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Beans and Nuts and Grains, Oh, My!: Non-Dairy Chocolate “Milk”
Soybeans, almonds, and rice have been part of the human diet for millennia. What enterprising spirit first looked at any of these foods and thought that they might give off a liquid pleasant to drink? I look at them now and can’t imagine how that happened. But somewhere along the line, it did. Somewhere further down that line, someone else decided to flavor them with chocolate. The rise of vegetarianism/veganism, rejection of large-scale commercial dairy products, and prevalence of food allergies/intolerances have helped these products become more popular. As a result, there is now a broad selection of non-dairy chocolate “milks” available. But how do they taste? I sampled a baker’s dozen of chocolate and carob non-dairy “milks”. My report is below.
No Livestock Required
Most people are aware of the existence of soymilk, even if they haven’t tried it. And the majority of the non-dairy chocolate milks you’ll find are made from soybeans. However, there are also chocolate milks made from almonds, rice, and hemp nuts. I know that other non-dairy milks are made from hazelnuts and oats, but I did not see any chocolate versions of either on store shelves.
Cocoa powder is the chocolate flavor source of choice for non-dairy chocolate beverages, although at least one tasted (Pacific Natural Foods Organic Low Fat Almond Milk) also contains chocolate. Cocoa is easier to transport and store, less temperature-sensitive, less costly, lower in fat than actual chocolate, and will usually stay in suspension in a non-dairy beverage. This means that the beverage you consume will be smooth, without small lumps of undissolved cocoa powder, and that the dissolved cocoa solids will (hopefully) not all sink to the bottom of the glass. You’ll see that almost all non-dairy chocolate milks caution you to shake them well before drinking; this is good advice!
There is an alternative to cocoa powder or chocolate as a chocolate flavor source, and that is carob. Carob is an evergreen of Mediterranean origin. It produces a pod, which, with sufficient processing, is sometimes used as a substitute for chocolate. One non-dairy carob milk was sampled in this survey.
Is Soy Unhealthy?
After years of seeing reports on the cruelty of the large-scale dairy industry and accounts of the various ways in which dairy is “unhealthy” or “unnatural” for human consumption, I’m now seeing accounts claiming that soy is “unhealthy”. Frankly, I’m inclined to regard all such “studies” with a raised eyebrow or two. My advice? Follow the money! If you see a report like this, find out just who funded that study. For example, if a coalition of dairy producers provided the money for a study on any negative effects of soy on human hormone levels, or a study on how drinking three glasses of milk per day can cut cancer risk, think twice about the results. Similarly, if the study was conducted on only 250 subjects that were followed for a short period of time, are the results truly significant for the population at large? Maybe the old adage about consuming everything in moderation, tedious as it may be, is the way to go.
What is true is that some people’s systems cannot handle soybeans. Some people also can’t tolerate dairy products, so the various milks made from rice or almonds or hemp nuts or other sources can be very useful.
Vegetarian or Vegan?
If you are unaware of the term “vegan”, it refers to someone who consumes no animal products. As is the case with vegetarianism, there are different degrees of veganism; some vegans are more strict about the practice than others. For instance, there are vegans (and, for all I know, vegetarians, too) who will not consume honey, branding it as bee slavery. There is considerable debate on whether some brands of non-dairy chocolate milks are indeed vegan. Some non-dairy milks claim that they are vegan, but some vegans dispute those claims. If this is of concern to you, check the product’s ingredient list and/or contact the company. You’ll have to do your own research.
Whether you drink dairy milk or not, it is a nutritious food. Milk contains significant quantities of calcium, phosphorus, riboflavin, potassium, protein, and other nutrients. Non-dairy milks can also be quite nutritious, but don’t expect them to have exactly the same nutrient content as dairy milk. None will contain lactose (milk sugar) and, because all are from a plant source, none should contain cholesterol. However, some non-dairy milks are heavily fortified to increase their vitamin and/or mineral content, while some are not. Some contain naturally-occurring health benefits. For instance, Good Karma Organic Ricemilk contains at least 8 grams of whole grains per serving (out of a recommended daily intake of at least 48 grams). Living Harvest Chocolate Hempmilk provides both Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids along with other nutrients. Decide what’s important to you, and check labels to make sure you’re getting it.
One question that arises with non-dairy chocolate milks, as well as most other foods these days, is their sugar content. Currently, sugar is a major dietary villain (a belief to which I do not altogether subscribe). Consider, though, that a “milk” made from grains or nuts and flavored with cocoa (not sweet in and of itself) is probably going to require something to make it palatable, especially if children will be drinking it. As a benchmark, plain whole cows’ milk contains about 12 grams of sugars in eight ounces, although a chocolate milk would contain more. The sweetened non-dairy chocolate milks I tried for this article contained between 14 and 26 grams of sugars per eight ounce serving. While some of that sweetening was in the form of evaporated cane juice, it’s still sugar.
At least two manufacturers of non-dairy chocolate milk, recognizing an opportunity when they see one, produce unsweetened versions of their non-dairy chocolate milks. Westsoy Unsweetened Chocolate Soymilk contains but 1 gram of sugars per eight ounce serving, while Blue Diamond, perhaps banking on the natural sweetness of almonds, offers an Almond Breeze Unsweetened Chocolate Almond Milk, with zero grams of sugars per eight ounces. At least one other brand, Soy Slender Chocolate Soymilk, uses sucralose (Splenda®) as a sweetener, resulting in less than 1 gram of sugar per eight ounce portion (this product was not tried for the taste test).
A Grain of Salt
Are you watching your sodium intake? Unsweetened, unflavored, whole cows’ milk contains about 125 mg of sodium in an eight ounce serving. The non-dairy milks I tasted had sodium levels all over the board, ranging from a low of 30 mg in eight ounces to a high of 190 mg in the same portion size. If sodium content is a factor for you, check the product label before purchase.
The Big Question
I purchased my non-dairy milks from local stores. Natural food stores often have an entire section devoted to shelf-stable versions of these products, but make sure you look in the dairy case, too. Some manufacturers make non-dairy milks that must be kept refrigerated, and even the shelf-stable non-dairy milks instruct you to serve them chilled and to refrigerate after opening.
The most important aspect of these evaluations is that they are just my opinions. No formal taste panels, no survey with a significant number of test subjects, just my little ol’ taste buds. A lot of people will have different opinions; that’s fine.
I sampled these milks over a period of several days. There was no category “crossover”; that is, I sampled only within one category at any one sitting. Within a category, products were sampled in the order in which they were purchased. I always waited a minimum of five minutes between sampling different products (accompanied by eating neutrally-flavored crackers and drinking water), and I never tried more than three of these products in one sitting. All products were chilled for a minimum of 12 hours before sampling, and all samples were taken from freshly-opened cartons. All, too, were consumed at least two months prior to expiration date. Non-dairy chocolate milks were evaluated for color, aroma, texture, and taste. The one big question for me regarding any of these non-dairy milks? Whether I would voluntarily drink the product again.
Sweetened Non-Dairy Chocolate Milks:
---Blue Diamond Natural Almond Breeze Almond Milk (Chocolate), Very mild chocolate aroma. Pleasant, mild chocolatey flavor, albeit a bit sweet for me. 8 ounce serving: 120 calories (25 from fat), 150 mg sodium, 20 g sugars. Would I drink it again? Yes.
---Natur-a Organic Soymilk (Chocolate), Distinct “nutty” aroma. Flavor begins as relatively neutral, then turns to a short-lived chocolate pudding taste. Smooth, with a slight aftertaste (not unpleasant). 8 ounce serving: 160 calories (50 from fat), 135 mg sodium, 17 g sugars. Would I drink it again? Yes.
---Rice Dream Rice Drink Carob Classic, More the color of coffee than of chocolate milk. No noticeable aroma. No taste of chocolate/cocoa at all. Odd, earthy unpleasant aftertaste. 8 ounce serving: 150 calories (25 from fat), 80 mg sodium, 26 g sugars. Would I drink it again? No.
---Good Karma Organic Ricemilk (Chocolate), Some chocolate aroma. Mild chocolate taste with an equally mild sweetness. Quite pleasant. 8 ounce serving: 120 calories (25 from fat), 190 mg sodium, 19 g sugars. Would I drink it again? Yes.
---Living Harvest Chocolate Hempmilk, Strong aroma of hemp. Slight chocolate taste completely overwhelmed by a vigorous green/chlorophyll presence and aftertaste. 8 ounce serving: 150 calories (45 from fat), 120 mg sodium, 24 g sugars. Would I drink it again? No.
---ZenSoy Soy on the Go Chocolate Soymilk, Medium to deep chocolatey color. Almost no aroma. Too sweet, with a cocoa aftertaste. 8 ounce serving: 165 calories (34 from fat), 155 mg sodium, 20 g sugars (figures extrapolated from an 8.25 ounce single-serving carton). Would I drink it again? No.
---Silk Chocolate Soymilk, Deep chocolate color, with almost no aroma. Rather sweet, with some chocolate taste. 8 ounce serving: 145 calories (29 from fat), 97 mg sodium, 20 g sugars (figures extrapolated from an 8.25 ounce single-serving carton). Would I drink it again? Yes.
---Edensoy Organic Chocolate Soymilk, Faint soy aroma. Less sweet-tasting than others. Faint chocolate flavor with a definite soy aftertaste. 8 ounce serving: 171 calories (33 from fat), 104.5 mg sodium, 14 g sugars (figures extrapolated from an 8.45 ounce single-serving carton). Would I drink it again? No.
---Pacific Natural Foods Organic Low Fat Chocolate Almond Milk, Slight chocolate aroma. Initial chocolate-sweet flavor fades to mild sweetness, with an almost nutty aftertaste. 8 ounce serving: 100 calories (25 from fat), 140 mg sodium, 16 g sugars. Would I drink it again? Yes.
“Light” Non-Dairy Chocolate Milks:
---Vitasoy All Natural Lite Plus Soymilk (Chocolate), Vaguely chocolate aroma. Very little flavor at all, slight sweetness, very faint chocolate taste. 8 ounce serving: 100 calories (20 from fat), 140 mg sodium, 14 g sugars. Would I drink it again? No.
---Silk Light Chocolate Soymilk, Not much aroma or taste. Very slight chocolate and sweet flavor. 8 ounce serving: 120 calories (15 from fat), 100 mg sodium, 19 g sugars. Would I drink it again? Probably not.
Unsweetened Non-Dairy Chocolate Milks:
---Blue Diamond Natural Almond Breeze Unsweetened Almond Milk (Chocolate), Very pale color, with a very faint chocolate aroma. No chocolate flavor; salty-tasting and flat. 8 ounce serving: 45 calories (30 from fat), 180 mg sodium, 0 g sugars. Would I drink it again? No.
---Westsoy Unsweetened Chocolate Soymilk, Very pale in color, with just a trace of a chocolate aroma. Slightly chalky consistency. Unpleasant flavor with a faintly bitter aftertaste. 8 ounce serving: 100 calories (40 from fat), 30 mg sodium, 1 g sugars. Would I drink it again? No.
Stephanie (firstname.lastname@example.org) has had a strong affinity for chocolate from a very early age. Family members claim that, as a child, she was able to hear chocolate being opened in the kitchen no matter where she was in the house. Stephanie was baking by the time she was 6 and ran a short-lived baking business out of her parents’ kitchen when she was in high school. She has a Master’s Degree in Foods from Virginia Tech but no formal training in cooking or baking. Consequently, she is a home cook, not a chef. Prior to beginning this column, she had written about chocolate for some 8 years.