If asked to envision a glass of milk, there’s a good chance most of us would assume it came from a cow. It’s a deeply rooted association in Canada, where dairy was identified as one of six food groups in Canada’s Official Food Rules back in 1942 and went on to hold a place in Canada’s Food Guide until its overhaul in 2019.
Though many Canadians default to dairy, milks extracted from coconut, soybeans, nuts and grains have been available commercially for decades, with some preceding the existence of grocery stores for hundreds or thousands of years. With new advancements in the agri-food sector allowing for even more options, perhaps it’s no surprise that Canadians’ consumption of dairy milk has been steadily declining for more than a decade. According to a study released in November 2021, though we’ve been enjoying more dairy products such as butter, yogurt and cheese, Canadians reported consuming significantly less fluid milk between 2004 and 2015. At the same time, non-dairy milks have grown in popularity for reasons beyond dietary necessity. Environmental impact has become a significant consideration for consumers, and alternative milks are far easier on the planet, requiring less land and producing fewer greenhouse gas emissions than traditional dairy.
In the year preceding the pandemic, sales of oat milk skyrocketed more than 250 per cent in Canada; last fall in the United Kingdom, it overtook almond milk (which is still the reigning plant-based milk in North America), with sales doubling between 2019 and 2020, according to Mintel market research. Sales of rice and soy milks have slowed as oat milk increases its market share and newer players bring creamy high-tech milks derived from yellow pea protein – a product that is increasingly grown and processed here in Canada – to store shelves.
With more non-dairy milk options available than ever, a small panel of taste testers took a few for a spin to evaluate flavor and their versatility as an ingredient.
We chose the original Oatly to represent the oat milk category after comparing it with Earth’s Own Oat Milk, which we found chalkier in texture. Oatly was founded in Sweden in 1994, and the product made its way to the Canadian market in 2018. It contains three grams protein, seven grams of sugars and seven grams of fat each cup.
Sproud, another Swedish company (although its products distributed in North America are made in Canada using Canadian-grown yellow split peas) makes original, unsweetened, chocolate and a special barista blend based on yellow split pea protein. The original is sweetened with agave syrup and contains canola oil; it has five grams of protein, six grams of sugars and six grams of fat each cup.
Though the panelists liked Silk Cashew better than Silk Almond, we tested the latter because almond has been leading the plant-based milk pack in North America since around 2013, when it overtook soy. It contains one gram of protein, zero grams of sugars and 2.5 grams of fat each cup.
Whole, 2 per cent and 1 per cent NotMilk, by NotCo, a food-tech company headquartered in Santiago, Chile, is made with sunflower oil and pea protein. It also contains cane sugar and pineapple juice concentrate. The whole version contains four grams of protein, three grams of sugars and eight grams of fat each cup.
The tasters started by drinking a glass of each milk, straight from the fridge. Here are a few of our tasting notes:
Oatly: very creamy, nutty, even grainy in flavour, with a nice texture and mouth feel.
Sproud: chemical tasting, not a great mouth feel, bean taste.
Silk Almond: thin and watery, slightly sweet, not much flavour.
NotMilk: slightly sweet, notes of vanilla, with a nice texture similar to dairy milk.
Next, we poured the contenders into bowls of Rice Krispies, a cereal mild enough in flavor that it wouldn’t overwhelm. The unanimous winners were Oatly and NotMilk, which had textures similar to dairy milk and, in the case of NotMilk, a sweetness that accentuated the cereal.
Since our testing was done during a particularly harsh cold snap, we mixed up batches of hot chocolate from scratch, using a different milk as the base in each mug. Sproud was our least favourite, as each taster noticed a beany flavor coming through. (Though perhaps the chocolate version would do well in hot chocolate.) The Silk Almond was thin, with a flavor that made the homemade hot chocolate taste like the powdered kind reconstituted from a packet. NotMilk was good, and could have passed for a dairy version, but we all voted Oatly the best. Designed to appeal to baristas, it does make a delicious latte at some of our favorite coffee shops, and the hot chocolate was robust, nutty and not too sweet, and emulsified nicely.
To test each milk in the kitchen, I made Dutch babies. A Dutch baby is a simple egg-milk-flour batter that puffs up dramatically in the oven, similar to a Yorkshire pudding. Though I used the same formula (1/2 cup flour, 1/2 cup milk, two eggs) and baked each in the same hot skillet in a 450 F oven, the differences were surprising.
The Silk Almond was by far the most disappointing: It came out as a moist, spongy disc, washed-out golden in color and barely risen in the middle. The NotMilk made a nice Dutch baby; though it had a tighter, drier crumb, its edge rose dramatically. The Sproud worked very well, producing a raised edge, albeit not as dramatic. It had a nice texture and no hint of the bean flavor that was so noticeable on its own and in the hot chocolate. But the Oatly Dutch baby was outstanding – its beautifully risen edge was crisp but moist inside, not at all spongy or dry, and puffed in the middle as well. An improvement over most dairy-based Dutch babies, even.
There are plenty of alternative milks worth trying, whether or not you’re vegan or have an intolerance to dairy. Which one you like will depend on your taste and your plans for it: Are you a baker, a late-night cereal eater or particular about your morning latte? Rather than default to a single source (cow’s) with limited options to flavor and fat content, perhaps going forward we’ll choose the milk that’s best suited to our personal preferences, and how we’re going to use or consume it.
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