Milk is quite capricious. Tackling plant-based mylks can seem overwhelming.
The process of making them is simple. For example, almond milk can be made at home by straining the soaked nuts, adding some water, grinding and straining. Trouble starts within a few hours. No matter how finely or for how long the almonds are ground, the solid particles tend to settle at the bottom. In the meantime, try pouring an acidic mixture such as coffee and this yogurt.
To prevent curdling, manufacturers add alkaline salts such as calcium carbonate (INS 170) or baking soda (INS 500 ii) to help counteract the acidity. To prevent sediment from settling, they use stabilizers such as locust bean gum (which contains large, branched molecules) to keep the acacia particles suspended in the water.
Even something as simple as foam has to be engineered. Regular milk contains whey protein which, when heated to about 70 °C, unfolds and tends to hold air bubbles. Plant-based milk does not contain that protein. Therefore manufacturers must add fats such as vegetable oil or emulsifiers such as dipotassium phosphate (E340ii). Similarly, for plant-based butter, oil and water should be mixed in a ratio of 80:20 for a creamy, spreadable texture. But oil and water do not mix unless held together by an emulsifier.
Between the emulsifiers, stabilizers, and acidity regulators, it can feel like there’s no way to get a clean sip, spread, or bite into this category.
But that’s only because these vegetarian foods are so new to the market. Companies are already innovating for cleaner solutions. Coca-Cola now offers an almond mylk line called Simply, in which the almonds are broken down so finely that only the nanoparticles remain suspended in the liquid, eliminating the need for stabilizers.
A UK company called Alt Milk has been able to increase the almond content from around 3% to 15% on average, so that baristas can use the natural fat from almonds to froth coffee without any additional emulsifiers. It will take time for these innovations to reach the mass market, but the good news is that the technology is here.
Even vegan cheese is improving, and cheese is perhaps the most complex milk product to replicate. Most commercial plant-based cheeses are made using starch (often sago or potato), oils, and emulsifiers. These help them mimic the melt factor of regular cheese. But not all dairy cheeses are created equal. For example, a mozzarella melts because of the casein proteins in milk, which cross-link with calcium to form long fibers when heated. Processed cheese slices achieve their melting ability by blending them into whey, but then emulsifying salts such as sodium citrate and preservatives must be added to prolong shelf life.
Instead of copying these methods, some vegan-cheese producers are taking inspiration from the traditional methods used to make fermented soy products such as miso. They are using time, temperature control and different bacterial cultures to develop exciting vegan cheese flavours.
I am very optimistic. After all, there was a time when ketchup couldn’t be manufactured without the preservative sodium benzoate. Then HJ Heinz tinkered with pH levels, created sterile factory floors and cracked the code on shelf-stable ketchup without chemical additives. It is about 1906. Today we can certainly expect to see similar advances in plant-based foods.