Everything you need to know about almond milk

These days you'd be hard-pressed to find a grocery store or coffee shop not offering almond milk. In fact, as I sit here writing this article, I'm sipping my Starbucks almond milk latte and wondering just how basic this makes me. And I'm not the only one jumping on the almond milk train. Sales of non-dairy milk have reached over $1.4 billion annually, with almond milk making up about two-thirds of those sales.

While almond milk can be a delicious alternative to cow's milk, it still comes with its own downsides. Ready to become an almond milk convert? Read on for everything you need to know about this nutty little drink.

It's safe if you're lactose intolerant

Almond milk is a great option for those who don't tolerate cow's milk well. Whether you're lactose intolerant or allergic to milk, you've probably been missing your cereal with milk every morning.

According to one study, 75 percent of the world's population suffers from lactose intolerance. That's one of the reasons why almond milk has become so popular.

"A key nutritional benefit of drinking almond milk is that is doesn't contain lactose found in dairy milk, which many people do not digest well," Lisa Cohn, registered dietitian for miVIP Surgery Centers told me. "In addition, almond milk can be organic, infused with added vitamins and minerals and available in shelf stable packaging, not to mention you can make almond milk yourself!"

It's the most popular alternative milk

While soy milk used to rule the alternative milk sales, almonds are now king. "Nuts are trendy now," Larry Finkel, director of food and beverage research at Marketresearch.com told Bloomberg. "Soy sounds more like old-fashioned health food, like tofu, and could probably benefit by a re-invigoration of their brand."

Almond milk has also become a favorite among nutritionists and healthy eating enthusiasts. "I recommend it often, especially with patients who have diabetes or kidney disease. High quality almond milk provides a calcium boost, healthy fats but less carbs than it's cow's milk alternative," Jennifer Bowers, PhD, RD, told me. "And, I think it tastes great!"

It's lacking in the nutrient department

While almond milk gives the lactose intolerant crowd a chance to have milk again, it's not a true substitute for cow's milk. Almond milk can be lacking in the protein and calcium departments. "Some people substitute cow's milk for almond milk entirely and are not aware of the nutritional differences, which can be especially problematic for women and breastfeeding women with calcium, vitamin D, B vitamin and protein needs," says Lisa Cohn, registered dietitian for miVIP Surgery Centers. "The calories from almond milk can also create weight gain." Watch your labels and make sure you're still giving your body other sources of protein and calcium.

Look for enriched varieties

Sure, almond milk on its own is mostly water with a few almonds, but enriched almond milk has all of the nutrients and protein you're looking for. Valerie Agyeman, DC-based registered dietitian nutritionist, told me almond milk contains calcium, vitamin D, and protein.

"Almond milk isn't as bad as people make it seem, it is actually very nutritious," says Agyeman. "Don't get me wrong, it isn't as nutritious as cow's milk, but enriched almond milk comes pretty close to hitting the nutritional content of cow milk." Check your labels and look for almond milk that has been enriched with extra nutrients.

It could be linked to inflammation

Next time you're loading up on almond milk at the grocery store, read the label carefully. Some brands contain carrageenan, a common thickening agent made from seaweed. It gives almond milk and other processed foods that creamy texture.

According to a review in Environmental Health Perspectives, studies have linked consuming carrageenan with increased inflammation in the body.

"Although it is derived from seaweed, which sounds pretty healthy, studies have shown that carrageenan causes inflammation in the body," Valérie Orsoni, nutritionist and healthy living expert, told me. "Research on the effects of this additive is not at all conclusive, but based on studies thus far, I highly recommend avoiding almond milk that contains carrageenan."

It doesn't contain saturated fat

While almond milk gets knocked for not having the same nutritional profile as milk, that fact can actually have its upsides. "With almond milk, it's more about what you don't get," Sam Cunningham, an independent food scientist and consultant specializing in nuts, told the Los Angeles Times. Sure, pure almond milk lacks nutrients, but it also lacks the bad stuff in cow's milk. Almond milk is free of cholesterol and saturated fats. It's lower in calories and total fat than soy milk and cow's milk. Looks like less is more.

Watch the sugar content

When it comes to any processed food, you have to check the labels. While enriched almond milk is great for the extra vitamins and nutrients, make sure you're not getting any other additives you don't want.

"Almond milk can sometimes be very high in sugar because manufacturers usually add a lot of sugar to make it taste sweet," says Valerie Agyeman. "Make sure to look at the nutrition facts label for the sugar content or you can purchase sugar-free almond milk."

It might be causing a drought

California has been experiencing a drought, and residents have been told to take steps to conserve water. We've heard the usual tactics like turning off the faucet when you brush your teeth or shortening the length of showers. However, it seems that just cutting back on our almond and almond milk consumption would make a much bigger dent. California provides 99 percent of our country's almonds, and they require an incredible amount of water to grow. They actually use up about 10 percent of California's agricultural water supply. One almond requires 1.1 gallons of water to grow!

It' s not as healthy as plain almonds

If you've been drinking almond milk for the nutritional benefits, you're definitely better off eating just a handful of actual almonds. In a one-ounce serving of almonds, you'll receive six grams of protein, four grams of fiber, and plenty of vitamins including vitamin E, magnesium, riboflavin, calcium, and potassium.

The almonds in almond milk are seriously diluted, so don't expect the same benefits. A one-cup serving of almond milk has about 30 calories, 2.5 grams of fat, and just one gram of protein.

"While almonds in their whole form are packed with protein, almond milk on the other hand only has one gram per cup. This is because almond milk is strained, causing a lot of the protein to be lost," dietitian Emily Holdorf, RDN told me. "If you are drinking almond milk as your main 'milk product' be sure to get enough protein from other foods in your diet."

It could prevent cancer

Not only is almond milk a delicious treat, but it has actually been linked to slowing the growth of prostate cancer. A 2011 study reported that drinking almond milk can suppress prostate cancer cells. Researchers studied cancer cells exposed to cow's milk, almond milk, and soy milk. Cow's milk stimulated the growth of these cancer cells, while almond milk actually suppressed that growth by more than 30 percent. Researchers also exposed breast cancer cells to almond milk, but there was no effect. So gentlemen, drink up.

It is not for babies

I always thought the warning on the side of almond milk cartons stating that almond milk is not infant formula was completely unnecessary. Who would feed their infants almond milk instead of formula or breast milk? Well, it turns out some people do, and the results are not good.

A 2014 study reported that pediatricians studied infants who had been given almond or other plant-based milks between ages 4 months and 14 months. These babies were suffering from protein and calorie malnutrition. They were also anemic, growing slower than normal, and low in vitamin D.

So it turns out those warnings are necessary — almond milk is not for babies.

How to make your own

If the loads of additives in some brands of almond milk are scaring you away, try making your own! It's easy, and fans of the homemade stuff swear the taste is much better than the store-bought varieties.

Start by soaking your almonds overnight. The longer those almonds soak, the creamier your milk will be.

Once your nuts have soaked overnight, drain the almonds, then grind them up with fresh water. You'll then filter out that fresh almond water, and voila! You've just made fresh, additive-free almond milk.

You'll want to add some kind of sweetener, especially if you plan to drink the milk on its own. Try maple or agave syrup. Your fresh milk will only last a few days in the fridge, so stick with small batches.

Dairy farmers aren't happy about it

Almond milk and its alternative milk friends are gaining traction among consumers, and there's one group who is not lining up for some of that sweet nut milk — dairy farmers. Dairy farmers and some government representatives have been lobbying the Food and Drug Administration to stop allowing almond milk manufacturers to use the term "milk" to describe their product.

Representative Peter Welch and Senator Tammy Baldwin have stated that in order for a product to be called milk, it must come from a hooved mammal. "The bottom line for us is that milk is defined by the FDA, and we're saying to the FDA: Enforce your definition," Mr. Welch told The New York Times.