If you’ve noticed that the milk section of your grocery store has expanded over the past few years, you’re not alone. Buying and using milk has gotten a whole lot more complicated lately, thanks to some newcomers to the group. The good news is that there are more options for people who will not or cannot drink cow’s milk. The not so good news is that not all of these options are the best choices for you, nutritionally–speaking.
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Why plant-based milks?
A common term for non-dairy milks is “plant-based milks.” For many years, soy and almond milks have been available, but options today have expanded to include oat, pea, cashew, hempseed, hazelnut, walnut and even banana milk. There is a dizzying array of milks to choose from, and more will likely be appearing.
Why do people switch to or use plant-based milk? Here are some common reasons:
- Lactose intolerance
- Milk protein allergy
- A dislike of the taste of milk
- Following a vegan diet
- Concern over use of antibiotics, pesticides or hormones
- Concern about the environment
- Ethical concerns
People who have diabetes may also be concerned with the amount of “sugar” (meaning, carbohydrate) in cow’s milk and prefer to use a lower-carbohydrate milk alternative.
Sales of plant-based milks have skyrocketed from $7.4 billion in 2010 to $16 billion in 2018. KC Wright, MS RDN, writing for Today’s Dietitian, states “Much of this growth can be attributed to the fact that almond milk has surpassed soymilk as American’s favorite cow’s milk substitute.” And sales are expected to increase. The nondairy milk market is projected to reach revenues of more than $38 billion by 2024, according to the website MarketResearch.com.
The rise of almond milk
Almond milk has risen to the top of plant-based milks in terms of popularity. In 2019, sales of almond milk reached $1.3 billion, far surpassing sales of soymilk, which reached just $194 million during that time period.
The use of almond milk dates way back to the 13th century, when it was first referenced in Middle Eastern cookbooks. One reason for the use of almond milk is that nuts are acceptable to consume during fasting times, such as during Ramadan and Lent. Almond milk was first mentioned in English literature in the late 1300s.
Almond milk is made by soaking and grinding whole or blanched almonds with water. The resulting milky white liquid is then strained, removing all of the solids. Commercially made almond milk is homogenized and pasteurized for stability and shelf life. Sweeteners, sodium, protein, vitamins and thickening agents, such as carrageenan, may be added, as well. And like cow’s milk, almond milk can go bad, so it’s important to check out the “use by” date on the package and use the milk within seven days after opening. On a side note, almond butter can also be used to make almond milk by adding water.
Health benefits of almond milk
If you drink almond milk or are considering trying it, you might be wondering if it’s a healthy choice. Here are some of the benefits that almond milk can provide:
- It’s low in calories (at least, the unsweetened variety is), making it a good choice for those who are aiming to lose or maintain their weight.
- Unsweetened almond milk is less likely to raise blood sugar levels compared to other types of milk, including cow’s milk.
- Because it’s dairy-free, it doesn’t contain milk protein or lactose, which are ingredients that some people need to avoid.
- Almond milk fortified with calcium and vitamin D can support bone health.
- Oleic acid, the main fatty acid in almond oil, can help maintain healthy blood cholesterol levels and contribute to a lower risk of heart disease. Note that almond milk is cholesterol- and saturated-fat free, as well.
- Vitamin E and polyphenols in almond milk also help to support heart health.
- It may help halt the growth of prostate cancer cells, according to a 2011 study in the journal Nutrition and Cancer.
Almond milk nutrition
Before you head to the supermarket to stock up on almond milk, it’s important to evaluate the various types, as not all are healthy choices. Let’s take a look.
One cup of unsweetened and unsweetened vanilla almond milk contains:
- 30 calories
- 1 gram of carbohydrate
- 0 grams of sugar
- Less than 0.7 grams of fiber
- 1 gram of protein
- 2.5 grams of fat
- 170 milligrams of sodium
One cup of sweetened almond milk contains:
- 90 calories
- 16 grams of carbohydrate
- 14 grams of sugar
- 0 grams of fiber
- 1 gram of protein
- 2.5 grams of fat
- 140 milligrams of sodium
One cup of sweetened chocolate almond milk contains:
- 100 calories
- 21 grams of carbohydrate
- 19 grams of sugar
- 1 gram of fiber
- 1 gram of protein
- 2.5 grams of fat
- 150 milligrams of sodium
Obviously, sweetened regular and chocolate almond milk, which are often sweetened with cane sugar, contain more calories and carbohydrate than the unsweetened variety. Also, unsweetened almond milk has a low glycemic index of 25, which means that it’s less likely to cause rapid spikes in glucose levels.
A drawback of almond milk (and many other nut milks, as well) is the low protein content. At just one gram of protein per one-cup serving, almond milk is not a good source of protein (compare that with cow’s milk, which contains 8 grams of protein in one cup). However, some companies are now adding plant protein to almond milk. An example is Orgain Organic Protein Almondmilk, which contains 10 grams of protein (from peas) per one-cup serving.
Downsides of almond milk
As mentioned above, not all almond milk varieties are created equally in terms of nutrient profile. In addition, some people are uncomfortable with the added ingredients that some brands contain. A good example is carrageenan. Carrageenan is a controversial food additive that is extracted from red seaweed and FDA-approved for use by food manufacturers as a thickening agent. Some scientists are concerned that carrageenan may lead to inflammation, certain types of bowel disorders and even colon cancer; however, there are conflicting views and insufficient research on this ingredient.
People who are allergic to almonds should obviously not drink almond milk. But people with other types of tree nut allergies should shy away from drinking almond milk, as well. The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology state that tree nut allergies are most likely to cause anaphylaxis, a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction, compared to other types of allergies.
Infants should not be given almond milk due to the low protein content; also, infants can have an allergic reaction to nut milks. Speak to your pediatrician about the use of almond and other nut milks for infants and toddlers.
Finally, there are environmental concerns linked to almond milk. According to an article in Business Insider, it takes one gallon of water to grow one almond. California’s Central Valley is where the U.S. gets pretty much all of its almonds, as well as tomatoes, lemons, artichokes and pistachios. With drought and fires ravaging California, many critics point out that supporting the use of almond milk as a healthy alternative to cow’s milk doesn’t justify the amount of water needed to grow almonds. There are also concerns with the amount of pesticides used on almonds that can contaminate the drinking water supply and kill off bees.
Almond milk, diabetes and other considerations
If you are pondering switching to almond milk for drinking or use in cooking or baking to help you manage your diabetes, there certainly are some considerations to keep in mind. Here are some tips:
- Unsweetened almond milk is your best bet when it comes to calories and carbs. However, don’t use unsweetened almond milk to treat low blood sugar. Stick with sources of fast-acting carbs, like glucose tablets or juice.
- Keep in mind that almond milk, in general, is low in protein, so unless you choose a protein-fortified brand, make sure you’re getting adequate protein from other sources. Always read the Nutrition Facts Label for any brand of almond milk.
- Choose an almond milk that has been fortified with calcium, vitamin D and vitamin A.
- For more of a nutrition boost, go for a handful of almonds rather than a glass of almond milk: Almonds have more protein, fiber and certain vitamins and minerals.
- Talk with your doctor or dietitian about carrageenan if you have digestive issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn’s disease. If you are worried about carrageenan or feel that it is contributing to symptoms, steer clear of almond milk brands that contain this ingredient.
- You can cook and bake with almond milk, although the flavor and consistency of your food items may be different compared with using cow’s milk. You might also need to reduce the baking time of foods made with almond milk. And if you are using this milk in a recipe that needs to thicken, you may need to add flour, as almond milk is thinner than cow’s milk. Finally, be careful of using almond milk in recipes with acidic ingredients, such as lemons or tomatoes, as these can curdle the milk.
- Freezing almond milk may change its taste, color and texture and some almond milk manufacturers will discourage you from doing so. If you do freeze it, stir or shake the almond milk before using it.
You can make your own almond milk, if you’re interested. You’ll need a blender or food processor. Check out this recipe (and remember that the sweetener is optional!).
Want to learn more about eating well with diabetes? Read “Improving Your Recipes: One Step at a Time,” “Top Tips for Healthier Eating,” “Clean Eating in 10 Easy Steps” and “Cooking With Herbs and Spices.”