The Differences Between Alternative Milks

The Differences Between Alternative Milks

Almond milk, soy milk, oat milk, rice milk, coconut milk, even pea milk… what are the differences?

Alternative milk isn’t just a trend. The increasing popularity of alternatives to cow milk prove that it’s not just vegans or vegetarians looking for a different way to consume ‘dairy’ that bleeds into the ways that they take their coffee.

Many alternative milk brands are also producing separate, slightly different barista versions of their oat and almond milks that are available off the shelf in supermarkets and grocery stores.

But what are the differences between these different kinds of alternative milk? And should you be buying the barista versions? Read on to find out.

Almond milk

Far older than you’d expect, almond milk has a history dating back to medieval Europe — ancient almond milk was made similarly by simmering ground almonds in water. This is pretty close to the way you can make your own almond milk at home by soaking and grinding almonds with heaps of water and then filtering out the pulp.

By 2013, almond milk had overtaken soy milk as the most popular plant-based alternative milk in the United States, accounting for 60% of alternative milk sales and 4% of all milk sales.

While almond milk is far kinder to the environment in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and land use in production, it requires more water than oat, soy, and rice milks. It uses about half of the water per glass as cow milk so it is a good trade-off relative to dairy milk but it’s not as sustainable as some of its alternatives. As such, we recommend drinking almond milk for taste and texture rather than for eco-consciousness.

Soy milk

The ‘original’ alternative milk, soy milk first emerged in the fourteenth century during the Mongol occupation of China. Skipping right ahead to the twentieth century, production of soy milk began in New York in 1917 though it had to be called ‘Soy Lac’ as it wasn’t legally ‘milk’. soy milk began being like soft drink in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan in 1950 is the wake of the Second World War and the Chinese Civil War.

Modern soy milk has Vitasoy to thank after their reintroduction of soy milk to the US in the 80s while Alpro did the same in Europe around the same time. The biggest change to soy milk in the 80s was that the final product on supermarket shelves was, in flavour and in taste, more like cow’s milk than the soybean milks that came before.

Soy milk production uses the least water of all kinds of milk, alternative or otherwise, needing just 2L of water per 200g of ready-to-drink soy milk.

Oat milk

Invented in the 1990s and made famous in the 2010s by Sweden’s Oatly and its food scientist founder, oat milk is made from the extraction of oats through water. The resulting milk has a creamy texture and tastes, as you’d expect, like oats.

Naturally unfortified, nutrients like calcium, iron, and vitamin A are added to oat milk so that it’s a suitable nutritional replacement for cow’s milk.

Oat milk uses far less water than cow or almond milks (see below), requiring only 9L of water per 200g of produced oat milk.

Oat milk is the third-most popular alternative milk behind both almond milk and soy milk with other alternative milks like rice, coconut, or pea coming distant fourth, fifth, and sixth.

Rice milk

Like our other alternative milks, rice milk comes from the food of the same name. Made from brown rice specifically and then sweetened with sugars and flavoured usually with vanilla, rice milk is another common alternative milk to cow’s milk.

The world’s first rice milk factory opened in 1921 but it wasn’t until 1990 when Rice Dream became the first widely popular rice milk courtesy of the distribution advantages made possible by Tetra Pak — for which other alternative milks also have to say thank you.

Like almond milk, rice milk can be made at home with rice flour and brown rice protein or by just boiling brown rice with a huge amount of water, blending and filtering that mixture as you go. Rice milk is the least allergenic of plant milks so it can be safely drunk by people who are lactose intolerant or allergic to soy or milk. Vegans also safely use rice milk as a dairy substitute though it does not contain much calcium or protein.

As with other alternative milks, rice milk uses less water than cow’s milk and it uses far less than almond milk. Rice milk uses more water to produce than soy milk or oat milk though.

Coconut milk

Rich, thick, and full of delicious fat, coconut milk is made of the grated white coconut flesh below the iconic shell. Coconut milk is not the liquid inside a coconut — that’s coconut water, which is technically a kind of juice. Grated coconut flesh is pulped with hot water to make the milk.

The trick with coconut milk, especially if you want to try to make it at home, is that it spoils quickly though commercial coconut milk is indirectly pasteurised. This means it has a longer shelf life but, as a general rule, you should make sure to use and then seal your coconut milk straight away so it stays good for as long as possible.

Coconut skim milk also exists because coconut milk naturally has a high percentage of fat. Skim coconut milk has between 0% and 1.5% of fat and it’s made more from the coconut cream and coconut oil than from the milking of the flesh.

Processed coconut milk designed for drinking, rather than cooking, is usually advertised as a ‘coconut milk beverage’ rather than as ‘coconut milk’ so make sure not to get the coconut milk from a tin in the baking aisle. Drinking coconut milk contains less fat and fewer calories than cow’s milk but also lacks dairy’s protein.

Pea milk

The twenty-first century’s first addition to this list, pea milk is still emerging as a milk alternative. It’s increasingly popular in Europe but hasn’t quite made the awareness jump across the pond or down here to Antipodes but keep an eye out for it in specialty food stores.

Made from yellow peas (which you might know better as split peas), pea milk also uses water, sunflower oil, micronutrients, thickeners, and phosphates.

Pea milk uses less water than cow’s milk in production but it’s not certain exactly what its impact upon the environment is in production. Producers also claim that pea milk offers a non-GMO alternative to soy milk.

To try pea milk for yourself, discover Australia’s Own 1L Pea Milk.

What are the differences between regular and barista alternative milks?

Barista versions of alternative milks are almost identical to the regular versions except that the barista versions are designed to froth more easily for latte and cappuccino coffees. Barista alternative milks simply add more fat so that frothing is easier.

Oatly barista oat milk, for example, has 3% fat instead of 2% fat. This fat is in the form of vegetable oil that froths more easily so that your frother doesn’t split the oat milk. In this way it emulates dairy milk’s fat content (which is what makes it so tasty and filling) while also ensuring it’s just as good in your coffee.

Find your flavour

Ultimately the ‘right’ alternative milk is, like the way you brew your coffee, up to you. Find an alternative milk that you like, that you know how to reliably make your coffee with, and that suits your budget.

This last point is important as some alternative milks, like pea milk in Australia, can get expensive.

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