Investigative food journalist Joanna Blythman has launched a stinging attack on “healthy alt-milks”. Blythman bemoans punters who pay extra for a latte made with soy, almond or some other substitute because they have been led to believe it’s the virtuous thing to do.
Blythman breaks down the manufacturing process for the vast majority of alternative milk products, and it’s not pretty. Large factories buy the ingredient highlighted in the product name – almond cashew, rice et al – often as a fine powder or in thick liquid form – which is then mixed with tap water. She makes the point that 85 to 95% of the product is tap water, but often these ingredients would naturally separate into a cloudy liquid with 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. Hyrdrocolloid gums are used to thicken the watery mixture, while industrial starches like maltodextrin are used to give the liquid a texture that resembles actual milk.
Typically, cost-effective oils such as rapeseed or sunflower oil are added to imitate the mouth-feel of milk while man-made vitamin and mineral powders are liberally sprinkled in to give a similar nutrition profile to actual milk. Without the tweaking, Blythman says these factory-made drinks would taste horrible – particularly soy – infamous throughout the processed food industry for its bitterness. To her they are the epitome of ultra-processed, fake food that she refuses to eat or drink.
Blythman goes further, pointing out that many of the ingredients used for ‘plant’ milks aren’t actually that great for the planet because they’re grown in unsustainable ways.
This comprehensive and fact-based smackdown of alt-milk reminded this writer – who is now admitting her age – of one of the most successful and memorable Australian dairy industry ad campaigns. Put your hand up if you remember the mechanical cow? Less-fact-based but you certainly get the message about the imitator!
Perhaps a more effective approach than trying to quarantine the word “milk” is to highlight just how highly processed these “alternatives” are. All they’re trying to do is mimic the real thing – and imitation is the sincerest flattery!