Is yours a tall soya double shot? Or maybe you prefer a short flat white with almond, a grande ‘skinny’ coconut and rice… or even oat? We are, of course, talking about the ‘alt-milk’ latte – a drink which, for a nation of supposed tea-lovers, has never been more in demand.
For the uninitiated, these are ordinary lattes – a single or double espresso coffee topped up with lashings of milk – but made with one of the myriad dairy-free alternatives available today.
According to recent research, Britons slurp down 930 million lattes every year – that’s more than 2.5 million cups a day. And a growing proportion of them are made with soya milk, or another substitute. Despite only five per cent of the population suffering adverse reactions to lactose in dairy, consumer demand for plant ‘milks’, which include soya, oat, almond and coconut, has soared by a third since 2015. High-street coffee chains have kindly obliged, with most now offering at least two dairy-free choices to add to your morning caffeine fix.
For the uninitiated, these are ordinary lattes – a single or double espresso coffee topped up with lashings of milk – but made with one of the myriad dairy-free alternatives available today. According to recent research, Britons slurp down 930 million lattes every year – that’s more than 2.5 million cups a day
But why the sudden thirst? Some suggest the soaring rise of veganism, increased concern for the environment and perceived health benefits are behind the surge.
Dr Carrie Ruxton, a dietician and nutrition writer who has a PhD in child nutrition, says: ‘A small number of people need to avoid dairy for medical reasons. But the popularity of soya milk and other alternatives comes largely from a misconception that dairy and meat are unhealthy or fattening, and that plant milks are somehow healthier than dairy because they’re made from plants. But they’re not.’
Another reason could be, quite simply, that these milk alternatives are extremely delicious. But, like many tasty treats, the secret behind this taste sensation lies in one toxic ingredient: sugar.
To find out exactly what’s in these alt-milk lattes, we examined what was on offer at leading coffee chains. And as we reveal here, the typical soya latte provides more than a quarter of your recommended daily limit of the sweet stuff.
These sugars aren’t always added: even if your barista claims the alt-milk they use is unsweetened, they can still be packed with sugar.
Even if that sugar is natural and not listed as added in the ingredients, it counts towards your daily recommended intake of 30g, or seven teaspoons.
In 2015, health officials set this benchmark – which represents five per cent of the daily calorie intake – in a bid to limit the damage high sugar consumption was having on our teeth and waistlines.
This limit specifically related to what are known as free sugars.
Free sugar is what we call any sugar added to a food or drink, or the sugar that is already in honey, syrup and fruit juice. The term free is used because this type of sugar is not attached to other compounds – such as fibre – in the food we eat.
Free sugars are a worry as they coat teeth, causing damage, and are rapidly absorbed by the body, meaning they are less satiating. The less full we feel after eating, the more likely we are to eat more.
While the sugars in unsweetened plant milks may be natural, they still count as free sugars.
This is because the manufacturing process breaks down the whole food, such as oats or coconut, that is used to make them, releasing the sugar inside so they become free.
It is a similar story with fruit juice, and this is why it is generally recommended to limit juice intake to a small 150ml glass a day.
There is natural sugar in dairy milk, but it doesn’t count as ‘free’ as it is bonded to other compounds and is not as damaging to teeth or absorbed by the body as quickly.
And – if all that wasn’t bad enough – the ways in which these seemingly healthy but highly processed alt-milks are made make them even less appetising, with flavourings, emulsifiers and even oil added to make them palatable.
So is it time to ditch the trendy soya and revert to good, old-fashioned dairy milk? Read on…
The default dairy latte is a semi-skimmed one at all major coffee shops, with the typical size (a tall at Starbucks, or a medio at Costa) being about 330 to 360ml
WHAT’S IN A TYPICAL SEMI-SKIMMED LATTE
Medium size, 330ml
Saturated fat 2.8g Sugars 12g
The default dairy latte is a semi-skimmed one at all major coffee shops, with the typical size (a tall at Starbucks, or a medio at Costa) being about 330 to 360ml.
This provides around 10g of protein – similar to half a small chicken breast, and enough to help control hunger for a few hours.
Just one latte counts as one of the two dairy portions we are recommended to eat daily and provides roughly 40 per cent of the recommended daily dose of bone-building calcium.
In a dairy latte, there is 95 per cent of our daily Vitamin B12 requirement, a vitamin that isn’t naturally in plant foods such as almonds and coconuts and helps fight tiredness and fatigue.
One dairy latte also provides more than half the daily requirement of iodine, which is vital for regulating metabolism.
And remember, natural milk sugars do NOT count towards your limit of 30g per day.
Soy milk latte tall
Saturated fat 0.2g
… AND HOW THE MILK ALTERNATIVES COMPARE
Opting for soy milk over semi-skimmed cow’s milk means that you are consuming 8.2g or two teaspoons of ‘free’ sugar per latte – that’s more than a quarter of the recommended limit of unhealthy sugars linked with tooth decay and obesity.
It won’t save you many calories either: only 24. On the plus side, it is fortified with B-vitamins, calcium and iodine, making it equivalent to cow’s milk in these nutrients. It also has added Vitamin D, essential for absorbing calcium and for strong bones.
Almond milk latte tall 355ml, £3.25
Saturated fat 0.3g
While this is the skinniest of all Starbucks’ lattes, it contains only a fifth of the protein in cow’s milk, meaning it’s unlikely to be appetite-curbing. An extra one-and-a-half teaspoons of added sugar come courtesy of Starbucks’ sweetened almond milk, equating to over a fifth of your daily free sugars recommendation.
It’s fortified with calcium, but not iodine or B12 – crucial for optimum brain function and digestion – which vegans can struggle to obtain.
Oat milk latte tall 355ml, £3.25
Oat milk latte tall 355ml, £3.25
Saturated fat 4.3g
One to avoid if you’re weight-watching, it contains an extra 69 calories and more saturated fat than semi-skimmed choices, probably due to the extra fats such as rapeseed oil.
Contributing to the calorie increase is a whopping 17.8g of sugar provided by the oat milk – half of what you find in a can of Coke – which makes up 59 per cent of your daily free sugars total.
The lack of added calcium and Vitamin B12 means that cow’s milk is far superior.
On the plus side, there’s an impressive 5.3g of fibre in the oat milk, more than a sixth of the recommended daily intake of 30g, including beta glucan – a type of fibre that helps to lower cholesterol.
Coconut milk latte tall 355ml, £3.25
Saturated fat 7.2g
The coconut milk option is less calorific but provides almost 90 per cent less protein than the dairy version, increasing hunger pangs. It is also devoid of the calcium and B12 in cow’s milk, and is 5g higher in saturated fat, linked with high cholesterol and heart disease.
This is typical of many coconut extracts, such as oil and cream, as they have a higher percentage of saturated fat than butter and lard.
This latte delivers more than a third of the daily 20g recommended daily limit of saturated fat and a quarter of your daily limit of free sugars.
Soy milk latte grande 330ml, £2.65
Soy milk latte grande 330ml, £2.65
Saturated fat 0.7g
As with all soy lattes across the big chains, this contains soy milk that’s sweetened – with concentrated apple extract in this case – providing nearly a quarter of your total daily limit of free sugars. That more than offsets the benefits of the small 13 calorie saving. This one is at least fortified with calcium, though.
Coconut milk latte grande 330ml, £3.05
Saturated fat 0.5g
Coconut milk varies greatly in the amount of saturated fat it contains, depending on how much actual coconut there is in it: the more coconut, the higher the sat fat.
This contains a surprisingly low 0.5g – more than 90 per cent less than the Starbucks version. But the low saturated fat is outweighed by the excess ‘free’ sugar; two teaspoons per drink and almost a third of your 30g a day limit.
Oat milk latte grande 330ml, £3.05
Saturated fat 0.5g
This isn’t sweetened, but still contains as much sugar as two marshmallow sweets. It comes naturally from the oats, but is still classified as ‘free’ sugar.
For the same number of calories as a dairy milk drink, you’ll get only a tenth of the protein. However, oat milk does supply beta glucan fibre that helps to lower cholesterol and protects against bowel cancer, and this is fortified with calcium, so it’s not all bad.
Soy milk latte medio 364ml, £2.75
Soy milk latte medio 364ml, £2.75
Foods containing 25g or more of soy protein have been shown in studies to reduce cholesterol.
But in order to benefit, drinkers would have to consume at least two drinks (and excess calories).
Costa uses soya milk that is sweetened with apple extract – free sugar by another name – providing two teaspoons per cup, the equivalent of two chocolate digestive biscuits. On the plus side, you will get calcium, Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D from this brew thanks to fortification.Coconut milk latte medio 364ml, £3.20
This has more than 5g less saturated fat than Starbucks’ coconut latte because a lower percentage of actual coconut – which is made up of 25 per cent saturated fat – is used in the drink.
This is fortified with calcium, but has two-and-a half teaspoons of free sugars – the same as in a large (60g) bowl of Coco Pops, and half the protein of a cow’s-milk or soy latte.
Soy milk latte regular 330ml, £2.45
Soy milk latte regular 330ml, £2.45
Saturated fats 1g
Pret uses calcium-fortified soy milk, but apple juice is used to sweeten it. This means you’ll get one-and- a-half teaspoons of free sugars per latte, which is less than in the soy lattes from Starbucks, Caffè Nero and Costa, but still a fifth of your daily limit.
Rice-coconut milk latte regular 360ml, £2.85
Saturated fat 1.8g
This has the second- highest sugar content of all the lattes. The combination of coconut and rice milk (made using rice that is soaked and then strained) means that it contains a whopping four teaspoons of naturally-occurring, but ‘free’, sugars.
This constitutes almost half of the recommended daily limit.
The rice-coconut is also unfortified, so it’s not comparable with dairy lattes on calcium content.
The low-protein, high-sugar combination is poor when it comes to satisfying hunger.
You can expect to feel a fleeting lift from the caffeine and sugar before hunger quickly kicks in – a result of the sugar causing spikes and then dips, in blood sugar.
Those trendy milks are the ultimate FAKE FOOD
Joanna Blythman – author and food journalist
Non-dairy ‘milks’? As a seasoned investigative food journalist, I wouldn’t touch them with a bargepole.
So I’m sorry to see that people are forking out more for them than dairy milk. Coffee chains typically charge an extra fee if you want a latte made with an alt-milk – because we’ve been led to believe they’ll make us healthier, and that buying them is more virtuous.
Let’s look at how the vast majority of milk lookalikes are made.
Large factories buy the ingredient highlighted in the product name – such as almond, cashew, rice, oats, soy, coconut or hemp – in a processed form, often as a fine powder or in a thick liquid form. They mix small amounts of these with lots of water, usually straight from the tap.
In fact, 85 to 95 per cent of what you’re paying for is tap water. But water and the drier ingredients would naturally separate out, leaving a cloudy liquid with powdery sediment. So to make the mixture look more like real dairy milk, and imitate its natural consistency and texture, a range of high-tech ingredients and chemical food additives – thickeners, emulsifiers, stabilisers – go into the mix.
Manufacturers also typically add what’s known as hydrocolloid gums, such as xanthan and gellan, to slightly thicken this watery mixture. These gums are made by fermenting a starchy food with bacteria. Not only that, but often an industrially produced starch called maltodextrin is used to help give the liquid a body and consistency that more resembles milk.
Usually, heavily refined oils, typically rapeseed (the cheapest commodity oil used in food and drink manufacturing), or sometimes sunflower oil, are added to imitate the mouth-coating consistency that naturally occurring fat gives dairy milk.
Then, to imitate the rich nutrition of true milk, ‘plant’ milk companies often add a sprinkling of man-made vitamin and mineral powders such as Vitamin B12 and calcium.
Chemical preservatives are also mixed in as they extend the shelf life of food well beyond its natural lifespan.
It’s a complicated procedure but still does not add up to a recipe for deliciousness.
Without further tweaking, these watery, factory-created drinks wouldn’t taste good, particularly those made with soy, which is infamous throughout the processed food industry for its bitterness.
This is why many companies add synthetic flavourings, along with salt and sugar, to improve palatability. For me, such trendy white liquids – I refuse to call them milk – are a perfect example of the ultra-processed, fake food that I won’t eat or drink. Also, many of the ingredients used for ‘plant’ milks aren’t great for the planet because they’re grown in unsustainable ways.
Soy, for instance, is commonly grown on vast plantations where the crop is sprayed with pesticides, while most of the almonds used in almond milk are imported from California where this thirsty crop is contributing to water shortages.
There are smaller brands that try to be superior by having fewer additives, and we should take the ingredients they list on their packaging at face value. But I prefer my food to come from fields, not factories, and I’m sticking with dairy.
I accept that factory farming causes great suffering to dairy cows, but not all milk production is cruel. I wish vegans would stop spreading ‘scary dairy’ stories that fail to draw this crucial distinction between wretched factory farmed dairy cows, and traditional, grass-based dairying.
Militant vegans argue that cows are pumped full of growth hormones, but this practice is banned in the UK and Europe.
Other fake news includes warnings that drinking milk makes you fat. A comprehensive review of the scientific facts presented at this year’s European Congress on Obesity concluded that this is false. Other recent research has found that drinking milk reduces your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Personally, I’m happy to pay a bit more for organic milk, or milk that comes with the Pasture Promise label, which is available in Asda. They both guarantee that cows are free-range, grazing outdoors for at least six months of the year.
If I were allergic or intolerant to cow’s milk, I’d swap to goat’s milk. If that didn’t work, I’d start making my own non-dairy ‘milk’ in a blender – there are many recipes online. It would taste infinitely better than the fashionable ‘plant’ milks on the market and cost a fraction of the price.