BY SANDI MOYNIHAN | OCTOBER 7, 2015
The non-dairy “milk” aisle has gotten a lot more crowded lately. Almond milk, in particular, has seen a recent rise in popularity, though not everyone’s on board. Some health experts say that almond milk isn’t a good alternative to cow’s milk because it may contain additives and it lacks protein. There has also been concern that almond farms are a drain the water supply, particularly because California, where all commercially-grown almonds are farmed, is going through an epic drought. However, according to the Almond Board of California, while almond farms make up 13 percent of all California farmland, they require only 9 percent of the H2O designated for agricultural purposes.
Those in the pro-almond milk camp point to the health benefits: Almond milk is naturally cholesterol-free and contains fewer calories than cow or soy milk per serving. Plus, it’s a good source of vitamins D and E.Public health debate aside, whether almond milk fits your version of healthy is up to you. Here are the facts so you can decide.
WHAT IS ALMOND MILK MADE OF?
In its simplest form, almond milk is made by soaking ground almonds in water and then straining out any nut particles to create a smooth liquid. From there, commercial manufactures typically mix in additives to enhance the flavor, texture, and shelf-life of their almond milk.
GO BACK TO THOSE ADDITIVES. WHAT ARE THEY? AND ARE THEY BAD FOR ME?
Nearly all commercially-produced almond milks contain additional ingredients besides almonds and water. Some of the most common almond milk additives are sweeteners, flavorings (like vanilla), salt, vitamins and minerals (to help match the nutritional profile of cow’s milk), and the thickening agent, carrageenan. Some scientists suggest carrageenan, which is derived from seaweed, is not as safe as originally thought. Recent studies suggest the additive may cause gastrointestinal problems, like inflammation, and should not be on the list of approved food additives. However, the FDA maintains that it has continually tested carrageenan for its potential risks and maintains that it is still safe for use in food products.
OKAY. BUT ARE THERE ALMOND MILKS I CAN DRINK THAT DON’T HAVE ANY ADDITIVES?
If you’re looking for a 100 percent additive-free almond milk, we recommend making your own at home. It’s actually pretty easy and a lot cheaper than buying it in the store. One thing to note: a homemade batch of almond milk has a shorter shelf life than its commercially-produced cousins and will only stay fresh for a couple of days in the refrigerator.
If you don’t have time to whip up a batch of your own and are willing to go for a carrageenan-free brand that still has a few other addatives, we recommend Whole Food’s 365 brand almond milk, which doesn’t contain carrageenan. A few other brands to try: Trader Joe’s, New Barn, and Silk. Spright’s Dietitian, Heather Caplan, recommends buying “unsweetened” varieties, which contain no added sugars. Note: not all of the almond milks produced by these companies are additive free, so always double-check labels.
WHAT ABOUT COOKING WITH IT? FREEZING IT?
The beauty of almond milk is its versatility. I’ve done quite a bit of test-kitchen work with almond milk and have found it acts very similarly to cow’s milk in almost every recipe — including finicky dishes like frostings, crepes and custards. When it comes to freezing dishes, particularly soups, that include milk, I actually prefer to use almond milk in the dish, as it won’t curdle during the de-frosting process. I’ve even read that you can freeze whole cartons of almond milk and defrost them later, if you have a blender and a bit of patience. You could also freeze almond milk in an ice-cube tray to use in smoothies or to add to this “one-ingredient” banana dessert!
IS THERE ANYONE THAT SHOULDN’T DRINK ALMOND MILK?
For the most part, no — unless you have a nut allergy. Of note: A recent study shows that children under one year old should avoid replacing milk with certain milk substitutes (rice, soy, almond, and “sweet chestnut” were tested), as they are often lower in protein and some other nutrients essential for infant development.