Taste-testing milk alternatives.
Rice Dream: Dream on. $3.29.
Average Score: 4.0
While this drink looks and smells like the real thing, it isn't. The consistency is superthin, ("white-colored water") and the taste is superpeculiar: "oaty, but not" and "plasticky" are among the attempts to describe its distinct—and distinctly nondairy—flavor.
Dunkability: "It just makes the cookie wet."
Organic Valley Lactose-Free: Tasty heights. $3.69.
Average Score: 7.4
It may not have any lactose, but it's still definitely milk. As one grateful panelist put it: "This doesn't taste like a vegetable at all!" The color, smell, and aftertaste are all milktacular, and though one panelist found it "a little too close to butter," another noted a "sweetness that I like." (Lactose-free milk is made by adding lactase enzymes to regular cow milk, which breaks lactose, a complex sugar, into two more-easily digested simple sugars. As such, people often comment that lactose-free milk is sweeter than regular milk, though it contains no added sugar. Note: Lactose-free milks often contain casein and/or whey, so the truly allergic should steer clear; it is also as likely to come from growth-hormone-injected cows as standard milk)
Dunkability: "Fits like a glove."
Milk: Ain't nothing like the real thing, baby. $2.19.
Average Rank: 7.8
Real milk—from a cow!—is greeted by the panel with relieved euphoria, though one panelist analogizes: "I can tell this is real milk, but after drinking soy and Lactaid for many years, it feels slightly off, like hooking up with your girlfriend's sister." Still, panelists rave: "This really hit the spot" and "Welcome home!"
Dunkability: "This is what dunking is about!"
Lactaid: Even better than the real thing. $1.99.
Average Rank: 8.4
Lactose-free Lactaid surprisingly outscored normal milk to take the crown. The color's "sort of green, looks a bit radioactive" but the taste is "thirst-quenching." Though panelists are divided on the sweetness—one found it "not too sweet," and another found it "a little too sweet"—its stratospheric score says it all. Two panelists put it simply and identically: "This one tastes the best." (It was the cheapest, too!)
Dunkability: "A good dunk. Adheres nicely to the cookie."
Conclusion: The nonmilk products didn't taste like milk, and they didn't taste good. Soy milk looks like eggnog and unfortunately tastes like what it is—soy juice. Rice milk gets the color right, but the consistency is too watery and the flavor is just plain bizarre. The soys' dismal showing surprised me because I know from experience that soy milk mixes nicely with other flavors. I'm personally a fan of chocolate soy milk, and if you substitute soy for dairy in a Starbucks drink, you'll barely notice the difference. Yet taken straight, "milk-flavored" soys were awful—and they fared poorly on the cookie-dunking test.
As for our winner, lactose-free milk can taste a bit sweeter than the normal stuff. (The taste varies among brands.) Some people prefer its sweetness, and others don't, but in the end, the difference is marginal: This is milk, and you can tell. In the end, milk substitutes are no substitute at all. Our findings are definitely discouraging for those who are allergic to milk and for anyone thinking about hopping on the dairy-free bandwagon—but, as they say, that's how the cookie crumbles.
Ben Wasserstein is an associate editor at New York magazine.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.