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Alternatives to Dairy for Your Coffee

Yesterday, we took up the topic of alternatives to sugar in your coffee. Maybe you've never put sugar in your coffee -- and would never, in fact, think to profane your Yirgacheffe with sweeteners -- but lots of people who don't touch sweeteners still like to take their coffee with cream. Maybe you've thought about stepping away from dairy. People are doing this in ever-larger numbers, for all sorts of reasons. For some, there are allergic reactions (lactose intolerance and phenylketonuria) to consider. For others, it can be a matter of ethics (vegans don't like partaking in something that they feel leads to animal exploitation) or ecology (dairy is very resource-intensive). Dairy consumption has fallen significantly. If you've thought about joining the ranks of those shunning the moo juice, there are plenty of alternatives, each with its advantages and drawbacks:
Non-Dairy Creamer
Non-Dairy Creamer: Sometimes sold as a powder, but just as likely to be found in liquid form, non-dairy creamers have the advantage of being somewhat less perishable than dairy, in addition to not containing dairy ingredients. However, that's pretty much where the advantages end. Non-dairy creamers usually contain high fructose corn syrup, and will also typically contain hydrogenated vegetable oils to replicate the mouth feel of milk or half and half. Even though it says non-dairy, it often contains dairy- and animal-derived ingredients (sodium caseinate and sodium stearoly lactylate, for instance). Oh, and in powder form, it's highly flammable. Special effects people have long used powdered non-dairy creamer for spectacular explosions and other pyrotechnic effects. Fun, huh? If you'd prefer something natural, your other option is one of many plant-derived "milks," typically made with dried beans, nuts, or grains that are then mixed with water and other ingredients for mouth feel, flavor (especially sweetness, since some plant-based milks have a slightly bitter taste if unadulterated) or nutritional content.
Silk Soy Milk

 

Soy: Soy milk tastes (and steams) similar to skim milk, and has roughly the same protein content as dairy. There are concerns about plant estrogens found in soy milk, but the research is inconclusive and often contradictory. Some are also concerned with GMO soybeans used in many non-organic soy milks and creamers. Rice: Rice milk has a lower fat content, and is noticeably more watery in its taste and consistency, and has a "thinner" taste as well. It's not assertive, and tends to get somewhat lost in coffee, especially with darker roasts.

Almond: Almond milk -- especially if it's slightly sweetened -- compares quite well with dairy milk. It's also likely to become much more expensive. Almond crops are very water-intensive (it takes just over a gallon of water to produce one almond); since most of our almond crops come from drought-stricken California, that bodes ill for the affordability of all things almond-related.

Hemp: Hemp milk isn't psychoactive (which is either a good thing or a bad thing, we guess, depending on how you roll). It's made from the seeds of the plant, and can be a bit of an acquired taste; despite having a higher fat content, it's bland like rice milk, but has a somewhat chalky element to it that can be off-putting. It steams in much the same way that soy milk would.

If you opt for coconut, make sure it's coconut milk and not "cream of coconut"

Coconut: We've saved a personal favorite for last. Coconut milk is often found in better non-dairy creamers. That's because it has a genuinely milky taste, and more of a fat content than most of the rest of the options on this list. We suggest getting the unsweetened variety unless you want your coffee tasting especially coconutty. Best of all, coconut milk is versatile; it works in many Thai and Indian dishes, plus pina coladas, coquito, and plenty else. It's also less likely to be adulterated with thickeners, sweeteners, and other crap that's typically added to other plant milks and non-dairy creamers. Incidentally, there's no reason to fret if a cappuccino or flat white is more your speed. Most non-dairy "milks" will froth just like the stuff that came straight from a cow, though it's worth noting that there are variations in the texture and mouth feel of the foam in each case just the same as there are variations in taste. Even Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks have jumped on the non-dairy bandwagon.

Our take: if you don't have a dietary or ethical opposition to milk or cream, buy organic and use in moderation. If milk isn't an option, that's okay too; you have plenty of others. Just be mindful that some (especially almond and coconut) work better with coffee than others (especially rice and hemp), and that it might take some taste testing to arrive at something that works best for you.

Learn More: For a different perspective, here's Lewis Black's rather NSFW take on milk versus soy milk: Mother Jones made waves a few months back with Lay Off The Almond Milk, You Ignorant Hipsters Go Dairy Free also has reviews of non-dairy creamers. Just bear in mind that some of these are more expensive, and can be more likely to have additives (sugars, colorants, and thickeners) than their "milk" counterparts. Always check your ingredients.