Got (Soy) Milk?
by CLARENCE TING
I didn't know it then, but as a first grader twenty years ago I was way ahead of my time. While my Caucasian classmates were drinking Hi-C juice from little boxes, I was enjoying a beverage from a similarly sized white box with blue Chinese characters. My sister and I always knew it as wai-ta-nai: soy-milk. More specifically, Vitasoy soy-milk -- the same stuff my parents drank as children in Hong Kong. It's a thin white liquid with a flavor faintly reminiscent of soft tofu. Mostly though, it's just sweet and that's why I liked it.
"What's that?" my classmates would ask, pointing their fingers accusingly at my drink.
"It's, uh, soy-milk," I would say sheepishly and try to explain that it was really good and more importantly, really sweet.
I have been drinking soy-milk since I can remember: from the little boxes, from half gallon containers purchased in Asian markets and filled with fresh soy-milk, or from big bowls where it's served steaming hot as part of a northern-style Chinese brunch. In Chinese it's called dou jiang (literal translation: cream of beans). My mother said that bottles of it were delivered daily to people's homes when she was young and it was always much cheaper than cow's milk. I am certain that over a quarter of the world's population (namely Chinese folks) have been drinking the stuff for centuries. However, when I was trying to enlighten friends almost 20 years ago, tofu was still a novelty for most Americans, so a drink made from soybeans was probably viewed as equally unpalatable if not downright disgusting.
Almond milk? I'll admit, I was a little skeptical. After all, almonds are crunchy. How can you drink them?
How things have changed. Soy-milk, as we know it in the States, has become a common item on most grocery store shelves. Many of my friends who did not have the benefit of growing up in a Chinese household drink it regularly instead of milk. Many cafes in the Bay Area offer soy lattes and cappucinos, should a customer desire a bit of non-dairy foam. On average, a quart of soy-milk costs about twice as much as a quart of milk (excluding organic and lactaid varieties). It's a lucrative market. According to Spins, a San Francisco tracking firm that monitors market information for the natural food industry, the non-dairy beverage market, based on soy milk and rice beverages (rice drinks are the other big selling milk alternative) is growing at 20% a year. In 1998, sales equaled about $250 million. Milk might do a body good, but it seems that more and more people think soy-milk can do the same.
Aside from my culinary trail blazing years ago, there must be other factors that explain why increasing numbers are steering clear of dairy.
I knew from an early age that for some reason, milk was not really my friend. My mother tells me that when she was in the hospital shortly after my birth, the nurses were called away to the nursery on a code blue. It was me, choking on my own mucous. The pediatrician said I was extremely sensitive to things that caused congestion and recommended that my milk intake be limited. In kindergarten, while everybody else was drinking chocolate milk, I got fruit punch. At home I had milk in my Cheerios and with cookies, but I rarely drank the big glasses of milk that I'm sure would have given me a few more inches in height today.
I was not formally diagnosed as lactose intolerant, but I suspect that that might have been my diagnosis today. Clinically, lactose intolerance is the inability to metabolize lactose, the sugar found in milk. This is because the body no longer produces, or produces very little lactase, the enzyme that breaks lactose down into more simple sugars. After consuming milk, a lactose intolerant person might experience cramps, intestinal gas, nausea, or diarrhea.
"Lactose intolerance is the norm in probably 70% of adults," said Mary Mead, a registered dietician and lecturer at the Nutritional Sciences Department at UC Berkeley. "It's not a disease."
Mead said lactose intolerance is a normal part human development. "As milk is the only food for infant mammals, as an infant you would have a lot of lactase," she said. Adult gets more nutrients from a larger variety of foods, Mead said, which means they are no longer dependent on milk for things like protein or Vitamin D.
According to the American Dietetic Association, there is a high rate of lactose intolerance in certain ethnic groups. The ADA reports that 75 percent of African Americans and Hispanic Americans are lactose intolerant while Asian Americans have a 90 percent incidence rate. People of Northern European descent have the lowest rates of lactose intolerance, Mead said, because through generations of milk consumption the ability to digest milk has been genetically selected. But in a consumer information hotline, the ADA reports that between 30 and 50 million Americans are to some degree lactose intolerant.
Cow's milk is still considered to be a good source of calcium and protein by many dieticians, health advisories and, of course, the dairy industry. Aside from lactose intolerance, however, there are other reasons why people are opting for milk substitutes.
Some are allergic to casein, the protein found in milk. Others are concerned with the effects that bovine growth hormones in milk might have on their bodies. The fact that milk comes from cows makes it unappealing to many vegetarians and vegans who have eliminated animal products from their diets.
Clearly, there is a market for dairy alternatives.
Phil Bewley is the buyer in the packaged food department of Rainbow Grocery, a San Francisco health food store. He said that when he first began working at the store over 15 years ago, it sold the fresh soy-milk available at Chinese markets that I occasionally still drink. Bewley said customers thought it tasted too much like tofu and it sold poorly. In 1984, a soy beverage made by Eden Soy and packaged in six-ounce pouches was imported from Japan. That year it was the fastest selling item in the store. "It was a delicious product and really tasted like milk," Bewley said.
According to Bewley, Vitasoy soon followed Eden Soy's lead and introduced a soy drink for the health food market. Thankfully, Vitasoy still makes the little eight-ounce boxes with sugary liquid that come in regular and malt flavors. Alice Pacer, branch manager for Vitasoy USA said these original versions are still produced in Hong Kong and marketed to "ethnic" markets but are too sweet and taste too much like beans for the average American consumer.
In developing a product for the U.S., Pacer said, Vitasoy changed its recipe
to fit the palate of people raised drinking cow's milk. "Americans prefer
more of a masking of the beans and more of a milk flavor," she said. "We
tried to match the consistency of milk, the flow of milk, the milk feel."
I've always been somewhat of a hold out against Americanized soy-milk, being a purist and all. But I was eager to experience this "milk feel," so I purchased box of Vitasoy, the Creamy Original flavor. I poured it into a glass and over my granola. Out it came, its viscosity very much like whole milk, but in color it was more of an off-white or beige, which Pacer said is the natural color of the soybean. It was smooth and almost too creamy. The flavor was mellow, understated in its beaniness, with just a hint of sweetness in the aftertaste. Sugar is not even listed as one of the ingredients.
Today, Vitasoy and Eden soy share shelf space with a host of other brands that sell not only soy-milk, but rice, oat and the latest, almond milk. Recently, at Rainbow Grocery, I counted nine different brands of milk substitutes stored in quart sized aseptic boxes (so they do not have to be refrigerated until after they are opened). Some of the flavors I saw were plain, vanilla, chocolate, carob supreme, and rich cocoa. There was also a choice of light, enriched, and fortified versions that have all the nutrients and calcium in cow's milk but none of the lactose. Interestingly, the boxes read "soy drink" or "rice beverage", but the images on them were of milky stuff being poured into tall glasses or into bowls of cereal. There is no mistaking that these are being marketed as milk substitutes.
Phil Bewley said Rainbow has again started stocking fresh soy-milk due to the increased demand. I counted four different brands of fresh soy-milk including Colorado a brand called Silk which has a holiday product called Silk Nog. I was gratified to see a Chinese style (more tofu tasting) soy-milk made by Golden Gate of San Francisco still for sale.
Soy-milk might have been the first dairy alternative, but rice milk has become almost as popular. Personally, I prefer rice milk and consume it regularly. I find it lighter than soy-milk in texture and flavor. The natural sweetness that comes from the sugar of the brown rice used, and rice milk really wins me over.
When I did an informal survey of different grocery stores in San Francisco, including mainstream stores like Safeway, I found that they always stocked a couple of soy-milk brands like Vitasoy or West Soy and a rice beverage, Rice Dream.
Bewley said Rice Dream has become one of the big players in the non-dairy beverage market. "The advantage of rice is it's a little cheaper than soy and it's lower in fat," he said.
Ellen Weiser, corporate communications manager for Imagine Foods, which makes Rice Dream, said Rice Dream has been the top selling item in American natural food stores for the last five years. "Thirty-five percent of non-dairy buyers buy rice beverage," she said. "Rice dream is the best selling rice beverage and has the most recognizable name."
Weiser would not tell me how much Imagine Foods had made in sales of Rice Dream
or what the privately held company's net worth is, but she did say that Rice
Dream has given the company enough money to develop new products and expand
business. "In 1991 [about the time Rice Dream was introduced] we had about
six people working in sales and marketing," she said. "Now we have
The latest player on the non-dairy field is Blue Diamond, an almond company based in Northern California. The almond growers co-op, known more for selling cans of almonds with the slogan, "A can a week, that's all we ask," introduced a non-dairy almond beverage earlier this year called Almond Breeze. It's made from finely ground almonds. Predictably, it comes in original, vanilla and chocolate flavors and is fortified with calcium and Vitamins A, D and E. "A quart a day, that's all we ask," is the modified slogan.
Almond milk? I admit I was a little skeptical. After all, almonds are crunchy. How can you drink them down? I bought a box of almond milk made by an Oregon company called Pacific Foods which also makes soy and rice milk. Again, I poured myself a glass and also poured it over my granola. It was thin like 1% milk and the color was white and milky. The flavor? Well, it had a bit of almond nuttiness, but it was rather bland and watery. Perhaps in the future, I will sample a sweeter version like vanilla or chocolate.
So, what does the future hold for the non-dairy beverage industry?
Fittingly, it seems the road leads back to soy.
The FDA announced in October that it would authorize health claims on food labels about soy's role in reducing the risk of coronary heart disease. This is based on Agency studies that showed soy protein lowered blood cholesterol levels.
"Although the sales of soy are already increasing rapidly, we can expect
that the FDA-approved labeling will result in even faster sales growth,"
said Paddy Spence, CEO of Spins.
Ellen Weiser, of Imagine Foods said profits from sales of Rice Dream allowed the company to introduce its line of soy drinks recently, to take advantage of the increased awareness of soy and its health benefits. The new line is called Soy Dream.
Tony Plotkin, owner of Grainaissance, a Bay Area company that makes a sweet rice shake called Amizake, said his company is now working on a soy protein shake. "The promises of soy are phenomenal," Plotkin said. "In the '90s, the idea is just drink a little soy and you'll be fine."
I suppose as a sage first-grader, intuitively, I already knew this.
Wandering around Costco a couple weeks ago, I was curious to see if non-dairy drinks had penetrated American culture to the degree that they would be stocked in the most American of all shopping locals, the warehouse store. There was no Eden Soy or West Soy, no Rice Dream or Almond Breeze. What they did have was Vitasoy. But it wasn't the Americanized stuff loaded with cancer fighting isoflavones. Loaded on pallets stacked ten feet high, were six packs of the little white boxes with blue Chinese characters which I have adored since I was a child. Wa-ta-nai! Sweet!