It used to be that nothing was more wholesome than a glass of milk. Now, it seems that little is more hotly contested. More and more people are turning to almond milk out of fear of dairy, but is this really a healthy swap?
Before we launch our debate, we have to first understand what almond milk is, and how it is made. At home, I make my own almond milk with just two ingredients: almonds, and water. A small amount of almonds are blended up with a lot of water, then the mixture is strained to remove the sediment or almond “pulp.” What you are left with is still mostly water, with a hint of almond flavor and an opaque “milky” color. The almond milk you buy in the store also contains extra vitamins and minerals, thickeners, and sometimes added sugar or sugar alternatives. Still, these beverages remain mostly water.
There are certainly benefits to almond milk over dairy, though they stem more from the negatives of modern day dairy than with almond milk’s own inherent virtues. First and foremost, by opting for a plant-based “milk,” we can start to reap the benefits of consuming fewer animal products.
More than that, the dairy industry often employs less-than-savory practices. Large-scale dairy farms rely on corn and soy-based feeds over a cow’s natural diet of grazed grass, which adversely shifts the ratio of heart-healthy omega 3 fats compared to inflammatory omega-6 fats. This feed is often genetically modified, which comes with its own baggage of controversy. There is additional controversy over the use and abuse of growth hormones and antibiotics with dairy cows, too.
Many claim that consuming dairy is associated with increased risk of inflammation, which can set the stage for a host of conditions, including heart disease, acne, and joint paint. There is even doubt being cast on the well-accepted notion that dairy is crucial for bone health. These claims, though worth exploring, raise more questions than they do answers, and actual research to back them up can be difficult to track down.
With that laundry list of concerns, it’s no wonder so many people are looking for an alternative, but is almond milk really any better?
The first thing to consider when debating purchasing almond milk is whether you can palate the unsweetened versions. Though dairy milk contains naturally occurring sugars in the form of lactose, sweetened almond milks can contain even higher amounts of added sugars, which we consume more than enough of as is. The ones with stevia or splenda are no better.
Both the sweetened and unsweetened almond milks on the market, though, have other downfalls, the largest being their lack of protein. Remember how we said above that almond milk is really mostly water? Almond milk was created as a way for anyone who is vegan, lactose intolerant, or has a milk allergy to continue to enjoy foods like cereal, oatmeal, chocolate chip cookies, and any recipe that calls for milk. It wasn’t made to be a nutritional powerhouse, and it’s not.
Almond milk is also a surprisingly processed product. It takes a lot to turn crunchy almonds into smooth, creamy milk. The thickeners added to store-bought almond milks are there to prevent separation, and though they are considered safe for consumption by the FDA, some experts question this. Carageenan in particular has raised some health concerns in the past, though any ingredient with “gum” in the name suggests, in general, that the beverage is more of a processed product than a whole food.
THE BOTTOM LINE: FIT OR FLOP?
FIT: Although almond milk has its drawbacks, it can be part of a well-balanced diet. Always choose unsweetened varieties and pair them with a little protein and fat to make up for what almond milk lacks. If you are feeling adventurous, you can even try making your own for a less processed version that is far tastier than any carton sold at the store.
…BUT ALSO FLOP. A lot of the health concerns of conventional dairy can be avoided by sourcing 100% grass-fed, organic milk, ideally one from a local farm and non-homogenized, if possible. Sure, this costs more than regular milk, but so does that pricey carton of almond milk you’re buying. If you aren’t lactose intolerant, vegan, or have an actual milk allergy, there really isn’t a strong argument suggesting almond milk is any more or less healthy than a truly high-quality dairy milk.
Either way, remember that your health is not defined by any one, individual food or drink, but rather by the dietary tapestry of all of your food choices woven together.
Note: It is beyond the scope of this article to assess the environmental or ethical arguments for choosing dairy versus non-dairy milk.