I recently was asked about the best option for a coffee creamer. Of course I answered “organic whole cream”, as I do believe this is the best choice, but then was posed with questions about alternative milks, such as almond milk. I wanted to spend some time with this question and do some research. I drink unsweetened almond milk occasionally as I do think I have some lactose intolerance (as do most people, it seems), and almond milk doesn’t make me feel gross the way drinking a glass of milk can. I love milk, though, and I love its nutritional benefits.
I’ve talked about this before, but let’s recap: organic whole milk is good for you. If you can find grass-fed milk than this is even better (for you and for the cows!). Recent studies have proven that the saturated fat in milk does not cause heart disease nor is it connected to cholesterol. Cholesterol is caused by inflammation and inflammation is caused by: not exercising (leading a sedentary life style), consuming oxidized cholesterol (like in deep fried foods and trans fats), using a lot of poly-saturated oils (such as soybean, sunflower, safflower, etc), and/or eating a lot of sugar and grains. Processed foods and their food additives can also cause inflammation (but we’ll get to this in a minute). Lowering cholesterol is about stopping inflammation and you can do this by eating a whole-foods, plant-based diet and being active. Milk and other healthy, fatty foods help us absorb the vitamins and minerals that are in the plant-foods we eat. They also lubricate our brains and can help with depression and fatigue. Over all, whole-food fat is important and whole milk and cream are great sources of it.
So, if you are avoiding milk because of calories then stop it! However, there are other reasons people may choose alternative milks. Vegans naturally do not drink milk and those with a lactose allergy may also steer clear of the stuff. It should be noted though that hard cheeses, goat cheese, and yogurts are generally safe forms of dairy for even the lactose intolerant. These may be good options if you can’t ingest milk. Also, I want to add that lactose intolerance is not harmful to your body, even if you do consume dairy. If you lack the lactase enzymes to digest milk well it will ferment a bit in your gut, causing gas and bloating, but all-in-all it poses no long term effects. I understand, though, if folks do no want to deal with even these uncomfortable temporary effects… So, let’s look at the alternatives.
Soy milk. Ugh. I cannot recommend this. Soy is one of those items, like corn, that exists in 80% of all processed foods. Soy lecithin is used in so many products, for example, and it definitely adds to increased inflammation (therefore to risk of heart disease and high cholesterol) in the body. Humans have manipulated the genetics of the soybean to such an extent that it doesn’t resemble its former self anymore. Most soy is genetically modified (a GMO) and although the research is slim, I steer away from foods that could contain the antibiotics, built in pesticides, and genetic mutations that GMOs may carry. Also if you consume a lot of soy, its isoflavones can interfere with your endocrine system. This has been known to cause various cancers, fertility problems, and hormonal balance issues for men and women alike. I suppose if you absolutely love soymilk then choose an organic, unsweetened version and do not consume it daily. But also, you have to consider that there are additives to soy milk when you buy it from the store. These additives are shared by all alternative store-bought milks of all kinds, so I will review them momentarily… first on to rice milk.
Rice milk is a milky substance produced by soaking and blending a grain. Rice is generally composed of simple sugars and this alternative milk is also not a good bet. I try as much as possible to eliminate grains from my diet, so drinking them seems extra silly. Ingesting a lot of grains can lead to inflammation (which, like afore-mentioned, causes cholesterol to rise) as well as can create/feed a gut bacteria known as Prevotella. This bacteria is being studied currently and now scientists know that it can also spurt out cholesterol and cause inflammatory symptoms. Also rice milk usually has added unhealthy oils, such as soybean or safflower oil. These are not heart healthy.
Almond milk (specifically the unsweetened kind) definitely seems like the right choice. It’s a nut, first of all, and nuts are great for you! The fats in nuts like almonds are healthy fats and they are also high in protein, which provides energy and decreases hunger. The only issue is that store-bought almond milk, like the store-bought soy and rice milks, still contains a lot of additives. Let’s review two common additives usually present in these milks.
Carrageenan is often used to produce a better, creamier texture in alternative milks and even other products such as ice cream. Some people think that since this is produced by seaweed, a natural and usually healthy whole-food, that it is fine to consume. Unfortunately carrageenan has recently been studied and is now known to cause severe inflammation in rats. As we know, inflammation causes high cholesterol and can lead to heart disease. This ingredient should be avoided. I want to note, though, that Guar Gum and Locust Bean Gum, which are also often used for texture in processed foods, are totally safe and come from a simple process of breaking down natural substances via cooking them.
Vitamin A Palminate is a man-made vitamin that is extracted from the fat of a variety of sources and has no actual health benefits when it is processed in this way. Man made vitamins are not absorbed well by humans and do not act like naturally occurring vitamins. When you eat a fruit or vegetable or meat that naturally contains a vitamin then your body can break it down and use it. Often processed foods and milks have added vitamins or say that they are “enriched”. Unfortunately there are many studies that suggest added man-made vitamins, such as Vitamin A Palminate, actually increase you risk for heart disease. Also, often in processed foods the palminate is extracted from the fat in Palm Oil. Palm Oil comes from palm trees. This is important to note because the growth of palm trees to extract the palm oil is a very controversial issue. Rain forests and other land is being destroyed by the unsustainable growth of palm trees for the production of additives in processed foods. Yet another reason to avoid store-bought alternative milks.
But hope is not all lost! You can make your own almond milk right at home! You only need a blender and a mesh strainer or cheese cloth. I haven’t tried it yet, but I hear homemade almond milk has all the flavor and wonder of store-bought milk and it only contains two ingredients: whole almonds and water. You can’t go wrong there!
Learn how to make your own healthy alternative milk at home : http://www.thekitchn.com/how-to-make-almond-milk-at-home-cooking-lessons-from-the-kitchn-189996