Coffee chains typically charge an extra fee if you want a latte made with an alt-milk – because we’ve been led to believe they’ll make us healthier, and that buying them is more virtuous
Non-dairy ‘milks’? As a seasoned investigative food journalist, I wouldn’t touch them with a bargepole.
So I’m sorry to see that people are forking out more for them than dairy milk.
Coffee chains typically charge an extra fee if you want a latte made with an alt-milk – because we’ve been led to believe they’ll make us healthier, and that buying them is more virtuous.
Let’s look at how the vast majority of milk lookalikes are made.
Large factories buy the ingredient highlighted in the product name – such as almond, cashew, rice, oats, soy, coconut or hemp – in a processed form, often as a fine powder or in a thick liquid form.
They mix small amounts of these with lots of water, usually straight from the tap.
In fact, 85 to 95 per cent of what you’re paying for is tap water. But water and the drier ingredients would naturally separate out, leaving a cloudy liquid with powdery sediment. So to make the mixture look more like real dairy milk, and imitate its natural consistency and texture, a range of high-tech ingredients and chemical food additives – thickeners, emulsifiers, stabilisers – go into the mix.
Manufacturers also typically add what’s known as hydrocolloid gums, such as xanthan and gellan, to slightly thicken this watery mixture. These gums are made by fermenting a starchy food with bacteria. Not only that, but often an industrially produced starch called maltodextrin is used to help give the liquid a body and consistency that more resembles milk.
Usually, heavily refined oils, typically rapeseed (the cheapest commodity oil used in food and drink manufacturing), or sometimes sunflower oil, are added to imitate the mouth-coating consistency that naturally occurring fat gives dairy milk.
Then, to imitate the rich nutrition of true milk, ‘plant’ milk companies often add a sprinkling of man-made vitamin and mineral powders such as Vitamin B12 and calcium.
Chemical preservatives are also mixed in as they extend the shelf life of food well beyond its natural lifespan.
It’s a complicated procedure but still does not add up to a recipe for deliciousness.
Chemical preservatives are also mixed in as they extend the shelf life of food well beyond its natural lifespan. It’s a complicated procedure but still does not add up to a recipe for deliciousness
Without further tweaking, these watery, factory-created drinks wouldn’t taste good, particularly those made with soy, which is infamous throughout the processed food industry for its bitterness.
This is why many companies add synthetic flavourings, along with salt and sugar, to improve palatability. For me, such trendy white liquids – I refuse to call them milk – are a perfect example of the ultra-processed, fake food that I won’t eat or drink. Also, many of the ingredients used for ‘plant’ milks aren’t great for the planet because they’re grown in unsustainable ways.
Soy, for instance, is commonly grown on vast plantations where the crop is sprayed with pesticides, while most of the almonds used in almond milk are imported from California where this thirsty crop is contributing to water shortages.
There are smaller brands that try to be superior by having fewer additives, and we should take the ingredients they list on their packaging at face value. But I prefer my food to come from fields, not factories, and I’m sticking with dairy.
I accept that factory farming causes great suffering to dairy cows, but not all milk production is cruel. I wish vegans would stop spreading ‘scary dairy’ stories that fail to draw this crucial distinction between wretched factory farmed dairy cows, and traditional, grass-based dairying.
Militant vegans argue that cows are pumped full of growth hormones, but this practice is banned in the UK and Europe.
Other fake news includes warnings that drinking milk makes you fat. A comprehensive review of the scientific facts presented at this year’s European Congress on Obesity concluded that this is false. Other recent research has found that drinking milk reduces your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Personally, I’m happy to pay a bit more for organic milk, or milk that comes with the Pasture Promise label, which is available in Asda. They both guarantee that cows are free-range, grazing outdoors for at least six months of the year.
If I were allergic or intolerant to cow’s milk, I’d swap to goat’s milk. If that didn’t work, I’d start making my own non-dairy ‘milk’ in a blender – there are many recipes online. It would taste infinitely better than the fashionable ‘plant’ milks on the market and cost a fraction of the price.