Taste-testing milk alternatives.

How to be the best consumer you can be.
Nov. 4 2003 11:54 AM

Got Lactaid?

Taste-testing milk alternatives.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Judging by the dairy case at the supermarket, ever-increasing numbers of Americans are settling back with tall, cool glasses of Not-Quite-Milk. Soy, rice, and lactose-free products occupy as much shelf space as, or more than, regular ol' cow juice. Recent concerns about the artificial growth hormones used in many dairy cows have increased the audience for ersatz milk beyond vegans, vegetarian eco-hippie types, those with milk allergies, and the lactose-intolerant. (A recent article in the Boston Globe looked at New England dairies that are capitalizing on the growth-hormone fear.) With more people turning to milk alternatives, I thought it was time to see which of these faux milks has the white stuff.

A cursory glance at the dairy section shows that, when it comes to variety, the milk-ternatives have caught up with their forebear: They're available in a range of fat contents and flavors, from skim, calcium enriched, and low fat, to chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, and almond. Still, the important question is: How do these things taste? And—perhaps most critically—can you dunk a cookie in them?

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To find out, I assembled a group of suckers—er, friends—to taste and rate the different types of fake milk. We ignored such trivial considerations as vitamins and calcium, focusing instead on taste, smell, appearance, and dunkability. (I've also included information on the cost of half-gallons, though price did not factor in our rankings.) We tasted every variety on the shelves at a Whole Foods in Los Angeles: three soy brands, one rice, two lactose-free, and, as a control, one regular milk from a local dairy (Ross Swiss). In order that the comparisons remain as apples-to-apples as possible, we tested only low-fat products. All of the drinks had three or four grams of fat per serving, except for the rice milk, which had two. All cookies were Chips Ahoy! (and all were delicious).

Three of the five panel members number among the 30 million to 50 million Americans who are lactose intolerant, including—that's right, ladies—this writer, so this wasn't our first experience with milk-that-ain't. (Being lactose intolerant differs from having a true milk allergy: The former means your body lacks the enzyme, lactase, that breaks down the sugar, lactose, in milk; the latter means your body reacts negatively to one or more proteins found in milk, such as casein or whey.) I constructed a blind taste test, though in a fit of compassion I secretly forewarned the most severely lactose-intolerant among us that the fourth cup would be the real milk. We rated the products on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being awful and 10 awe-inspiring, and averaged the scores. What follows is ourudderly authoritative guide to milk substitutes, from worst to first:

Vitasoy: Oy. $3.29.
Average Score: 2.2
Only hippies on a great high could mistake this beige ungodliness for milk. Vitasoy "strikes like a cobra," said one panelist, "wait[ing] tasteless for a second before violently attacking the tongue." Among the more positive comments: "It looks, smells, and tastes terrible."

Dunkability: "The taste actually breaks through the cookie. Don't do it."

Soy Dream: A nightmare. $3.29.
Average Score: 2.6
Soy Dream has the consistency of house paint, and it smells like "spackle," "cooking oil," and "vegetable stir fry." Testers compare its taste to "chalk" or "a root," but it's the drink's aftertaste—"like right before you vomit"—that earns particular enmity. Said one shell-shocked panelist: "Uh God. This is narsty."

Dunkability: "Completely overpowers the taste of the cookie."

Silk: Sick. $3.29.
Average Score: 3.6
Our highest-rated soy milk is as thick and yellowish as the rest, and, like the others, it definitely ain't milk—the adjectives coined to describe its taste included "vegetabley" and "rice cakeish." The most troubling comment: "I would feed this to a cat I didn't like." But Silk does receive (faint) praise from one panelist: "Drinkable, but does not taste like milk."

Dunkability: A split decision: "Actually makes the cookie worse." "Not bad with a cookie."