Joanna Blythman: Plant milks? Give me full-fat cow’s any day
Plant milks are rising in popularity, often for ethical or dietary reasons. However, Joanna says these dairy-free drinks lack the nutrition of cow's milk and are laden with additives.
Non-dairy ‘milks’ occupy a serious amount of supermarket shelf space these days. Likewise, the menu of ‘milk’ options in cafés has begun to rival the coffee selection, as baristas reel off a litany of non-cow possibilities that generally add a 40-50 pence premium to the price of a coffee.
It strikes me as a costly way to purchase ultra-processed water. Plant milks contain surprisingly small quantities of the often-imported titular ingredient (soy, oats, nuts, rice, hemp or coconut), along with thickeners, additives, and a sprinkling of man-made vitamins and minerals.
Take almond milk drinks. I haven’t come across one that actually contains more than 3% almonds. Even oat milks are generally only 10% oats. Low-priced plant milks typically contain hi-tech gums, such as locust bean, xanthan and gellan, and cheap commodity oils (rapeseed, sunflower), in an attempt to give them that satiny feel. Several brands throw in a synthetic flavouring to add palatability to what is, at the end of the day, a factory blend of highly processed non-dairy matter. I’ve yet to taste one that plausibly resembles the real thing – one that’s drinkable on its own without a strong flavour, like coffee, to mask it.
So why are we glugging down these imposter milks? One argument from some groups is that cow’s milk is cruel, even if it’s free-range and organic. It’s certainly the case that the low retail price of conventional cow’s milk has pressured the dairy industry into intensifying its production by turning cows into milk machines and reducing animal welfare. But we can instead buy milk from principled farmers who want nothing to do with the mass-produced dairy treadmill, and who stick with traditional, humane husbandry that’s organic, free-range, and pasture-based.
I can see that modern processing methods (pasteurisation, skimming, homogenisation) could compromise milk’s essential integrity and digestibility, making it potentially more troublesome in our diet. That’s why I’d prefer to drink whole (full-fat), preferably unhomogenised cow’s milk from small farms. The factory-farmed, fat-reduced white water that many see as normal may be cheap, but in animal welfare and taste terms, it’s not my idea of milk.
Obviously if you’re vegan or have a diagnosed milk allergy, you’ll want plant alternatives. That’s your prerogative. But omnivores beware – by opting for cheap alternatives, you could be buying into a fashion for artificial, milk-like products that are costing you dear.
5 steps to making your own additive-free nut milk:
- Put 150g almonds or cashews in a large bowl and cover with water. Leave to soak for at least 4 hrs.
- Drain and rinse. Tip into a blender with 750ml cold water and whizz until smooth.
- Pour into a muslin-lined sieve set over a jug and allow the liquid to drip through.
- When most of the liquid is in the jug, gather the sides of the muslin and squeeze it out.
- Stir in some maple syrup or cinnamon to enhance the flavour, if you like.
Find out more in our guide on dairy-free diets.
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Good Food contributing editor Joanna is an award-winning journalist who has written about food for 25 years. She is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4.