It was about a decade ago when I first spotted a carton of almond milk in my sister’s hostel pantry in London. I thought it was some exotic and fancy drink. It was only after learning about her friend’s lactose intolerance did I understand the significance of this plant-based substitute for dairy. More recently, thanks to the added popularity of veganism, a plethora of plant-based milks are trending on social media feeds and gourmet stores.
Plant-based milks are non-dairy beverages made from a water-based plant extract, with the colour and of milk. Soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk, rice milk, hemp milk, oat milk, pea milk, cashew milk, and peanut milk are some common plant milks. “Some uncommon varieties include potato milk, milk made from sprouted millets or maize,” adds clinical nutritionist Lovneet Batra from Fortis La Femme, Delhi,. Kavita Devgan, a Delhi-based nutritionist and weight management consultant, deconstructs the composition of these non-dairy milk varieties. “Plant milks are prepared by grinding a bean or nut and water, and often flavours, vitamins, and minerals are added to the mix. The most popular one is soy milk and in terms of macronutrient composition too, soy milk comes closest to cow’s milk. It is also higher in protein than any other commercially available milk at around 8g per glass,” she says. Why is plant-based milk becoming so popular, in the first place? “More people today, as compared to earlier, are lactose- intolerant or strict vegans. So, while dairy is a complete no-no for them, often a big grouse is they can’t figure out what to drink with their breakfast.
I hear this all the time in my practice: ‘But I need to drink something with my egg, or I need my mid- afternoon or evening coffee, tea’. And plant milk, also called alternative milk, nut milk or vegan milk, is a non-dairy beverage that can easily fit in here and deliver bona fide nutrition too,” Devgan explains. Plant-based milk is also a good choice for patients with hormonal imbalance, gut health problems, and inflammatory disorders such as autoimmune diseases.
“However, people with nut allergies should completely avoid nut-based milks and make sure they check the labels for added sugar, as some brands are high on added sugar and flavouring agents, which can be counterproductive for managing your health,” cautions Batra. Celebrated food journalist and author Vir Sanghvi has been using almond milk in his coffee and soy milk for ages. “I’m lactose intolerant to a certain degree, so I always try to cut out dairy or look for substitutes. For instance, coconut milk or cream are much better than dairy in many kinds of cooking, and the risottos I cook at home are usually non-dairy,” he shares.
From the perspective of the palate, Sanghvi says the problem is with two things. “Vegan cheese tastes horrible. So, when I do eat cheese (which is not so often), it has to be the real thing. Vegan ice cream, too, is usually terrible, so the trick is to order a strong flavour, like bitter chocolate, to mask the absence of dairy. But there is no substitute for real ice cream. Otherwise, it’s actually quite easy to give up dairy if, like me, you are uncomfortable after eating it,” he says. Interestingly, Naimita Jagasia, an internationally recognised plant-based pastry chef and founder-CEO of India’s first luxury plant-based patisserie, An Ode To Gaia, which is 100 per cent vegan, has experimented with all types of plant-based milk and found that soy, coconut, and oat are the best for baking.
“I use oat milk, coconut milk, and soy milk almost every day at the patisserie, and a combination of these milks is used because each plant-based milk has unique properties and flavour profiles, which contribute to the recipe differently. For cheesecake, we use soy and coconut to make a vegan ricotta, and that forms the base for our vegan ricotta cheesecakes. For cakes, we use soy, for entremets we use coconut because entremets require a significant amount of fat, which only coconut milk can offer,” Jagasia elaborates, and shares that she makes plant-based white chocolate using a combination of soy, almond, and cashew milk. For cooking, Jagasia always picks coconut or cashew milk for adding a rich creamy texture to curries and sauces.
The demand, Jagasia adds, has only grown through the years, with more people becoming aware of their lactose intolerance, and about veganism. “We are glad to be the pioneers of this movement in India and customers have been ordering from us for years without realising they’re consuming something vegan,” she says.
Similarly, Sumair Sachdev, COO of Alt Co. that made its debut in 2021, says their oat milk has been in great demand ever since its launch. Alt Co. has seen great traction from millennials, who like to try new things and the older customers too have started to consume oat milk on a regular basis, as they become more health conscious. “There has been a huge change in the Indian market and demographics. With urbanisation, globalisation, and increased travel and an increasing middle class, upper middle class at the cusp, the Indian consumer preferences are changing by the day. Growth for us is inevitable this year, we’re already off to a great start and we see a good number of consumers making this switch,” says Sumair. However, Devgan explains, “There are no potential side effects, but it cannot be considered a nutritional substitute for dairy. Use it as a snack or replacement for dairy in your tea, coffee, or smoothies. You can also try yogurts prepared from plant-based milks to add vegan probiotics in your diet. Most plant-based milks tend to be lower in protein, and certain nutrients compared to cow’s milk, so keep that in mind.
Plant-based milk is a good alternative for those who are lactose intolerant and cannot have milk, but children younger than five should avoid plant-based milks as well as those who have specific food intolerances and allergies.” So far as benefitting men’s health is concerned, plant-based milks are rich in essential minerals and vitamins that are great for health. “For example, almond milk is a good source of the antioxidant vitamin E, which is great for heart and also for brain health. Being lower in calories compared to dairy, these are good for keeping you free from cholesterol and saturated fats, and keeping your weight in check,” recommends Devgan.
An important point of contention comes up. Is it possible to develop and sustain a plant-based milk habit and sustain it throughout your life, by choice or by need? Batra says you can do so if you start making your own plant-based milk at home. Most options available in the market come with low quality ingredients. Going forward, what’s the next big plant-based milk? Devgan votes for pea protein milk, which delivers more protein than soy or cow’s milk — 10 whopping grams per cup — and is creamy, smooth, and clean tasting.
PLANT-BASED MILK BRANDS TO TRY
Sain: Almond milk in a variety of flavours
Epigamia: Coconut milk yogurt and almond milk
Goodmylk: Peanut curd and cashew and oat milk
Only Earth: Oat, coconut, and almond milk in exciting flavours