17 best vegan milks and why you should alternate them
Diversity is the answer, even in vegan milks.
Mr. Almond Latte
A few years ago, I remember sitting at a coffee shop in Brooklyn sipping on an almond latte served in a tiny shot glass. This was part of their vegan champion taster set – almond, coconut, oat, rice, and cashew mini lattes, sat on a wooden paddle looking ultra-instagrammable. I don’t usually drink coffee (which still comes as a shock to my Brazilian mother) so I wasn’t particularly loving the experience, but my friends seemed to be enjoying it. Standing at the cash register forced to dish out a painful $12, I asked the owner what inspired the vegan champion taster set. “One day everyone will be drinking almond lattes and dairy will die off”, he said. I don’t recall what my exact response was, but probably a smile, nod, head tilt combo.
A little late, but this is the conversation I wish we could have had, Mr. Almond Latte:
The problem with agriculture today
Today, the world population depends on just 3 crops – wheat, corn and rice – for over 60% of our plant-based calories, and just 1 animal for 81% of dairy milk. In just 30 years, there will be 9 billion of us and we will need an estimated 70% increase in food production – a huge strain for just 3 crops and 1 animal to bear.
Regardless of how (or if) climate change pans out, our current agricultural model is not sustainable and needs great collaborative adjustments to stand any chance of meeting our future needs.
Besides food insecurity, putting all of our eggs in just 3 baskets also forces constant genetic modification on these crops in order for them to yield more and be more resistant, AND contributes to an overwhelming loss of plant diversity – over 75% of plant species have been lost since the 1990’s, as farmers all switch over to genetically-uniform crops.
The dairy industry has also admitted that their model is unsustainable and needs major changes (I look forward to seeing the changes in action – like Fonterra agreeing to pay more for sustainable dairy). However, as these changes may be slow to come, a common piece of advice seems to be that “the best way to help dairy farmers is to get them out of dairy farming”.
So what does this have to do with your vegan champion taster set? Diversity!
The solution to our flawed model is to diversify our agriculture to include more neglected and underutilized crop species (NUS) into our diets, and – you guessed it – some of these also make awesome non-dairy plant-based milk alternatives.
This is not a new idea and there have been some misguided attempts along the way, where one “diverse and novel” crop becomes all the rave – leading to an unprecedented surge in consumption almost overnight. The issue with crazes and trends is that it promotes that same unsustainable uniformity again, instead of diversity. For example:
- The quinoa demand threatened local biodiversity in Bolivia and Peru, and made the staple crop unaffordable to local communities.
- Coconut demand is not doing wonders for local communities either. It is extremely important to buy fair trade and organic in order to support smallholder coconut farmers.
- And of course there’s the almond, Mr. Almond Latte, a water-intensive crop that is grown almost entirely in drought-prone California (80% of the world’s almonds). However, let’s put that into context – it may take 84 gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of almond milk, but it takes 880 gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of dairy milk.
The issue may not be in the crop itself (i.e. quinoa, coconut, and almonds), but rather in the sheer craze around these limited crops forcing demand to exceed supply – thus making them unsustainable. So instead of looking for one alt-milk to rule all, why not expand our palates and change it up once in a while? Your vegan taster set had the right idea, Mr. Almond Latte, but you just chose some bad contenders.
The hidden gems of vegan milks
Although some options are naturally more sustainable than others (i.e. hazelnut over walnuts), the idea is that by alternating and staying away from the romantic idea of the one trendy vegan milk, we can avoid the unsustainable strain of excessive demand.
Start building your own vegan champion taster set:
- Benefits: High in protein
- Great with: Maple or molasses for a caramel corn taste
- Make it at home: A nutrition coach’s recipe here.
- Buy it: Not available yet.
2. Bambara groundnut
- Benefits: Complete nutrient profile, high protein, iron and calcium
- Great with: Cinnamon, dates or honey
- Make it at home: Princess Tafadzwa’s recipe, here.
- Buy it: WhatIF Foods sells Bambara groundnut shakes, but I have not found any milk version available yet.
- Benefits: Potassium, Vitamin B6, Vitamin C, plus a chockful of antioxidants
- Great with: Cinnamon and nutmeg of course
- Make it at home: Easiest recipe ever here.
- Buy it: Mooala Original banana milk .
4. Brazil nut
- Benefits: Heart healthy + immunity boost, with a good dose of selenium and magnesium
- Great with: Vanilla, as it is super creamy and white
- Make it at home: Check out Tish Wonder’s video recipe here.
- Buy it: Not available yet.
- Benefits: Antioxidant
- Great with: Warm notes like cinnamon and nutmeg, or spiced up with Rum
- Make it at home: Check out professional bartenders Ivo & Mikey’s recipe here.
- Buy it: Not available yet.
- Benefits: Rich in omega-3 fatty acids + lignans = heart-healthy and lower risk of cancer
- Great with: Banana or berries in smoothies
- Make it at home: Samira, from AlphaFoodie, shares her flaxseed milk recipe here.
- Buy it: Good Karma
- Benefits: Healthy gut, lower cholesterol, and an increased sperm count?
- Great with: Cocoa for a Nutella taste
- Make it at home: The Vegetarian Baker shares his recipe for [healthy] drinkable Nutella…YUM.
- Buy it: Easy to find – some brands include Pacific Foods, Ecomil, Elmhurst, and Rude Health.
- Benefits: Heart-healthy omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids + high protein
- Great with: Orange zest and cocoa, or berries.
- Make it at home: Many great add-on ideas in the Minimalist Baker’s recipe.
- Buy it: Ecomil .
- Benefits: High in heart-healthy fats
- Great with: A super buttery white milk, great with a hint of vanilla or lime zest for an Indian lassi taste
- Make it at home: Check out Yup, It’s Vegan’s recipe, here.
- Buy it: Milkadamia .
- Benefits: Health powerhouse – full of fiber and antioxidants, plus oats help you control blood sugar and lose weight.
- Great with: Pairs nicely with coffee and matcha.
- Make it at home: Dani from Clean & Delicious share her recipe for at milk PLUS oat cookies with the leftover pulp, in this video.
- Buy it: Widely available in a variety of brands, such as Oatly, Elmhurst, Pacific Foods, Thrive, Rude Health and Ecomil.
- Benefits: High protein content
- Great with: Very light and smooth, good with a light touch of sweetness and vanilla.
- Make it at home: Liliane Smith shares her great recipe in this video.
- Buy it: Ripple, Bolthouse, Suja .
- Benefits: High in protein, and a great nutritious drink especially for kids and pregnant ladies
- Great with: Dates and molasses for a caramel peanut brittle taste.
- Make it at home: Rude Health doesn’t sell Peanut milk, but they have a mean recipe for it here.
- Buy it: Elmhurst used to have a Milked Peanuts variety, but I can’t find it anymore…hope they bring it back.
- Benefits: Combines the great health benefits of nuts with added beauty perks – skin, hair and anti-aging.
- Great with: Maple! I just love that pecan pie flavor!
- Make it home: A great recipe from Whole Foods, here.
- Buy it: Maple Pecan from Malk Organics.
- Benefits: low calories, but packed with nutrients and antioxidants.
- Great with: Dates and cinnamon for a baklava taste.
- Make it at home: DIY Pistachio milk recipe by The Healthy Maven.
- Buy it: 137 degrees (yum, they have a Belgian Chocolate pistachio blend), Sunkist, NuMoo, ThreeTrees.
15. Pumpkin seed
- Benefits: High magnesium (good for blood pressure and blood sugar), also high in antioxidants and iron. Helps keep the prostate and bladder healthy.
- Great with: Would pumpkin spice be too cliché?
- Make it at home: Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop has a great recipe here.
- Buy it: Not available yet.
16. Tiger nut
- Benefits: As a superfood, they boost immunity, are high in fiber, magnesium, iron, and oleic acid (good fats)!
- Great with: Cinnamon and over ice, similar to a Spanish Horchata
- Make it at home: Try this spicy Nigerian recipe from Nourished Kitchen.
- Buy it: Ecomil, Rude Health .
- Benefits: Another powerhouse of nutrition, good for the brain, and rich in antioxidants and omega-3s.
- Great with: Cocoa and cardamom.
- Make it at home: The Clean Eating Couple’s recipe calls for a dash of cinnamon.
- Buy it: Elmhurst, 137 degrees (they even sell a Walnut Matcha Latte), Orasi.
I was unable to find some plant-based milk options, such as amaranth, brazil nuts, chestnut, peanut or pumpkin seed, ready to buy. Given the nutritional benefits and sustainability of these options, I believe it could be a great opportunity for interested entrepreneurs to get a product to market.
How to navigate your options
Tech can play an important role in boosting consumer demand for crop diversity. As we become more curious, aware and willing to try new foods, there are great apps that can make navigating our options and spreading the word easier.
When grocery shopping:
- The Ethical Consumer has an amazing guide to non-dairy plant-based milks.
- You can also support local non-dairy plant-based milk producers. For example, I found Wendy Chan’s Nutty Milk Factory in Singapore.
- Let your local supermarkets know that you are interested in varied and affordable alternative milk options. If they carry it already, congratulate them. If not, respectfully share your interest. At the end of the day, they are a business and will only stock products they know people will buy – so help them help you.
When eating out or traveling:
- The Fair Food Forager is a great one – it shows options based on your location and preferences (i.e. local produce, fair trade, reduce food waste, refill my bottle, etc.).
- Another personal favorite is abillionveg where you can find thousands of reviewed vegan and sustainable dining options wherever you go.
Circling back, Mr. Almond Latte, I think you had the right idea with your taster set – diversity is key. Our current agricultural model is undeniably unsustainable and must be diversified. That means no one alt-milk (especially not almond) can be our savior. Instead, we must learn to alternate and expand our taster palates, allowing the supply-side to flourish. Our choices have the power to create demand.
So why not start alternating your plant-based milk options based on your mood (Flawless Flax), the weather (warm honey pecan when it’s cold), day of the week (on Wednesdays we drink Hemp), or your travel destination (Bambara groundnut when in Africa or Indonesia)?