Horchata is a name for various plant milk beverages that have a similar taste and appearance. Most people know they’re usually made with plant milks, but if you’ve been vegan for any length of time, you know that there are plenty of ways manufacturers sneak animal-derived ingredients into otherwise vegan food products.
Is it vegan? The traditional horchata recipe is vegan. However, like with many food products, some horchata is vegan, and other formulations are not. The traditional recipe calls for plant milk (typically from tiger nuts), but many manufacturers use milk (actual dairy) products.
So, in general, this food product is fairly vegan-friendly. But, you’ll have to scan the ingredients panel (or check the restaurant’s website if ordering at a food establishment) to make sure.
Why Most Horchata Is Considered Vegan
Traditional horchata is made with plant milk. Most horchata is made with something called tiger nuts—which aren’t actually nuts at all.
Cyperus esculentus aka tiger nuts or chufa (among other names) is a crop that belongs to the sedge family and is widespread throughout the world.1
I’d imagine many US readers haven’t heard of it because it’s found most abundantly in Africa and Madagascar, Southern Europe, as well as the Indian and Middle East subcontinent.2-5
Again, they’re not really nuts, but actually more like small edible tubers. They’re about the size of a garbanzo bean (chickpea) but have a wrinkly exterior and chewy texture. The taste is usually described as sweet and nutty.
Like with almond and cashew nuts, much of the compounds present in the plant food are able to leach out into the water making it great for producing plant milks.
Tiger nuts are not the only plant foods used to make “milk” for horchata. Rice is also fairly common, especially in the ultra-processed drink mixes.
When rice milk is used, the beverage is called “Horchata de Arroz.”
The rice milk version often uses vanilla and Canella or cinnamon.6-8
Some horchata uses tiger nuts and rice. For example, semilla de jicaro is a popular form of Horchata in certain Central American countries like Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and Costa Rica. In these regions, horchata refers to the beverage semilla de jicaro, that’s made from jicaro seeds ground up with rice and spices like cocoa, sesame seeds, cinnamon, nutmeg, tiger nuts, and vanilla.9
The above applies to most horchata, but keep in mind that food manufacturers just love to throw in milk whenever they get the chance. At least, it seems that way.
The food industry uses individual milk ingredients for various reasons in processed foods.10
So, just because something isn’t milk-based, doesn’t mean you won’t find milk in the ingredients list. For example, it’s pretty common for milk proteins to be added because they improve nutritive value.
Caseinates (a milk protein) help stabilize and emulsify ingredients, while whey (the other major milk protein) helps with texture and gelling.
Also, lactose, the natural sugar found in milk, helps add a nice tang which contributes to flavor. So, milk is used in processed foods like horchata and other beverages to boost protein content, moisture, foaming, flavor, texture, and nutrition.11
Sometimes, Horchata de ajonjolí (horchata with ground sesame seeds) calls for evaporated milk.12
As an example of milk present in commercial horchata, FrOzen Bean Horchata Drink Mix contains a non-dairy creamer, but the creamer (mostly made up of coconut oil and corn syrup solids) also contains sodium caseinate, which is a common milk derivative. It also contains non-fat dry milk, so I’m not sure why they went with a non-dairy creamer.13
Another example is Klass Powdered Hortchata Drink Mix, which contains the usual ingredients (rice flour, dextrose, sugar, maltodextrin, vegetable oils, thickeners, etc.) along with skimmed milk powder.14
Commercial Vegan Horchata
This one is not a drink mix but actually comes pre-made.
It contains water, tiger nuts, sugar, an emulsifier (citric acid esters of mono-/diglycerides of fatty acids—a mouthful, I know!)*, modified food starch, acidity regulators (trisodium citrate and sodium tripolyphosphate), natural lemon and cinnamon flavoring, and stabilizers (carrageenan and gellan gum).15
*You may have noticed mono- and diglycerides in the ingredients. Mono- and diglycerides are kind of controversial in the vegan community, or at least they used to be. Like the milk proteins mentioned above, they’re used to emulsify and stabilize ingredients.16,17
Some vegans like to avoid the additives because they can be (and sometimes are) derived from animals.16,18
Like palm oil, the presence of mono- and diglycerides doesn’t make a food product non-vegan by most standards, because they are usually plant-derived and there’s really no way of knowing when they’re sourced from plants and when they’re not—unless, the label states “plant glycerides.”
But, that’s pretty rare and such labeling tends to be present on food products marketed to a health-conscious crowd.
But, if you wanna be extra careful, you might want to avoid stuff with mono- and diglycerides.
That’s it for the vegan status of horchata. Thanks for reading.
You may also want to check out the following related articles:
- Sánchez‐Zapata, Elena; Fernández‐López, Juana; Pérez‐Alvarez, José Angel (2012-07-01). “Tiger Nut (Cyperus esculentus) Commercialization: Health Aspects, Composition, Properties, and Food Applications”. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. 11 (4): 366–377.
- World Checklist Of Selected Plant Families (wcsp) http://apps.kew.org/wcsp/namedetail.do?name_id=236532
- “Biota of North America Program, 2013 county distribution map” http://bonap.net/MapGallery/County/Cyperus%20esculentus.png
- Altervista Flora Italiana, Zigolo dolce, Yellow Nutsedge, Cyperus esculentus L. http://luirig.altervista.org/flora/taxa/index1.php?scientific-name=cyperus+esculentus
- Flora of China, Vol. 23 Page 232 油莎草 you suo cao Cyperus esculentus Linnaeus var. sativus Boeckeler, Linnaea. 36: 290. 1870. http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=2&taxon_id=250095841
- Goldstein, Darra (4 July 2018). “The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets”. Oxford University Press.
- Horchata De Arroz Tostado (toasted Rice Drink) Recipe. http://www.saveur.com/article/Recipes/Horchata-de-Arroz-Tostado
- Horchata De Arroz Con Almendras (almond-rice Drink) Recipe. http://www.saveur.com/article/Recipes/Horchata-de-Arroz-con-Almendras
- Horchata. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horchata#Semilla_de_jicaro
- Chandan R. Dairy-Based Ingredients. Eagen Press, 1997.
- Understanding Food: Principles and Preparation (Page 431). Amy Brown – Wadsworth Cengage Learning – 2011
- Horchata. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horchata#Horchata_de_ajonjol%C3%AD
- Frozen Bean Drink Mix, Horchata, 2.8 Oz, 1 Count. Ksan – https://www.walmart.com/ip/FrOzen-Bean-Drink-Mix-Horchata-2-8-Oz-1-Count/52490300
- Klass Powdered Drink Mix, Horchata. https://www.kmart.com/klass-drink-mix-horchata-rice-and-cinnamon-flavored/p-033W044101511001P
- Shop Horchata De Chufa from Valencia Online: La Tienda. https://www.tienda.com/products/horchata-de-chufa-drink-mercader-bv-32.html
- Monoglyceride. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monoglyceride
- Diglyceride. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diglyceride
- Sonntag, Norman O. V. (1982). “Glycerolysis of fats and methyl esters — Status, review and critique”. Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society. 59 (10): 795A–802A.