You can impress your barista with way too much knowledge on plant-based milks

Iced lattes get too much of a bad rep. We all like to think that our coffee taste is more elevated than that, that we are better that those basic white girls who sip from their Starbucks cups while munching on their avocado-on-toast. But let’s be real here. Most of us coffee drinkers have a basic white girl inside of us that yearns for an iced latte on a hot summer day and begs to come out whenever we find ourselves in front of a barista ready to take our order. 

Whether you are at your local fair-trade zero-waste dairy-free independent (and overpriced) local coffee shop, or you are a loyal consumer of Nescafe instant sachets, it has become progressively more overwhelming to choose what milk you want to sweeten your caffeine addiction. 

Not only are you now meant to know the difference between a cortado, a flat white and a macchiato to maintain the coffee-nerd status amongst your friends, but you also need to know whether soya milk is nicer than coconut milk, which foams better between oat and hazelnut, and whether almond milk is actually just a scam and more polluting than regular semi-skimmed. 

This is why we at AlterEco have taken it upon ourselves to investigate the top ten vegan milks currently on the market in the UK and give you the ultimate guide to what you should be pouring in your coffee.

As the original vegan milk, you would think that, by now, they would have perfected their formula. But no. Soya milk is extremely temperamental. It needs you to treat it like the damn king of milks. How could you possibly expect it to go straight out of the fridge and into your brew?! No, no, no, soya will throw a temper tantrum and break into a thousand little specks in your mug. They don’t mix well with peasants like coffee (or even tea for that matter). Warm it up slightly, foam it with your fancy milk frother, pour it in gently and keep stirring and only then, will you have a chance of keeping the curds at bay, but it will still leave a beany taste in your mouth.

The Bible when it comes to the sustainability of vegan milks is a study published by Joseph Poore at Oxford University in June 2018. He looked at how some of the main alternatives compare to dairy milk in terms of emissions, water usage and land use. He found that soya’s biggest vice in land use. While all vegan alternatives score nine times lower than what is required for cow grazing (per litre of product, cow milk needs 8.9 m2 of land while all plant based options are below one) soya still ranks high, second to oat milk. 

Taste wise, almond is the most reliable milk alternative. It pairs itself well with both coffee and tea, it doesn’t have a slimy texture or such a strong flavour that it makes it impossible to have with cereal or dunk an Oreo in. It also does not carry the ethical dilemma of bathing your porridge in its own ground up kin that oat milk has. Overall, almond milk is a very strong contender for the top spot of most coffee-able vegan milk, except for when it’s roasted-almond milk, because trust me, smoky is not a flavour note you want to taste in your milk. 

The thing that makes almond milk slip from the podium is its environmental impact. It takes a lot of water to grow almonds, approximately 370 litres to make one litre of almond milk, says Poore. And that is without taking into account that the biggest producer worldwide of almonds is the US, owning almost 80% of the global market. This is mostly centralised to California, where nut trees are swallowing up land that was once devoted to crops that could be harvested during droughts and almond crops command more than three times as much of the state’s annual water supply as Los Angeles. 

Coconut is definitely one of the strongest flavours in this list. If you leave Bounties for last in your Celebration tub at Christmas, then this might not be the milk for you. But don’t sweat, you are not missing out on much: it doesn’t have much body (I’ve officially ascended to sommelier levels with that sentence) and it doesn’t bring much to a cup of coffee except watering it down for the weak of heart. 

No research has been done into the environmental impact of coconut milk specifically, but it is worth noting that coconuts are grown mainly in tropical Asia, with Indonesia, the Philippines, and India collectively accounting for over 72% of the global production. So, whilst plant-based milk alternatives rise in popularity in the Western world, it is important to remind ourselves that however low the impact of producing what we eat is, it cancels out when it requires shipping it across the World to get into our morning coffee.

I mean, what did you expect from the blandest of the carbs? This is literally rice juice. It doesn’t taste like anything. Which might be refreshing after you had some of the more grim entries on this list (just you wait), but if you actually want to enjoy your coffee, as opposed to having to drink it because they still haven’t invented a way to pump it straight into your bloodstream, then I personally wouldn’t go for rice as my first choice. Or even third for that matter. 

Where it does come in second though, is in its water usage. The 270 litres of water it takes to make one litre of rice milk is not its most negative contributor to the environment. Rice patties are flooded with a few inches of water to encourage growth and suppress weeds. This standing water is prime territory for bacteria to grow and multiply, emitting methane in the process, raising the carbon footprint of rice. In addition to this, the water is then drained into waterways, causing fertiliser runoff and cause contamination issues, making rice milk the most polluting plant-based milk on average.

The first time you have oat milk feels like you have discovered the Holy Grail of vegan milks. It is creamy and thick but without being disgustingly goopy (I’m looking at you pea milk). It is earthy in flavour but still gentle and not overpowering. If you are that skint, it is also super easy to make at home: just soak some porridge oats in water, blend it all in a mixer, then pass the mixture through a cheesecloth or – for a mess-free version – through a coffee press, and you have got yourself oat milk. 

If that was not enough, oat milk is also incredibly sustainable. Oats can thrive all over the world and require little water to grow, making them well suited to places prone to droughts. Though oats would be even more helpful to the environment as a rotating crop in fields currently growing only corn and soy, a dangerous pair that fosters weeds, insects and pests, which drive farmers to use a slew of pesticides and fertilisers. Adding oats to their yearly harvest rotation would also cancel out oat’s current most polluting factor – land use. 

Now you might think there is little point in you keeping on reading this list – you have already found the best milk ever. And you might be right. But we are about to endeavour into the niche world of vegan milks and milk alternatives that you should try to avoid.

If almond is Anne Hathaway at the beginning of Princess Diaries, hazelnut milk is what you get after the makeover. It is rich and full of flavour, adding a nice little punch to your coffee. I mean it is literally what Nutella is made out of, and that is indisputably the nectar of the gods. So, why not add that to your brew? If you can’t find oat, definitely go for hazelnut. 

Being on the newer and less popular side of the vegan milk spectrum, not much research has gone into figuring out the environmental impact of hazelnut milk at this point, though similarly to almonds and other nuts, water usage is definitely a concern.

Cashew is that one person in a conversation that keeps repeating what everyone else has already said, just to sound relevant and not make people forget about them. It has no remarkable features and does not bring anything new to the table that any of the other nut milks haven’t done already. The only thing it does do is piss-off everyone with a tree nut allergy, so thank you very much for your effort cashew, but please leave.

Cashew is even more niche than hazelnut, so unless you can convince Poore to spend the rest of his life researching every new milk alternative as soon as soon as it hits the market, we will have to accept our ignorance when it comes to the environmental impact of some of these milks and learn to live with it.

I honestly did not know what to expect from a £2.95 carton of pea milk. What made me what to try it was the nicely designed packaging and the incessant ads that I got for it on Instagram. But as soon as I unscrewed the cap and ripped off the seal, the stench that hit me made me realise that I had made a massive mistake. I poured a tiny amount into a glass and out dribbled a thick, almost custard-y off-white goop. The flavour was vile. I got the original instead of the unsweetened and let me tell you, the artificial sweetness of condensed milk does not mix well with me. For two days, I tried to force myself to pour whatever that was (you cannot call it milk) into my coffee for the sake of this piece, but I could not bring myself to ruin a perfectly good brew with that monstrosity. 

As one of the newcomers on the market, there is barely any research being conducted about how sustainable it is to produce, though Nick Watkins, co-founder of The Mighty Society pea milk producers, claims that “it takes 100 times more water to farm almonds than peas and 25 times more water to farm dairy.” I’m sorry Nick, but it is still disgusting.

I guess that, by now, you have figured out that all plant-based milks fall into one of three categories: you have your nuts, your beans and pulses, and grains. Hemp milk is – unfortunately for all the “weed fans” out there – made with hemp seeds. In terms of taste, it is a bootleg version of oat milk, only with all the good things from oat milk removed: it is not creamy, it does not have a rich flavour, and it has a very unappealing grey tinge. The only good reason for going for hemp, is if you are both gluten intolerant and allergic to nuts.  

A few researchers have raised concerns about the environmental impact of the growing cannabis industry. Hemp farming has traditionally been conducted indoors and thus requires extreme amounts of energy to power artificial lighting, airflow systems and heating.

When I pulled the seal off the carton of tiger nut milk, I was not sure what to think. It smelled distinctively like yeast. I spent about a minute sniffing it and having my housemate sniff it to figure out whether I was going insane. But then I tasted it and  was pleasantly surprised. It is delicate and has a very nice natural sweetness to it. When I started looking into it I found out that tiger nuts have nothing to do with the Frosties mascot’s privates. They are not even a nut. They are in a milk category of their own. They are a ‘tuber’, local to Southern Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Tiger nut milk has also been consumed in Valencia for a long time, over ice in a traditional drink called horchata. So I guess tiger nuts have all the credentials to be the ultimate plant-based, lactose-free, gluten-free, nut-free milk if it picked up more momentum. 

But if you really think there isis even the slightest bit of research being conducted to the sustainability of tiger nut milk, you need to check yourself. I had to go to a Wholefoods in Shoreditch to even find this, I don’t think it’s going to be high up on Poore’s to-do list.

 

Congratulations, you have made it to the end! We actually decided to cut this list short as not to bore you with macadamia, quinoa, flex, spelt, walnut, chestnut and peanut milk (all of which exist) but let’s be real, if Waitrose doesn’t even stock them, no-one is going to go out of their way to actually buy these.

Throughout this list, we have been ignoring their main selling point. The truth is, that any of these vegan milk alternatives is a way more sustainable and less polluting alternative to dairy milk. Worldwide cow grazing takes up 830 million m2 of land: that is the size of Brazil. Poore estimates than a global switch from regular milk to any plant-based alternative would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by almost a billion tonnes per year, the same as Germany’s total yearly emissions. 

So, whether you want to ask for soya milk the  next time you are ordering a coffee or are thinking of milking your own oats this weekend, just know that you are actually doing something meaningful for the environment.  The next time you order an iced latte, the only thing that you will have to worry about is whether the coffee beans were fair-trade or not.