Which alternative milk is the best? Nutrition, taste, appearance, cost: A blinded scientific(ish…) study.

Summary

Nutrition Appearance (in coffee) Taste (on own) Total Score
Cost (if no offer)
Oatly Barista 30 20 19 69 £1.80
Hazelnut 25 19 15 59 £1.60
Rice 25 18 15 58 £1.00
Oat 30 9 17 56 £1.40
Almond 25 18 13 56 £1.40
Cashew 25 10 15 50 £1.60
Coconut 25 10 13 48 £1.00
Hemp 26 13 2 41 £1.40
Soya 25 6 8 39 £1.00

Introduction
My boyfriend and I* have been vegan for about a year now and over the course of this year, we’ve tried almost all of the plant-based milk alternatives available in the UK. We’ve found our favourites, but it’s still a topic that comes up time and time again with friends and family. It’s also a topic which seems big in the media at the moment as a lot of people are choosing plant-based options for other reasons such as health, diet or the environment.

I’ve read a lot of milk reviews, but none of them are truly comprehensive and most are solely based on opinion, which can vary massively. So, in this review, I tried to make it as scientific(ish) as possible (although please take it with a pinch of salt!). I looked at 3 parameters, appearance, nutrition and taste. Milk appearance is based on a qualitative analysis and nutrition uses a quantitative analysis. I did add a taste test which is always subjective, but mainly, I tried to take as many pictures as possible, which can be interpreted by you, the reader, in any way you choose.

In simple terms, I took each type of milk-alternative available in the UK, one for each plant; oat, rice, soya etc. I didn’t do EVERY milk in terms of every brand, this would have been far too time-consuming and I’m not really sure if the brand makes much difference. Most of the stability/taste comes from the varying plants, not brand… The exception to this is the Oatly Barista, which is the only alternative of its kind (designed to be more stable in hot drinks).

I tried to make this review informative, but also enjoyable to read. Don’t take it too seriously, and please make your own opinions! I just hope it helps you make a more informed decision about which milk to spend your precious money on and which one to recommend to your non-vegan pals!

*My boyfriend Pete is the true vegan, I’m a bit part-time (don’t hate me) but getting there slowly.

Method

Appearance Test

Each milk was shaken equally (10 times) before opening.

Photos of each milk were taken under the same lighting conditions, in the same glass either on its own as the natural milk or as an addition to hot coffee.

The coffee was made in one single batch and kept at a constant temperature throughout.

For all kinds of milk, 60ml of room temperature (cold) milk was added to 200ml of hot coffee and an additional, 60ml of warm milk (heated in a Nespresso Aerochino) was added to a separate 200ml of hot coffee to determine if warming the milk had a positive or a negative impact on appearance.

Appearance was then rated out of 10 following the below criteria:

 Score Appearance (Cold) Appearance (Warmed)
1 – 3 The milk separates or curdles from the coffee and looks unappetising The milk separates or curdles from the coffee and looks

unappetising

4 – 6 The milk separates or curdles from the coffee slightly, but is still drinkable and has less of an effect on taste The milk separates or curdles from the coffee slightly, but is still drinkable and has less of an effect on taste
7 – 10 The milk is stable in the milk and does not separate or curdle The milk is stable in the milk and does not separate or curdle and the milk is frothy and suitable for a latte with a nice foam

Taste Test

The resident vegan (Pete) was designated taster and sampled each milk (blinded) both at room temperature and as an addition to hot coffee. The taste was defined as a score out of 10, where 10 is the best-tasting milk and 1 is the worst. Pete’s criteria were based on flavour, texture, aftertaste, suitability in coffee (if relevant), but was completely subjective.

Nutritional Analysis

The nutrition of 100ml of milk was compared. The positive or negative implications of calories, energy, carbohydrate, protein and fat are subjective (some people may want higher calories or protein to help balance their diet, whilst other would want this to be low). So only essential vitamin levels (Vitamin D, B12, Calcium and omega 3) were assessed. The actual values were converted to a score out of 10 which was based on relativity between the milk.

Test Subjects

The milks in question were:

IMG_20171105_121820.jpg

  • Almond (Sainsbury’s own)
  • Cashew (Alpro)
  • Coconut (Sainsbury’s own)
  • Hazelnut (Alpro)
  • Hemp (Good Hemp)
  • Oat (Oatly)
  • Oat Barista Edition (Oatly)
  • Rice (Rice Dream)
  • Soya (Sainsbury’s own)

All unsweetened ‘original’ versions.

Results

Appearance Test

Natural milks

There were some observable differences between the kinds of milk, the colour varied slightly from white to beige, but consistency and texture were generally the same. The only exception was hemp milk, which did have some particulate or ‘bits’ in it.

In hot coffee

For each picture, room temperature milk is on the left and warmed milk is on the right. Warming the milk before adding sometimes helped to prevent curdling or separating (as with coconut, oat and hemp) but in some cases, it actually made this worse (as with Cashew and Soya). With Oat, soya, hazelnut and cashew, heating the milk in the aerochino (with the latte stirrer) created some texture or foam.

Appearance (Cold) Appearance (Warmed) Appearance (Total Score)
Oat Barista 10 10 20
Hazelnut 10 9 19
Almond 10 8 18
Rice 10 8 18
Hemp 5 8 13
Cashew 8 2 10
Coconut 4 6 10
Oat 3 6 9
Soya 5 1 6

Taste Test

Pete’s favourite milks as a natural milk were oat, hazelnut and cashew. Hemp and soya were his least favourite, with him specifying that the hemp milk left a bad aftertaste too.

Taste (on own) Taste (in coffee) Taste (Total Score)
Oat Barista 9 10 19
Oat 8 9 17
Hazelnut 8 7 15
Cashew 8 7 15
Rice 8 7 15
Coconut 6 7 13
Almond 5 8 13
Soya 3 5 8
Hemp 1 1 2

Nutritional Values

Per 100ml g g g g g g ug ug mg ug mg g g
KJ kCal Fat Carbohydrate Protein Sugars Fibre Salt Vitamin B12 Vitamin D Calcium Vitamin E Vitamin B2 Omega 3 Omega 6
Coconut 103 25 1.3 3.1 <0.5 1.6 <0.5 0.11 0.38 0.75 120 0 0 0 0
Cashew 98 23 1.1 2.6 0.5 2 0.2 0.13 0.38 0.75 120 1.8 0.21 0 0
Soya 136 33 1.9 <0.5 3.4 0.5 0.6 0.09 0.38 0.75 120 0 0.21 0 0
Rice 210 50 1 10 0.1 7.1 0.1 0.38 0.75 120 0 0 0 0
Hemp 112 27 2.7 <0.1 0.6 <0.1 <0.5 0.05 0 1.1 118 0 0 1 3.7
Hazelnut 121 29 1.6 3.1 0.4 3.1 0.3 0.13 0.38 0.75 120 1.8 0.21 0 0
Oat 190 50 1.5 6.6 1 4.1 0.8 0.11 0.38 1.5 120 0 0.21 0 0
Almond 69 17 1 1.3 <0.5 <0.5 <0.5 0.22 0.38 0.75 120 0 0.21 0 0
Oatly Barista 240 60 3 6.5 1 4 0.8 0.1 0.38 1.5 120 0 0.21 0 0
Whole Milk (as comparison only) 268 64 3.6 4.7 3.2 4.7 0 0.1 0.4 0 120 0 0 0 0

Vitamin Rating

Hemp milk was the only milk to state the levels of omega 3 & 6. Omega 3 is difficult to obtain as a vegan [1,2] unless you eat lots of walnuts or chia, so this is good. However, omega 6 is abundant, especially in almonds, soya and cashew nut, which leads me to believe that these milks simply don’t put their omega 6 levels on their packets… Also, there’s no real need to take omega 6 supplements since most people in the Western world get plenty through a standard varied diet (even vegans) and in some cases, too much [3, 4, 6]. This is why I didn’t include it in the rating.

Vitamin E, listed on the back of cashew and hazelnut milk, is also not really required since again, most people in the Western world get plenty in a varied diet as it’s found in almost all nuts and seeds, as well as spinach, broccoli and a huge range of foods [5, 6]. Could it again just be missing from the almond milk packaging? Again this is why it’s not included.

I’d say the only real vitamins required in this list are calcium, vitamin B12 and vitamin D, which is why I based the scores on just these (and omega 3).

Vitamin D is made when your skin is exposed to the sun. Applying even a suncream as low as SPF8 can prevent this mechanism and in the upper Northern hemisphere, winter especially can lead to vitamin D deficiencies [7, 8]. It’s one of the leading vitamin deficiencies in the UK [9] (and US) so a little extra of this always helps!

Calcium is also something which UK people are likely to have lower levels of, but milk and dairy isn’t actually the best source [10, 11]… dark leafy greens, broccoli and even water [12, 13] are often better sources of calcium. Calcium taken together with vitamin D is usually recommended, so it’s probably most convenient drinking these fortified milks.

Finally, vitamin B12 is another one on the low intake list [9] and is often linked to a vegan diet as B12 is only available naturally in dairy, meat, fish and poultry [14]. Fortified food or supplements are the only ways for vegans to get adequate B12 [15], so it’s no wonder the majority of plant-based milk alternatives fortify with B12. I’d like to point out here that hemp milk has no B12 present.

Vitamin B12 Vitamin D Calcium Omega 3 Total Nutritional
Oatly Barista 10 10 10 0 30
Oat 10 10 10 0 30
Hemp 0 7 9 10 26
Soya 10 5 10 0 25
Coconut 10 5 10 0 25
Almond 10 5 10 0 25
Cashew 10 5 10 0 25
Rice 10 5 10 0 25
Hazelnut 10 5 10 0 25

 

Conclusion

Best for a glass of milk

Oat, Hazelnut or cashew milk. They have great tastes and subtle flavours.

Best in coffee

Oat (barista edition) or Almond. They stand up well in hot coffee and don’t curdle or separate. Oat has a more subtle flavour which enhances the coffee, but the almond can add it’s own flavour if you want something different.

Best for nutrition

Any of the milk. As you can see, most plant-based milk is fortified with the essential vitamins and calcium, usually the recommended daily allowance (RDA) so they are all very good for nutrition. Oat milk has additional vitamin D, which is great if you live in the UK where sunlight is rare in winter!

Best for cereal

Cashew, hazelnut or oat. Although not assessed directly here, milk which is best for drinking is the best for cereal.

Best for baking

Oat, almond, hazelnut or rice. These are the most heat stable and do not separate or curdle.

Best all-round milk

Taking into consideration cost, nutrition, suitability in coffee (which is how we drink our milk most often), taste in cereal and baking, oat milk is our outright winner. We would have gone for the oatly barista, but the price of this milk is quite high. Furthermore, warming oat milk before adding to coffee helps to eliminate curdling anyway…

Further Comments on individual milk

Almond

Pale coloured, stable in hot milk with no separation. Tastes of Almonds (no shit) and the taste develops more in coffee. Tastes much better in coffee – and not warmed first. It also has the lowest calories if this is important to you.

Cashew

The colour is nice and the flavour doesn’t taste like nuts. Out of all the alternatives, this is the one which tastes the most like milk. It does ok cold in coffee, some separation, but curdles very badly when it’s heated up. Especially when left longer. It tastes better as its natural milk than in coffee.

Coconut

Coconut milk tastes and smells strongly of coconut, it’s white and has a thinner consistency than most other alternatives. It is pretty unstable in coffee, both cold and pre-warmed. It’s best to drink on its own.

Hazelnut

Hazelnut milk has the darkest colour and it very creamy with a distinctive taste. It holds up really well in hot coffee and when warmed goes nice and frothy,

Hemp

Hemp milk is our least favourite milk. It’s not completely smooth and often has bits in it. It has a strong taste, doesn’t stand up well in hot coffee and is high in fat.. It does have added omega 3, but that’s about the only benefit of this milk unfortunately… and I think vitamin B12 is probably more important than omega 3 for vegans and this is missing.

Oat

Oat milk is our favourite everyday milk as it’s great for coffee, cereal, drinking, foams well in lattes and works well in baking. The milk is off-white and has a creamy consistency. The downside is that, as a cold milk in coffee it separates quite badly, but when warmed, foams well and doesn’t curdle. It’s also higher in vitamin D which is great as D-deficiency in the UK is quite common, especially in winter.

Oatly Barista

Although more expensive than standard oat milk, even normal oatly, the addition of dipotassium phosphate (an acidity regulator) helps to prevent the milk from curdling or separating in coffee. It does not change the taste or appearance at all. It works find and is stable when it’s cold in hot coffee, but when warmed in an aerochino gets a tasty froth. Definitely worth the additional cost to make the best latte, although we usually wait until there’s an offer on and buy as much as we can carry for £1 a litre! The only downside is that it has the highest amount of calories, although still less than dairy milk.

Rice

Rice is another milk stable in hot coffee and in cooking, it doesn’t separate or curdle. although it isn’t the nicest tasting in a coffee, we find the best use for this milk is in baking and pancakes (or Yorkshire puds!). It’s flaw is that it’s relatively high in sugar, despite have no added sugar.

Soya

Soya milk is the most commonly available alternative milk out and about in cafes, bars and restaurants, but really, it’s not the best in terms of stability in coffee or cooking. Also, I find it has quite an acquired taste. It’s high in protein but that’s about it’s only positive in my opinon… I hope more places will start to offer more alternatives than just this.

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