Exploring the Wild World of Milk Alternatives

It appears as though a lunatic toddler is planning a bender in my kitchen. My eight-foot-long cherrywood island is a fracas of milk—containers and cartons and glass jugs and tins of powder illustrated with mammals that aren’t cows. Behind them is a jumble of brightly printed Tetra Paks filled with extrusions of grains and nuts and tubers and seeds.

A single container of cow’s milk stands, somewhat awkwardly, alone. Why? Because cow’s-milk consumption in this country has plummeted—7 percent in 2015, an 11 percent further drop expected by 2020—and I’m about to taste my way through the wild and woolly world of alternatives. Almond milk may be the lait du moment, having seen sales in this country rise 250 percent from 2012 to 2015. But I have assembled soy, rice, cashew, coconut, macadamia, and pea. I have convened camel, sheep, horse, and goat. I could have gathered many more—a cause for some celebration. Cow’s milk is appallingly resource-intensive to produce, and its reputation as a nutritional mainstay has eroded to near-shibboleth status. Controversial reports have linked it to autism and multiple sclerosis. Noncontroversial ones have drawn connections to aggravating other autoimmunities. In the quantities we have long been advised to consume it, cow’s milk can create unwanted bacterial inflammation in our gut flora. And tests in T. Colin Campbell’s China Study showed that caseins, which make up the largest group of protein in milk, turned on cancer-gene expression on rats. Turned it on? Like a light switch, it seems.

I myself am among the lactose intolerant—a group whose symptoms were recorded long ago by Hippocrates, Galen of Pergamon, and in the early 1900s by a Swedish doctor named Wernstedt, who suggested our condition be named “idiosyncrasy.” I share my idiosyncrasy with 65 to 70 percent of adults worldwide. Meanwhile, my sixteen-month-old suffers from a cow’s-milk allergy—probably to its proteins, though it’s impossible to discern—and for the year I nursed him, a soupçon of cow, goat, or sheep dairy in my diet triggered days of tortured squalling.

Alternatives to cow’s milk aren’t new. Almond milk in particular dates back to the thirteenth century but is probably more ancient. It is the main ingredient of that shape-shifting Arab dish of almonds, rosewater, and capon that became blancmange. The Chinese have been drinking soy milk since at least 82 A.D.

What is new is the sheer number and variety of substitutes. Which leaves one wondering—what qualifies as “milk”? It is a question hotly debated in the halls of Congress. The dairy industry has lobbied for its description— “lacteal secretion . . . obtained by the complete milking of one or more hoofed mammals”—but they’re up against history and etymology. Milch, in Middle High German, was simply affixed to animals that produced it, not all of them hoofed—as in “milch camels” from Genesis 32:15. And my 1913 Webster’s Unabridged provides “1. A white fluid secreted by the mammary glands of female mammals. . . . 2. A kind of juice or sap, usually white in color, found in certain plants. . . . 3. An emulsion made by bruising seeds; as, the milk of almonds. . . . 4. The ripe, undischarged spat of an oyster.” David Katz, M.D., founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, whom I contact for help, more or less shrugs. “Milk is named for the role it plays in diets,” he says, “just as burgers are called burgers, whatever they are made from.”

Earth is home to more than 5,000 species that produce milk—too many to try, so I must begin winnowing. Hooded-seal milk, I learn, is over 60 percent fat—akin to clotted cream. Whale milk is about half as rich. Reindeer milk, 23 percent. Buffalo, from which the best mozzarella comes, is over 10 percent. These all sound delicious, but milking seals and whales is an organizational nightmare. Plus, none of these milks has been shown to have any special health or environmental benefits, so why bother?

Donkey’s milk, on the other hand, has a great following in European circles, particularly in the allergic community. Pope Francis was apparently raised on it. Pierluigi Orunesu, founder of a Swiss-based company named Eurolactis—the name sounds like a nemesis from a James Bond film—tells me that donkey’s milk is near-identical to human milk and hypoallergenic. Plus it was the secret of ancient beauties—including Cleopatra, Poppaea Sabina, and Napoleon’s sister Pauline, who all bathed in it.

It allegedly fights psoriasis and eczema. Lait de jument—mare’s milk—comes with similar claims. I order some, in powder form, from a French company under the expressive portmanteau Chevalait. I learn from the evangelical CEO of the Camel Milk Cooperative that milch camels produce a universal elixir, one that has been shown to help prevent diabetes, ameliorate symptoms of autism, and can be digested without trouble by lactose-intolerant children. Camel’s milk contains five times the vitamin C of cow’s milk and plenty of immune-boosting immunoglobulins. I order six pints—$12 per. I also find camel colostrum from a company called Camilk, for $70 an eight-ounce bottle. It contains stratospheric levels of immune boosters, plus high concentrations of vitamins B and D. I vacillate, brooding about the well-being of newborn camels robbed of colostrum. By the time I muster the coldheartedness, Camilk is sold out. (I later receive an email from the company explaining that it sells only unused, excess colostrum from camel mothers.) I get sheep’s milk from a creamery called Haverton Hill in California and goat’s milk from Windsor, Vermont.

For plant milks, I withdraw to the store of a local biodynamic farm and let boxes fall into my shopping cart like dominoes. More nut and grain milks arrive over the following days—from California, Connecticut, Sweden, Queens. I also get a Joyoung soy-milk maker with timer ($229) and a SoyaJoy soy-milk and soup maker ($130)—in case homemade turns out to be best. (For the record, for only $497 one can purchase a Happybuy electric milking machine for cows and sheep. It is a beautiful royal blue and has a 1,440 RMP piston.)

Once I’ve chilled the animal milks and mixed the milks that have arrived en poudre, it is finally time to taste. There is no formal model for this—does one need a spittoon? Does one rinse glasses between rounds? And how to cleanse one’s palate? I settle on a new glass for each sip, and instead of soda crackers, I supply a very large plate of chocolate-chip sea-salt cookies. I corral my husband and an innocent couple who are spending the weekend in our guesthouse.

Everyone perches on stools and regards the first sample: store-bought soy. We’ve decided to rate each as one would wine, by appearance, aroma, and taste. I’ve added a column for nutritional content. From our notes the soy is “milky, creamy, a little brown, with likable viscosity, not too leggy.” It smells “nice, lightly sweet.” The taste: “a little sweet, a little vegetal. Like food.” The homemade version brings to mind a wonderful healing broth—and I momentarily wonder why we ever milked anything but soy. Almond milks—six different ones—are next. I immediately wish for a spittoon. One, blended with pistachios and hazelnuts, from an Italian company called Mand’Or, includes 23 grams of sugar per serving—more than half a can of Coke. The Blue Diamond brand almond milk (which I bought unthinkingly for my twelve dairy-free months of nursing) is “grayish,” “smelly,” and “tastes like salty wastewater.” Quinoa milk is muddy, thin, and reminiscent of the liquid left in the pot after cooking quinoa. Tiger nut—not a nut but a little sedge tuber—is very sweet and very beige, with tiny particles floating throughout and a faint savor of rubber. Flax milk (“pearly white,” “appropriately thick”) is tasteless. This offends my husband, who likes to sew. “Who would do this to flax?” he asks. “Just make linen.” The wife of my captive couple perceives of a mouthful of hemp milk: “a prominent, insistent absence.” Macadamia milk is “sour and terrible,” but Ripple’s Original pea milk “tastes nothing of pea,” is “delicious,” and has an impressive nutritional profile. Oatly oat milk divides us, but its lead supporter (me) is vocal. Dirty glasses pile in the sink, itself aswirl with white, looking, through my milk drunkenness, like an Andy Golds­worthy installation of ephemeral art.

I pour walnut milk from a Queens-based dairy called Elmhurst. “Brown like chocolate milk,” I write, smells “amazing,” “like maple syrup,” and and tastes “incredible.” It prompts the best notes of the afternoon. Horse’s milk is roundly rejected as better for making bath soap. But goat’s milk, tasting like fresh chèvre, is very good. Donkey’s milk, that nectar of popes, has a pleasant barley aroma (once the scent of tin blows off), is incredibly sweet, and conjures, for one florid reviewer, “earth milk.” (Donkey’s-milk “Nutella,” sent to me as a gift by Orunesu, is delightful.) Camel’s milk is luminescent, as though lit from within, and salty as lassi and immediately vitalizing.

With my husband and guests contorted on or under furniture, seemingly unable to move, I tally results. Five milks rise to the top like Jersey cream: Ripple pea milk, Oatly oat milk, donkey’s, sheep’s, and camel’s milks. (Oat milk, it should be noted, is not as nutritious as cow’s milk. Pea milk is close. Pea protein is not complete but seems to produce as near a nutritional substitute to cow’s milk as plants can.) I attempt to persuade my tasters to try reviving lattes made with the finalists, but my husband needs to run a sudden errand. Our houseguests consider cutting their weekend short.

Which is fine, because a better way to appreciate a milk than latte is a traditional béchamel—milk lightly thickened by a roux—used to sauce a classic gratin. I get back to work. Five little flour and butter roux become five carefully labeled béchamels. As I sauce five gratins de pâtes aux herbes et chanterelles (baked noodles with mushrooms), the kitchen fills with tantalizing and unfamiliar aromas. My tasters reassemble, and we go through them one at a time. The oat-milk gratin is unsettlingly empty. We set it aside. A gratin made with pea milk tastes as though it was made with milk from a cow. The innate sweetness of donkey’s milk produces something that tastes conclusively like the Jewish pudding called noodle kugel—fine if that is what you’re after. The sheep’s-milk gratin is divine, but, I recall, sheep’s milk has all of the allergens of cow’s milk.

Best of all is the camel’s-milk gratin, which has a musky, desert-wind quality. It reminds me of a yogurt dish I once ate in a cave in Cappadocia. Next time I plan to serve it with a tangle of fried onions on top, as they would in Turkey. My imagination gets the better of me, and I begin to fantasize about salty camel yogurt, herbed camel ice cream, perhaps dolloped on camel risotto. My reverie is cut short by a reminder of my lactose intolerance. Better not, I think, sighing. I surrender my serving of camel (with its trace amount of lactose) and content myself with a gratin of noodles and pea.

Exploring the Wild World of Milk Alternatives

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