The cream of the vegan crop: 18 dairy-free alternatives, tried and tested

Milk-style drinks are the supermarkets' biggest vegan sellers, with sales of over £200 million in 2016 and expected to hit nearly £300 million by 2021
Milk-style drinks are the supermarkets' biggest vegan sellers, with sales of over £200 million in 2016 and expected to hit nearly £300 million by 2021

Suddenly vegan has got its va-va-voom. Where once it was about as sexy as socks with sandals, now you can’t go into a café without being bombarded with meat-free and dairy-free options. Instagram has more than 53 million #vegan hashtags and 74,000 people in the UK have pledged to go vegan for January as part of the Veganuary movement – the great majority of them women under 45, and probably Instagramming like mad. 

The Vegan Society reckons there are more than half a million vegans in the country, which may be less than one per cent of the population but is three-and-a-half times the figure 12 years ago. And crucially it doesn’t factor in the increasing numbers of vegan-curious “flexitarians” experimenting with eating some plant-based meals rather than insisting on meat, eggs or cheese with our veg. Even Guinness has gone vegan, for goodness’ sake.

No surprise then, that the supermarkets have jumped on board, all of them playing the vegan card with their new launches this month. Milk-style drinks are their biggest sellers, with sales of over £200 million in 2016 and expected to hit nearly £300 million by 2021, but yogurt and ice cream are growth areas too – Ben and Jerry’s launched its first dairy-free range last year.

But how good are they? There’s certainly choice. A brief look at the supermarket websites revealed more than 50 vegan milk alternatives, including almond, hemp, oat, cashew, coconut, and rice.

There are sweetened and unsweetened versions, enriched this and free-from that, and even special “barista” versions blended to make better cappuccinos – not an unimportant point for a nation of tea and coffee drinkers, as some brands can curdle in hot drinks.

The main reasons for going vegan, according to the Veganuary statistics, are animal welfare, health, and in third place the environment. There’s little doubt that vegan is more animal-friendly than vegetarian, but much debate as to if the vegan dairy-style products are actually better for you than good old milk, butter and cream – the ingredients labels on many “plant-based” packs don’t make for comfortable reading. And sugar, the current food pariah, is unapologetically vegan.

The bottom line is, you can make good or bad choices however you eat – as long as you can afford the good choices, that is. Many of the vegan alternatives are not cheap, with some “milks” coming close to £4 a litre, compared with around 71p for the regular cow’s milk.

As for the third concern, though there are well-documented high environmental costs to animal rearing, the vegan alternatives are not without their issues. Almonds are a water-hungry crop, and most of the world’s harvest is grown in California. The state has only recently emerged from a six-year drought during which aquifers, vital for lakes and soil quality, have been depleted to feed the H2O-guzzling nuts

Soybeans have been blamed for deforestation, and in Asia there are concerns about working conditions for those extracting cashews from their caustic casings. Improvements are being made – Alpro, for example, now sources more than half of its soy beans from Europe – but as suppliers struggle to keep up with demand, the concerns are likely to grow. 

Xanthe Clay tasting vegan products with the help of Bristol chef Jen Williams

More to the point, how do they actually taste? I enlisted the help of Jen Williams, chef at Bristol’s Flow, to help me with a grand tasting. Flow is a cool little joint that happens to be vegetarian and vegan, serving up dishes like black rice arancini with damson and aubergine, so Williams knows her soy from her hempseed.  

We sipped and licked our way through 18 “milks” and a range of yogurts and ice creams as well. And, as Williams pointed out, there’s no one size fits all. Unlike milk, which (like it or not) is fairly standardised product in this country, the vegan drinks varied hugely.

Notably, they were almost all very sweet – even the ones that were labelled unsweetened. So a milk that was perfect for milk shakes would be cloying in tea, while a coconut version that would bring brilliant tropical flavours to a mango rice pudding, would be plain weird used in coffee. Here are the best from the 18 products we tried. 

Flow restaurant reopens after refurbishment in February,