Milk substitutes

Suddenly, milk substitutes are big business. In the past, people who were lactose intolerant (well over half the population of the world) simply didn’t eat dairy products. That left people who have problems digesting milk, and vegans. But things are changing. A Westernised diet – cereal with milk for breakfast, coffee and tea with milk – is getting more popular worldwide. At the same time there are health concerns about milk, and the rise in veganism means that more and more people want to ‘have their milk and drink it’; stick to a Western-style diet, but without the problem ingredients.

That’s paved the way for all sorts of ingenious products. They all look more or less like milk, but tastes, textures and nutritional values vary hugely. And when you look at how much processing goes into them, and how environmentally friendly the growing and manufacturing of these products may be, the picture gets even more complicated. So how do you choose?

If you start with milk as a standard, it’s rich in protein, calcium and vitamin D (added during processing), some fat and quite a lot of calories. The nutrients that people worry about missing most are the protein and the calcium, and the substitute that comes closest is soya milk. However, it often has sugars added, and significant numbers of people have trouble digesting non-fermented soya products, so it’s not perfect. ‘Milk’ made from other pulses, like yellow peas, can get round that problem, though they do have a lot of nutrients added.

Then there are the nut milks, especially almond and cashew. These involve less processing – nuts ground in water and strained – but are nutrient-poor, and almonds in particular are not an environmentally friendly crop; in California, the boom in almond farming has led to serious drought problems. Coconut milk is a better bet, though this too may have various additives.

Seeds can be used, too: oat milk is the cheapest and most popular. Hemp and flax milks are promoted for their anti-inflammatory qualities, but they often have sugars or other ingredients added to disguise their ‘earthy’ taste, and the proportion of actual hemp or flax in the ‘milk’ may be quite low.

From a holistic perspective, the less processing the better. And maybe we’d be better off getting our protein, calcium and so forth from actual food sources, while learning to drink beverages that don’t require a milk lookalike at all. There is a place for some of these products, but be wary of the advertising hype. Real foods are cheaper and much better for your digestion.