With plant-based consumption on the rise more and more consumers are replacing animal products like cow’s milk with dairy-free options. Ditching a burger for quinoa may be a challenge for some. However, substituting cow’s milk with almond milk may not feel like such a sacrifice. Dairy-free options are so mainstream that many coffee shops now offer at least two varieties like almond and coconut milk. But is nut milk all it’s cracked up to be?
As new dairy-free milks like hemp and flax pop up, cow’s milk is on the decline. Growing concerns over the poor treatment of crowded, factory-farmed animals turn consumers off from supporting the dairy industry. Who wants to drink hormone and antibiotic-pumped milk any way? While some farms may practice more humane treatment of their livestock, other health concerns exist.
According to the Center for Disease Control over 100 million Americans are living with prediabetes or diabetes. One serving of dairy milk contains 8 grams of biological protein, providing all the essential amino acids. An 8 –ounce glass of milk also contains 12 grams of lactose, the primary sugar found in dairy milk. In comparison, the same amount of unsweetened almond milk, has 0 grams of sugar. The prevalence of diabetes makes the dairy-free alternative an obvious choice for those seeking to avoid blood sugar spikes. In addition to concerns over sugar, gastrointestinal conditions like lactose-intolerance prompt consumers to seek nut milks. Many individuals have an intolerance to casein, the protein that many individuals have difficulty digesting as well. But are nut milks healthy and are they better for you than cow’s milk?
Though technically not a milk, these liquid extracts of nuts and seeds flood the grocery aisles. Once upon a time, soymilk was the plant-based superstar, but today almond milk is the new dairy-free darling. If almond milk doesn’t suit your fancy, you can choose from a plethora of others like hemp, cashew, oat, flax, rice, and potato milk. Potato milk? Yes..
Health or Hazard
It’s important to read labels, ingredients, and be a savvy shopper. Dairy-free milks can be a delicious and healthy alternative, but at what price? Is drinking a highly processed beverage better just because it’s plant-based? The terms “organic,” natural” and “vitamin-fortified” splayed across the label entice consumers into believing these nut milks are the best thing since sliced bread. But just because an ingredient is natural doesn’t make it nutritious. Arsenic is also natural but I doubt you want to put that into your body any time soon.
The fortification of nut milks with isolated vitamins and minerals is also questionable. Though some dairy-free nut milks share a similar nutritional profile to cow’s milk, others may not. As a result, they must be fortified with nutrients such as vitamin D and calcium. The human body produces vitamin D3(cholecalciferol) when exposed to sunlight, the same form of D3 derived from dairy milk. However, most nut milks are fortified with a cheaper D2 form. Our bodies also absorb nutrients found in whole foods more efficiently than when they are singled out. Other enzymes and nutrients found in raw dairy maximize nutrient absorption(versus pasteurized versions). We also require some fat to allow the D3 to work its magic and maximized calcium absorption.
What about protein? Most of the dairy-free milks (except soy) lack adequate protein per serving. Hemp and flaxseed milk have the added bonus of heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids (alpha-linolenic acid-ALA). Unfortunately conversion from ALA to EPA and DHA drastically differs from person-to-person. This makes it difficult to gauge how much of the fatty acids our body actually receives.
The word “healthy” means different things to different people. Some may consider drinking raw, unpasteurized dairy milk nutritious because it doesn’t undergo much treatment. Commercial nut milks are dairy-free, but drinking “fake” milk from a box full of additives may not do your body good. Although homemade nut milks can provide a treasure trove of nutrients and save your belly from unnecessary woes, commercially-prepared milks may actually be more detrimental. Most dairy-free options contain a list of additives that can potentially harm your health. One of the popular additives contained in many commercial nut milks is carrageenan, which is used to create a creamy and thick consistency. While it is a naturally-occurring compound derived from seaweed, the extraction process has made this harmless ingredient toxic. As a result of its link to inflammation and cancer in both humans and animals, The National Organic Standards Board has voted to remove carrageenan from the list of substances approved for use in food items labeled “USDA Organic.” Another stabilizer like xanthum gum may disrupt the gut microbiome and induce gastrointestinal issues. Soy lecithin is often used to create a creamier consistency. If you are trying to eliminate soy and GMO crops from your pantry, look for brands without this additive.
More food for thought- nuts contain compounds called “phytates,” enzyme inhibitors that may reduce absorption of minerals like magnesium, calcium, and zinc. The good news is that soaking nuts and seeds reduces the amount of phytates, and makes the nutrients more bioavailable. Unfortunately, we don’t know if the nuts and seeds are soaked before they reach the carton.
Homemade is Better (See Recipe below)
While nut milks can be nutritious the idea of drinking a glass full of additives may not sound so delicious, especially if they are a staple beverage for you. The great news is that they can easily be prepared at home with a little patience. Taking the time to prepare your own nut milk is rewarding (and way tastier,) and is not as challenging as you may think. If you want a more sustainable way of eating that insures nothing goes to waste there is more great news. The leftover pulp can be added to smoothies and other favorite dishes. For example, toasting the almond meal and sprinkling it over salads can add flavor, fiber, crunch, calcium and protein for another plant-based dish. Vanilla and other spices can be added to boost flavor, without all the additives that come with store-bought versions. If however, you choose to purchase nut milks opt for those with the least amount of additives and sugar. If you can’t pronounce any of the ingredients I encourage you to leave it on the shelf and make your own.
Speaking of making your own, I had a craving for a cold glass of almond milk and decided to create it from scratch. For more flavor I added some rosewater to the water in the jar but feel free to omit if you prefer a more traditional taste. The date adds a touch of sweetness but can also be omitted if you prefer a sugar-free version.
Rosewater-Infused Almond Milk
1 cup raw almonds
2 eight-ounce glasses filtered water
2 Tbs rosewater
1 pitted date
1/8 tsp Himalayan salt
Cheesecloth or heavy paper towels
Fine mesh strainer
Add the almonds and water into a mason jar and let them soak for about 10 hours. Pour the contents into fine mesh strainer and wash the almonds under running water. This step is very important because the water has now absorbed most of the phytates, so please be sure to rinse the almonds well. The almond skin can now be easily removed as well. I usually keep the skin on but wanted to experiment. After removing the skins place the “naked” almonds back into the jar and once again fill with water. This time add the rosewater and place in fridge for about an hour. After an hour pour all contents into a blender, add the pitted date and salt. Blend for about 30 seconds.
Place the fine mesh strainer over bowl and place cheesecloth or paper towels on top of strainer. Pour blended mixture over bowl and take the cheesecloth or paper towel with the almond mixture, close and twist to strain out remaining liquid. When you’ve squeezed all the juice out place the remaining almond meal onto a baking sheet and spread out evenly. Bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes and make sure to store every 15 minutes. Your almond meal which is packed with calcium, fiber, vitamin E and protein is now ready to be consumed as you wish. Enjoy!
Happy & Healthy Cravings 🙂