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."

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.

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