Almond milk: Dairy milk’s plant-based impersonator

Allison King ponders the differences.

Devin Barge

Allison King ponders the differences.

by Allison King, Reporter

Most of us grew up including a glass of milk (or two or three) in our daily diets, but, recently, almond milk and other milk alternatives, including soy, coconut, rice and cashew milk, have become increasingly popular. What’s up with that? Less than 2g of protein, made mostly of water and sugar, and fortified nutrient are not qualities of a beverage that someone should want to drink. 

If this is the case, then why has the sale of almond milk increased by an astonishing 250% in the last five years? For those, among many other reasons, almond milk isn’t a smart or healthy beverage choice for anyone. The problem is that dairy milk isn’t amazing for you either. This predicament spreads a veil of milky confusion over the general public and their decision of which beverage to choose. Let’s dive in and explore the truths and misconceptions about milk and its new adversary, almond milk.

Cow Milk Miracles:

Dairy milk has been the beverage of choice for children and teens, but has become a less attractive option in recent years. According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture, the average person drinks 18 gallons of milk a year. In the 1970’s, that number was over 30 gallons.   

A 2018 Lancer Media Twitter poll asked the question: Which type of milk do you prefer?  The results revealed that an astonishing 82% of the 115 poll participants preferred dairy milk over almond milk. 

Sophomores Dustin Keith and Francesca Martinazzi have grown up including milk in their daily diets. They both drink 2-3 glasses of milk per day. Martinazzi says she “drinks a glass of milk once in the morning, once at night and sometimes when she gets home from school.” She drinks it because “it’s good for you and it tastes good.”

Keith, who is on the football team, said he drinks milk because “it has lots of protein and calcium and it just tastes good.”

Although many teens, like Keith and Martinazzi, have been enthusiastic milk drinkers since childhood, the overall percentage of milk consumption has plummeted, varying by age group. The most recent USDA ‘Dairy Data’ survey reveals that the per capita consumption of milk in the US, measured in pounds consumed per person, has decreased by 62.3% from 1975 to 2016. Continuing this trend, the per capita consumption will have decreased by around 70% in 2018.   

But why? Just because the size of dairy milk’s consumer pool has decreased doesn’t mean milk’s benefits have diminished as well. Milk is an excellent source of calcium, protein, and essential vitamins and minerals such as vitamin D, vitamin A, magnesium, potassium and zinc. These nutrients are particularly important for the healthy development of children and teens during adolescent years.

“I think young people should absolutely drink milk. Milk is extremely nutrient rich, especially for growing bodies; the calcium in it is particularly important,” said biology teacher Beth Ericsson. During developmental years, the nutrients from the fat in milk are extremely beneficial to growing strong and healthy bones. For adults, the body still needs calcium, just not as much milk fat. Ericsson says that if someone chooses to drink milk during their adult years, they should decrease the percentage of fat in the milk they consume.   

Although Ericsson believes that milk provides many nutritional benefits, she does not believe that milk should be consumed during adulthood. She says that the reason that people develop a lactose intolerance is because the lactase enzyme (the enzyme responsible for breaking down lactose) is programmed to stop functioning in humans after the weaning period. In all other mammals, other than domesticated cats, milk is not consumed after the weaning period, so why is this any different for humans?  

Also, cow milk provides three times more calcium than the human body can handle and process at once. The body won’t absorb more calcium than it needs; therefore, the high level of calcium in milk doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best option to reach optimal recommended calcium levels. Foods like broccoli, spinach, oranges and seafood are all great sources of calcium and, in combination with sun exposure, is a great way for the body to reach its daily levels of calcium and vitamin D.  

Along with its high levels of calcium, dairy milk tends to be high in calories and saturated fat as well. This can be a turn off for people who try to limit their fat intake and calorie consumption. One cup of 2% milk contains 4.9 grams of fat (three of which are saturated fats), 12g of carbohydrates and around 120 calories. Compared to one cup of the leading almond milk brand that contains less than 3g of fat and only 30 calories, those numbers seem pretty high.

Dairy Cow Issues:

One of the biggest concerns with cow’s milk is that the antibiotics, growth hormones and other chemicals given to the cows negatively affects their milk. Many worry that these chemicals will somehow contaminate the milk and harm the person drinking it.

Class of 2018 student Lucas Arrington, regularly milks the cows on his family’s dairy farm. His family’s farm has received awards for the highest quality milk in the state of Maryland. The Arrington’s take pride in the quality of the milk they produce. He thinks the concerns about milk are out of proportion.

“We are very strict about the chemicals our cows ingest,” says Arrington. “People think that hormones and things like that affect the milk, but they really don’t, and they aren’t harmful to humans at all.” Arrington says that, in order to respond to the public’s concern, his family’s dairy farm takes an antibiotic and hormone-free approach to raising their dairy cattle.  

Beau Cameron is both a vegan and an animal rights activist who drinks almond milk every day. He has tried other plant based milk products before, but prefers almond milk out of all of them. Cameron is strongly opposed to the actions of the dairy industry. He doesn’t agree with the treatment of the cows in the milk production process. He also believes that the milk industry built its empire on false propaganda.

Cameron believes that, “Milk isn’t actually good for you at all; It’s only popular because of the false propaganda that’s been advertised by the milk industry over the years.” For those reasons, Cameron’s choice is almond milk.

For farm families like Arrington’s, Cameron’s perceptions are not their experience. The Arringtons work hard to portray a positive public image of their farm and the milk they produce. Their milk is hormone and antibiotic free and their cows are not harmed at all, ever. The same is true for other small farms that take a naturally raised, hormone-free approach to raising dairy cattle.  

Almond Milk Magic:

Advocates of the animal rights movement and participants in vegan lifestyles are both proponents of almond milk, as opposed to dairy milk. These two movements have been actively gaining ground all across America and worldwide.

Almond milk and other plant based milk alternatives contain absolutely no traces of animal by products, making them an attractive option for the vegan community. And since almond milk is made entirely of plants, no animals are harmed in its production process, appealing to animal rights groups.

For those who cannot drink milk for allergy related reasons, almond milk is another option. Dani Shaffer, a junior at Urbana high school, drinks almond milk as an alternative to dairy milk, due to her lactose intolerance. She drinks almond milk because she believes it contains many nutrients and because it’s healthier than regular milk. Shaffer says, “It doesn’t contain the dairy fat, pesticides and hormones that regular milk does.”  

Almond Milk Misconceptions:

The Dairy Pride Act, introduced to the by Senator Tammy Baldwin  in January 2017, is a bill attempting to “prohibit the sale of any food that uses the market name of a dairy product, is not the milk of a hooved animal, is not derived from such milk, and does not contain such milk as a primary ingredient.” Plant based milks, such as almond milk, do not satisfy these criteria and, therefore, the bill would prohibit companies from calling their plant based products ‘milk.’

“Almond milk shouldn’t be called milk because, by definition, milk is something that comes from an animal,” says Arrington.

Despite not being able to be called milk by the Dairy Pride Act standards, almond milk shouldn’t be called milk because it’s mostly made of water. Contrary to popular belief, almond milk is only made of 2% almonds. That may be surprising considering it’s called ALMOND milk, but it’s true. How can a product claim to provide nutritional benefits anywhere close to those of dairy milk when over half of the product is water?

Because almond milk is mostly water, it has little to no flavor before additives are incorporated. “Thickeners, stabilizers, gums and sweeteners” are then added in order to enhance both the flavor and consistency of the beverage. The second ingredient in Blue Diamond Vanilla Almond Milk is “cane sugar.” Basically, drinking a glass of almond milk is like drinking a glass of creamy sugar water.

You would think that a protein rich food like almonds, would produce protein rich ‘milk’ as well, but that is not the case either. A cup of almonds in their original form contains approximately 20g of protein. A cup of almond milk only contains 2g of protein. That shouldn’t be surprising considering the bulk of the protein is removed when the ‘almond liquid’ is separated from the solid almond sludge (the paste that is created when almonds are ground up into a pulp-like consistency).

One might believe that, after opening, almond milk would last longer than dairy milk… WRONG! Both almond milk and dairy milk have an average shelf life of around one week. This was particularly surprising to me considering that, at first glance, almond milk doesn’t contains any substances that would spoil easily, seeing as almond milk is made from water, sugar and almonds, which all have a very long shelf life and don’t spoil easily. Unopened, however, certain brands of almond milk can sit on a shelf for a very long time.

Environmental Effects:

The state of California has been in intense drought for three consecutive years and counting. Knowing this, I was surprised to discover that 80% of America’s almonds are grown in California. This fact puzzled me. Why would California, a state in an intense period of drought, be growing the fourth most water-intensive crop known to man (aka almonds)?     

Although Ericsson drinks almond milk on a daily basis, she still agrees with the fact that almond milk production is bad for the environment. “Almonds are really bad for environment,” she says.  “They require a tremendous amount of water to grow and then even more water to be turned into almond milk.” When I told Ericsson about the Dairy Pride Act, she immediately agreed. “Almond milk is not milk. All it is is a ‘liquefied almond powder.’”

As if not to add to the environmental tolls of almond milk production, there is still one more. The multitude of various pesticides being used by almond growers are causing serious harm to bees. The pesticides are killing off a large percentage of the bee population. Bees play a vital role in the ecosystem. A drastic decline in their population numbers could lead to serious environmental consequences.   

Global warming is a huge debate going on worldwide. Dairy cows account for 27% of the total amount of methane that’s released into atmosphere. That glass of milk you’re drinking has some big environmental consequences.

What to drink?

Clearly, all the hype about almond milk can be washed away. Its headway in the beverage industry is purely arbitrary. There are little to no nutritional benefits to almond milk or any of the other plant-based alternatives. Instead of a glass of almond milk, try a glass of water because that’s basically what you’re drinking.  

As for dairy milk, the nutritional benefits are there, but with a price. Milk should be left for the kids to drink, not the adults. Its nutritional benefits have proven to be pivotal for growing bodies, but, for most adults, calcium can be absorbed from sources other than milk. Adults don’t need as much calcium as children do, so drinking milk for its calcium benefit isn’t necessary. Adults are more likely to experiences the negative effects of consuming milk, such as weight gain from the high levels of fat and calories. I think we can all agree that milk should be left in the sippy cups.