

It’s now also possible to ask for your hot drinks to be made with non-dairy milk when you grab a takeaway coffee, tea, hot chocolate or other hot beverage of your choice.

Plant milk is on the rise and its matching milk in areas, such as taste, thickness and nutrition.

There are pros and cons to all of these milk alternatives, some are naturally sweeter, some have been fortified with calcium and vitamins, and some happen to contain more sugar.

Making the switch to milk alternatives is a journey, but it’s an incredibly interesting one in which there are lots of different routes (plant milks) to explore.

More importantly, switching to dairy-free milk means you can still have milk in your drinks and your food, and there are options aplenty!

Are you planning on doing some baking and aren’t too sure which ingredients, other than plant milk, you can use to make sure your creations are 100% vegan?

For instance, what can you use instead of eggs, butter or chocolate? This article, ‘Vegan baking essentials’ is just what you need.

The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.

Last updated: 20 January 2022

Sources

  1. https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/the-vegan-diet/
  2. https://nutrition.org/going-nuts-about-milk-heres-what-you-need-to-know-about-plant-based-milk-alternatives/
  3. https://www.highspeedtraining.co.uk/hub/best-alternative-to-milk/ 
  4. https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/soy-milk-good-you
  5. https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/health/diet-nutrition/a27079365/oat-milk-nutrition/
  6. https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/soy-milk-good-you
  7. https://www.livestrong.com/article/512124-what-are-the-benefits-of-hemp-milk/
  8. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/174832/nutrients
  9. https://happyherbivore.com/2011/08/what-is-rice-milk-rice-milk-recipe/
  10. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/171942/nutrients
  11. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/697930/nutrients
  12. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/1097553/nutrients
  13. https://www.onegreenplanet.org/vegan-food/health-products-recipes-pea-based-milk/
  14. https://malibumylk.com/products/unsweetened
  15. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/2137170/nutrients
  16. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/2127465/nutrients
  17. https://www.inverse.com/mind-body/the-abstract-rebooting-your-health-in-2021-a-scientific-guide
  18. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/1999630/nutrients
  19. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27777447
  20. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27540708
  21. https://www.pacificfoods.com/rice-original
  22. https://www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/food-and-diet/what-is-the-glycaemic-index-gi/
  23. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1467-3010.2006.00571.x
  24. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26429077
  25. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3650510/
  26. https://www.alpro.com/uk/coconut-drink/
  27. http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/dairy-and-egg-products/71/2
  28. https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/supplement/alpha-linolenic-acid
  29. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3967195/
  30. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27534138
  31. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25747270
  32. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25172755
  33. https://veganuary.com/blog/plant-milk-tea/
  34. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5394769/
  35. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3824402/
  36. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5188409/
  37. https://greatist.com/eat/milk-alternatives#3
 
bhupesh-panchal

Bhupesh Panchal

Author

Senior Regulatory Affairs Associate

Joined Holland & Barrett: April 2019

Masters Degree in Toxicology and BSc Hons in Medical Biochemistry

Bhupesh started his career as a Clinical Toxicologist for Public Health England, advising healthcare professionals all around the country on how to manage clinical cases of adverse exposure to supplements, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, industrial chemicals and agricultural products.

After 7 years in this role and a further year working as a drug safety officer in the pharmaceutical industry, Bhupesh joined Holland & Barrett as a Senior Regulatory Affairs Associate in 2019.
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