Okay technically, they aren't really milks. Plant-based or vegan milks are water-based plant extracts that just look and taste like the creamy beverage we're used to getting from mammary glands. While they have only become supermarket mainstays in recent years, as alternatives go, vegan milk deliberations rarely stray far from coffee pairings. As much as we might all not want to admit, they have a life beyond caffeine too.
Besides lactose intolerance and ethics (which—sorry eco-warriors—we mostly glaze over here because that conversation requires its own exposé), plant-based milks have risen in popularity because they are rich in flavour, nutritious and allegedly more eco-friendly than cow milk by reducing carbon emissions and using less land and water. The thing is, the increased demand and variety of vegan milks available translates to this revelation: some plant-based milks are just better than others.
For instance, the protein-full soy remains the most easily accessible vegan milk for a reason, and despite the addictive nutty aroma, almond milk is an intense water-guzzler. Oat, cashew, hemp, flax, coconut and rice milk all have pros and cons to weigh in on too, but not everyone has all the time in the world to do a milk by milk comparison. To aid your foray into the alternate milk universe, here is a condensed best-of guide to help you to make the right decision.
Most nutritional: Soy
While soy milk has fallen out of style before, its nutritional value has proved it is worth keeping on the table. As the milk with the closest nutrition profile to cow milk in terms of protein but at approximately half the number of calories, fats and carbohydrates, it is the most ideal replacement. It is also one of the few plant-based sources of high-quality “complete” protein, which provides all the essential amino acids we need but can only obtain from the diet.
Brand to try: Vitasoy
This familiar soy milk brand is mightier than we give it credit for. Vitasoy, first founded in 1940 by Dr. Lo Kwee-song, started as a company that did door-to-door deliveries of soy milk in Hong Kong. After 70 years, it continues to be a household favourite in the West (despite a localised packaging) and here in Singapore because it offers some of the highest protein levels amongst the numerous commercial soy milk brands out there. It also captures the rich, saccharine soy flavour without overkilling on the sugar content. If we were to sum up why we love Vitasoy with some keywords, they would be reliable, nutritious, convenient and nostalgic in a no-frills kind of way.
Vitasoy is available on Lazada, Shopee, Redmart and major supermarkets islandwide.
Most DIY-able: Cashew
If you are concerned about hidden sugars or additives, cashew milk is one to consider making at home. Most DIY dairy-free milks need to be strained through a sieve or a cheesecloth after blending, but because cashews are so soft, they tend to dissolve easily, so you can skip this step altogether when you blend them up. This saves you time and nothing goes to waste—you also retain the fibre and nutritional benefits of the cashew. Alternatively, you can try this blender specialised in making plant milks. Cashew milk is also closest in taste to the almond version, but uses a lot less water to make.
Brand to try: The Mlk Co
If you don't have the luxury of time (or willpower) to make cashew milks yourself, there are people here that would love to do it for you. The Mlk Co makes their cashew milk with activated cashew nuts for better nutrient-absorption, and just Himalayan salt and ionised water for that no-frills, raw goodness. But the best part is that they operate on a weekly subscription service; milks here are only made when the order for them is made. That's two extra brownie points for this small-batch company for being precious with natural resources, on top of giving us cashew milk in its healthiest (and tastiest) form.
The Mlk Co Cashew Milk is available for order online.
Most environmentally friendly: Oat
Oat milk is not the newest kid on the block, but it definitely is one of the most popular plant-based milks these days (thanks to Oatly). Oats are grown in cooler climates like in the northern US and Canada, so it is not associated with the deforestation that comes with the production of soy products. There is plenty of oats to go around as they are already mass produced mainly for animal feed, so we can safely steal some to fuel our new obsession without guilt.
Brand to try: Oatside
This new Singaporean-started label is one way to #supportlocal. Founder Benedict Lim may have began from home experimentations during the pandemic, but the company is already backed by Wee Teng Wen of The Lo & Behold Group. Made in Asia with sustainably-sourced Australian Oats, natural mountain spring water and Rainforest Alliance certified cacao beans and hazelnuts, your choices are Barista Blend, Chocolate and a pretty special Chocolate Hazelnut. We tried them in a blind test taste with other oat milk brands, and can confidently report that Oatside is significantly creamier and full-bodied, pretentious as that sounds. The endorsement by PPP Coffee that they froth better also helped seal the deal.
Oatside is available on Shopee, Redmart and major supermarkets islandwide.
Strictly speaking, almond milk is the most diet-friendly vegan milk because it has only one quarter of the amount of calories in whole milk, but we can't look past its environmental woes, which is why we recommend hazelnut milk. Newer to the market, it provides the same nutty taste with a similar amount of calories, but is pollinated by wind instead of commercial honeybees. They also grow in moist climates like the Pacific north-west, where water is less of an issue.
Brand to try: Elmhurst 1925
Hazelnut milk tastes almost like melted ice-cream in its strong sweetness, and this brand delivers that while still staying organic and free of additives. Made with just filtered water and hazelnuts, this British brand's rendition will reveal the real taste of hazelnut milk, that comes gently as a wafting after-taste. This also works amazingly with coffee, which we are proposing to you as something to try.
Elmhurst 1925 Hazelnut Milk is available on Shopee, Amazon and major supermarkets islandwide.
Most flavourful: Coconut
Sinful, yes, but most distinct in aroma and flavour. We might be more used to tasting its familiar sweetness in curries and Peranakan fare, but the decadent milk can be equally charming when had alone. Just remember to go easy on the serving quantity for this high-fat one if you go nuts for coconut.
Brand to try: Milklab Co
Not to be confused with the homegrown nut milk grocer, Milklab Co gives us high-performance coconut milk made from whole coconut cream that has been sourced exclusively from suppliers in Sri Lanka, where optimal growing climates ensure that minimal agricultural inputs are required to produce environmentally sustainable coconuts. While it may not be the most natural, it tastes good, and that is what we are looking for here. Made to complement the intensity of espressos, this Australian brand's coconut milk tastes especially luxurious and fragrant bare, and is considered a healthier option—it has fewer calories than lead competitors.
Milklab Co Coconut is available on Lazada, Shopee, Qoo10 and major supermarkets islandwide.
Most compatible with coffee…
We've saved the best category for last only to say…whichever floats your boat! We recommend oat, simply because it performs the best on all sustainability metrics and imparts the creamiest froth on lattes. If you are not keen on the malty aftertaste, coconut milk is a surprisingly good contender that offers a subtle sweetness without the need for any added extra sugar.