We know there’s a climate crisis. And we know that reducing the amount of animal products we eat is a great way to reduce our personal carbon footprint. One easy way to get started with plant-based foods? Your coffee. Replacing the dairy milk or cream in your daily cup is a simple way to ease into plant-based milk alternatives.
But with so many kinds of vegan milks now available, the non-dairy aisle can be a confusing place. Each milk alternative tastes different, and some successfully mimic dairy when poured in a hot cup of coffee, while others separate into sludgy bits.
How do plant-based milk substitutes compare nutritionally to cow’s milk?
Many plant-based options don’t hold up nutritionally to cow’s milk, specifically when it comes to protein, calcium and vitamin D. When choosing an alternative, those are the nutrients you should watch out for. Cow’s milk provides about 9 g of protein per cup, 30 percent of your recommended daily calcium and 45 percent of your recommended vitamin D. And many non-dairy beverages have little, if any, protein, which may or may not be a concern depending on which other protein-rich foods you eat. Depending on the manufacturer, milk alternatives are often fortified with calcium and vitamin D—which requires you to shake the container well because the vitamins often separate and end up on the bottom. However, many aren’t fortified to the same nutritional level as cow’s milk and some aren’t fortified at all. Be sure to read the labels and make informed choices.
How do non-dairy milks compare environmentally to dairy?
While some alternatives have a greater impact on the environment than others, any plant-based choice is better for the earth than dairy. A 2018 University of Oxford study found that producing a glass of dairy results in almost three times more greenhouse gas emissions than any kind of vegan milk. So even if you choose the water-guzzling almond, the planet will still be better off.
How do milk alternatives taste?
Finally, that leaves taste. Not everyone looks for the same things when it comes to how they take their coffee, and many brands offer plant-based milks, as well as creamers—designed to mimic cream—and “barista” editions that can be steamed for lattes and cappuccinos. We tried the major plant-based milks, presented below in alphabetical order, as well as some popular creamers, to see how well they mix and compare to dairy. Now, the choice is yours.
Taste: Malk’s almond milk almost immediately curdled and didn’t mix well into the coffee. Plus, the unsweetened almond milk leaves a bitter aftertaste—but it did work well with cereal. Silk’s vanilla almond creamer fared much better, mixing well and adding a sweetness that made sugar redundant. However, the vanilla taste was reminiscent of ’90s-style flavoured coffee, which may or may not be up your alley.
Climate: Almond milk takes a lot of water to make: at least four times more than what’s needed to grow rice, oats, or soy beans. (It’s worth noting that almond milk still requires less water to produce than the typical glass of dairy milk.) Additionally, a new report from the Guardian states the growing demands of the California almond industry are putting a huge strain on beehives—largely due to monoculture—wiping out billions of honeybees in a matter of months. But almond milk has the lowest carbon emissions compared to soy, oat and rice.
Nutrition: Almond milk is low in protein—just one gram per cup—so if you’re not having it in your coffee, try to eat it in foods such as smoothies combined with other protein-rich ingredients, like peanut butter or protein powder. It’s a good source of vitamin A and E though, and it’s low in calories.
Taste: Earth’s Own cashew milk scored fairly well in terms of mixing, unlike other plant-based options where we needed the creamer versions to avoid curdling. The milk itself didn’t separate, had a distinct nutty flavour but without the bitterness of the others, and overall wasn’t bad. The consistency was pretty watery though, so if you like creamy coffee, you might not be the biggest fan.
Climate: Similar to hazelnuts, cashews are lighter on the land than other nuts and prevent soil erosion. According to the Guardian, they’re one of the few crops that generally have a more positive than negative impact on the environment. However, processing is where most of the money from cashews is made, and a large percentage of cashew nuts are sold as exports from places like Vietnam, Nigeria and Ivory Coast and shipped to India for processing, resulting in high emissions. And that’s not even considering the massive human toll of cashew farming: the nuts are harvested and processed manually, and the steps are laborious and dangerous.
Nutrition: Cashew milk is also low in protein and calories. It contains no cholesterol or saturated fat, so replacing cow’s milk with cashew milk (and other milk-alternatives), may help lower cholesterol. It’s also a source of vitamins E and A.
Taste: Silk’s coconut creamer mixed well with coffee and added a hint of sweetness. It wasn’t bitter and had a good consistency. It also, not surprisingly, tastes like coconut—which may or may not be a flavour you wish for in your morning coffee.
Climate: Coconuts have a fairly low environmental impact. They grow in areas with plentiful water like the tropics, including the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Pacific—and they require low amounts of fertilizers and pesticides. However, due to production being concentrated in these regions, there is an environmental cost in transportation to North America. Additionally, the pressure to meet global demand has caused exploitation of workers and destruction of rainforests. Look for certified Fair Trade coconut products to avoid unsustainable practices.
Nutrition: With its creamy consistency, coconut milk is highest in saturated fat, at about 3 grams per cup. It’s not the best choice for people watching their heart health. It doesn’t contain any protein, so try to combine it with other protein-rich foods when possible. However, it is a good source of vitamins A, B12 and E.
Taste: Hazelnut definitely brings nutty notes to your brew, but it leaves the coffee tasting a little bitter. It also curdled fairly quickly into an off-putting slime. If you like a bit of nuttiness, a hazelnut barista blend might do the trick—but I’d stay clear of the milk version in coffee. We tried Isola Bio’s hazelnut drink.
Climate: According to Arbor Day Foundation, a non-profit conservation and education organization in the U.S., hazelnuts use less water than other nuts, are drought resistant and they are pesticide free. They also sequester carbon and protect against erosion. Hazelnuts can be grown on sloping land and on soils not suitable for tillage, which means fewer agricultural inputs and minimal maintenance. However, there have been concerns regarding child labour in hazelnut production in Turkey, which produces over 70 percent of the world’s hazelnuts, so consider your source when buying.
Nutrition: Hazelnut milk is a source of B vitamins, vitamin E, folic acid, and it’s low in calories. It’s beneficial for cardiovascular health because it has no cholesterol or saturated fat, and it contains healthy omega-3 fatty acids. However, like many other milk alternatives, it also doesn’t provide much protein.
Taste: We tried a Elmhurst’s hemp milk creamer, which blended very nicely with the coffee but had a bitter, unpleasant taste. It also had a bit of an off-putting smell and, despite the name, wasn’t particularly creamy.
Climate: Hemp has a fairly good reputation when it comes to sustainability. Research shows the ecological benefits of hemp, including effectiveness of building soil health and its ability to flourish without herbicides, pesticides or fungicides. While hemp has been called one of humanity’s oldest and most versatile crops, it does use more water than oat, soy or pea—but less than almond or dairy.
Nutrition: Hemp milk is unique in that it provides a good dose of healthy fats in the form of omega 3 fatty acids, which promote healthy heart and brain function. It also contains 3 grams of protein per cup. Plus, at 10 percent of the recommended daily intake, hemp milk provides more iron than cow’s milk. It’s also a good source of magnesium, which plays a role in muscle and nerve function and bone health. It can be hard to find in stores, but you can easily make your own by blending hemp hearts with water and straining.
Taste: We tried Milkadamia’s barista formula macadamia milk and it was a perfect amount of creaminess. This was one of our favourite milks in terms of taste: it mixed well and its natural sweetness added a nice flavour to the coffee. We also tried their unsweetened creamer which required a bit more stirring in order to mix completely. The barista blend is our preferred choice.
Climate: Macadamia nuts prefer deep, well-drained soil, and require 152 to 305 cm of rainfall per year. Most of the world’s macadamia nuts originate in Australia, while commercial production is mainly in Hawaii. As water shortages occur in these places and other regions that also produce macadamia nuts, this would affect their reputation for having a low-water footprint as irrigation could be required.
Nutrition: Macadamia milk is the highest in fat of all the milks here, at 5 grams per cup, but it’s predominantly monounsaturated fat, meaning it promotes health. It’s also a good source of vitamins A and E and antioxidants. It doesn’t provide any protein or fibre, but at about 50-80 calories per cup it falls in the middle in terms of calories.
Taste: Oat milk is the office favourite. It has a richness and creaminess that makes it ideal for coffees and lattes—especially because richer “barista” varieties of oat milk can be steamed and even make latte art. We tried Earth’s Own Barista Edition, which is designed for coffee—but is more expensive than regular oat milk. However, a side-by-side comparison of regular vs. barista oat milk proves barista is worth the extra money if you’re using it in coffee—it’s richer and thicker. It’s a solid rival to dairy for those who have a hard time letting it go from their morning routine.
Climate: Oat milk appears to have the lowest environmental impact of all the plant-based milks. Oats are largely rain-fed and have lower carbon emissions compared to some other alternatives. Oat milk requires more land than almond or rice—but it also requires a sixth of the water required for almonds to grow.
Nutrition: Of all the dairy alternatives, oat milk is highest in fibre—specifically beta glucan, a type of soluble fibre found in oats that may help lower cholesterol. At about 3-4 grams per cup, oat milk holds its own when it comes to protein. It’s slightly higher in sugar, 6 grams per cup, because of the fact that oats are naturally a source of carbohydrates.
Taste: Pea milk was possibly the worst contender: it almost didn’t mix into the coffee at all and separated into oily strands. (We tried Ripple, which is made from pea protein.) The entire coffee had to be discarded shortly thereafter. It’s not bad with cereal, though.
Climate: As soybeans and peas are both legumes, there are lots of similarities in these milk alternatives. According to a study done by New Mexico State University, peas fix nitrogen into soil, reducing artificial fertilizers, and require less water than other crops. Peas also tend to be grown in areas where water is less scarce.
Nutrition: As far as protein content goes, pea milk is the clear winner, at 8 grams each per cup. Pea milk is made from yellow split peas, which is the brand Ripple’s “proprietary pea protein.” Pea milk is also high in heart-healthy omega 3 fats, due to the sunflower oil and algal oil added by the manufacturer, and it’s fortified to be an excellent source of vitamin B12. This one seems to contain the most highly processed and added ingredients.
Taste: Rice milk mixed surprisingly well, with little to no curdling. But it was a bit like pouring white water into our coffee—all it did was lighten the colour. We tried Natura’s organic fortified rice beverage.
Climate: Rice milk is fairly thirsty, requiring 54 litres of water per glass to make. Among soy, oat and almond, rice milk has the highest carbon emissions, though not by much. Rice paddies can harbour breeding bacteria which pumps methane into the atmosphere.
Nutrition: Rice milk is a safe bet for those with food allergies, because it’s the least likely of the dairy alternatives to cause an allergic reaction. However, it doesn’t contain any protein so it won’t keep you feeling full for very long. Even “original” varieties can be sweetened with brown rice syrup. This means people with diabetes or those looking to keep blood sugars stable should consider another milk alternative, or look for “unsweetened” on the label to be sure there are no added sugars.
Taste: Soy milk’s sweetness mimics the natural taste of dairy, but it tends to make coffee grainy—and in some cases, completely curdles once added. The soy creamer version (we tried Silk’s) mixes fairly well, but isn’t as smooth as we’d have liked.
Climate: A litre of soy milk takes about 297 litres of water to produce, which is less than a third of the water needed to produce cow’s milk. One of the primary concerns with soy milk is that soybeans are grown in big quantities, which requires a lot of land: large swaths of rainforest have been burned away in the Amazon to make way for soy farms. The bulk of those soybeans are used for animal feed, but it’s still a good idea to look for organic soybeans grown here or the U.S. to combat the possibility of harm done internationally.
Nutrition: Soy milk’s nutritional profile is the closest to cow’s milk of all plant-based milks. It’s naturally high in protein, at 7 g per cup, provides potassium and isoflavones—which may protect against some cancers and osteoporosis. Other nutrients like vitamin A and vitamin B12 are added. It’s also free of saturated fat but contains healthier poly- and mono-unsaturated fats, and may help lower cholesterol.