Is commercial almond milk just another expensive trendy product or a good alternative to cow’s milk?

Is commercial almond milk just another expensive trendy product or a good alternative to cow’s milk?

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Almond milk has been a trendy milk alternative for a while. It may quickly take over from soy milk as the most popular milk alternative in Australia. You can easily find hashtags regarding almond milk like “keto-friendly”, “lactose free”, “heart health”, “plant based” and “no cholesterol” promoted by lots of popular food advocates and influencers on social media. However, have you ever thought about what almond milk is? Is it another health marketing scheme or does it actually benefit your health? Eat Savvi’s Dietitian Tuo has gone to Australian supermarkets Coles and Woolworths to investigate for you. We’ll try to unpack some of the interesting facts you deserve to know. 

Originally designed to be a substitute for cow’s milk

According to Wikipedia, almond milk was first invented in the Islamic Middle East in the 13th century. It was invented as a general substitute for cow’s milk1 during fasting seasons, such as Lent and Ramadan, when animal products are not permitted for consumption. Interestingly, the original almond milk is also used to replace meat broth in split pea puree on fast days. Think about adding almond milk instead of beef broth in your beef stew today, would that turn you off?

Since we now know almond milk was originally invented as an alternative to cow’s milk, it is not surprising that people also expect the nutrition profile of this milk alternative to be close to cow’s milk. One of the most important health benefits of drinking cow’s milk is that it provides us with substantial amounts of calcium. Therefore, it is actually essential for almond milk to achieve that as well. With the nutrient fortification technology available these days, this can easily be achieved. Quite a few almond milk brands have similar amounts of calcium per 100g compared with cow’s milk which is 120mg elemental calcium per 100g. However, there are a couple of brands that fail to do this. More satisfying product data and interpretation will be unpacked shortly. Even though the type of calcium is less absorbable than calcium naturally occurring in cow’s milk, it is definitely better than almond milk without calcium fortification.

Sick of reading? Check out my YouTube video comparing the different types of almond milk.

Does almond milk contain almonds?

What?! What kind of question is that! You may ask, “what else is almond milk made of if it doesn’t have almonds?!” Of course, almond milk must and does contain almonds. Otherwise, all of the almond milk companies would be sued by ICCC (Independent Consumer and Competition Commission). Now, let me explain why I ask this question. If you read the ingredients, you will find that most of the almond milk products in Australia, e.g. those in Coles and Woolworths, contain 2.5% to 4% almonds per 100g, except for one brand – Pureharvest. The main ingredient in almond milk is actually water, accounting for over 90%. What does 2.5% to 4% almonds look like per 100ml? Three almond kernels. Yep, that’s right, 3! Which is not a lot. However, does it mean that they are unhealthy? Let’s keep on exploring. 

Calories and macronutrients in commercial almond milk

The amount of calories in almond milk is very low. A lot of people like this magical phrase “low calorie”. From a dietitian’s point of view, nutrition is more than just calories. Being low in calories indicates that commercial almond milk is also naturally low in protein, fat and carbohydrate. In fact, unsweetened almond milk has a negligible amount of protein, carbohydrate and a small amount of fat.

  • Protein: we want this cow’s milk alternative to have as much protein as cow’s milk, however, all of the current almond milks fail to deliver that. 
  • Fat: the fat in almond milk is mainly the healthy form – unsaturated fat. 
  • Carbohydrate: there is no lactose – the type of carbohydrate in cow’s milk and other types of carbohydrate. Therefore, it is friendly for people with lactose intolerance. If you are on a low carb diet, almond milk is also a good option as it has a negligible amount of carbs. 

Are there health benefits to drinking commercial unsweetened almond milk?

Benefit 1: Almost no impact on your blood sugar level 

PS: It applies to most of the unsweetened almond milks in Australian supermarkets. Two exceptions: Pureharvest and Coles organic unsweetened almond milk

Yes, drinking unsweetened almond milk has almost no impact on your blood sugar level. (Note, I am not talking about homemade almond milk here). This could be great news for people with type II diabetes who find it hard to control their blood sugar level. In my clinic, I’ve seen the blood sugar level after 1-2 hours after breakfast not increasing that much when my clients replace cow’s milk with unsweetened almond milk thanks to its negligible amount of carbs. However, it is a case by case basis. If you don’t have diabetes or your type II diabetes is well-controlled with healthy blood sugar fluctuation, regularly drinking cow’s milk is still a great option unless you want to find a plant based alternative to cow’s milk. If you are actually using insulin, it is better to consult your endocrinologist and dietitian when switching from cow’s milk to almond milk.

Benefit 2: No negative impact on your cholesterol level

As almond milk contains only a small amount of fat, the majority which is unsaturated fat, drinking almond milk has no negative impact on your cholesterol. If you’d like to dig more into “good” and “bad” cholesterol, this article might help you.

Benefit 3: It doesn’t have a significant impact on your blood pressure at all

All of the almond milks have very similar amounts of sodium compared with cow’s milk. It is around 40 – 50mg per 100ml. It is a very reasonable amount considering the Suggested Dietary Target for sodium intake is no more than 2000mg3 according to NHMRC’s (National Health and Medical Research Council) most updated data in 2017. 

Benefit 4: If you are vegan or vegetarian with very limited dairy intake, calcium fortified almond milk would be a great friend to you, your teeth and your bones. 

A closer look at the additional ingredients 

It is a no brainer to say that there is no “milk” in almond milk. To “milk” almonds, almonds need to be processed. Through the manufacturing process, there are a few common additives:

Sunflower Lecithin

Most of the almond milks contain the same emulsifier, sunflower lecithin. Though it is classified as an emulsifier here, it is also a nutritional supplement to potentially balance blood cholesterol level and enhance cognitive function etc2. However, within a tiny amount being added to almond milk, I don’t think it will deliver any significant benefit to your health anyway. The bottom line is that sunflower lecithin is very safe to consume.

Mineral salt: sodium bicarbonate

If you are threatened by its name, think about baking soda or baking powder which we use commonly in our kitchen. They are the same thing. It is very safe to consume.

Vegetable gum (gellan)

Gellan Gum is used here to help stabilize supplemental nutrients like calcium. It could be produced by fermenting sugar with a specific strain of bacteria4. It is widely considered safe. 

Commercial almond milk product comparison

According to the nutritional value, I’ve put almond milk into four different categories.  

1. Sweetened

The first category is sweetened almond milk. I don’t recommend these as they all contain significant amounts of added sugar. They receive a Bronze rating. These products are:

 CalorieCarb/sugarCalcium (comparing with Cow’s milk)SodiumAdditives
Macro Certified Organic Almond MilkHighHighNot sufficientLowNo
Pureharvest Activated Almond Milk OriginalHighHighNo calciumSlightly higherNo
Sanitarium So Good Almond Original HighHighSufficientLowLittle
Sanitarium So Good Almond ChocolateHighHighSufficientLowLittle
Sanitarium So Good Almond VanillaHighHighSufficientLowLittle
Australia’s Own Barista Almond MilkHighHighNo calciumLowMany
Blue Diamond Almond Breeze ChocolateHighHighNot sufficientSlightly higherMany
Coles Organic Unsweetened Almond MilkHighHighSufficientSlightly Higher No

2. Very low added sugar or no sugar, but no calcium fortification

Even though they contain very low or no added sugar, since they don’t contain calcium, which is essential as a cow’s milk alternative, I’ve given them a Bronze rating as well, and would not recommend them. These are:

 CalorieCarb/sugarCalcium (comparing with Cow’s milk)SodiumAdditives
Blue Diamond Low Sugar BaristaLowLowNo calciumLowMany
Coles Barista Almond milkLowLowNo calciumLowMany
Australia’s Own Unsweetened Almond MilkLowLowNo calciumLowNo
Pureharvest Unsweetened Almond MilkhighHighNo CalciumSlightly HigherNo

3. No added sugar but low in calcium 

100ml of standard cow’s milk contains 120mg elemental calcium. You should look for similar amounts in almond milk too. All of the products in this category do not contain not enough calcium and therefore aren’t a great alternative to cow’s milk either. These receive a Silver rating. 

 CalorieCarb/sugarCalcium (comparing with Cow’s milk)SodiumAdditives
Blue Diamond unsweetened almond milkLowLowNot sufficientSlightly Higher Little
Blue Diamond unsweetened vanilla almond milkLowLowNot sufficientSlightly Higher Little
Woolies unsweetened almond milkLowLowNot sufficientSlightly HigherMany
Coles Almond Milk UnsweetenedLowLowNot sufficientSlightly higher 

4. Unsweetened or No Added Sugar with calcium fortification

These three products deserve a Gold rating with an Eat Savvi approval badge. They are not only rich in calcium, but also don’t affect your blood sugar level. They’re great products for when you are looking for a plant-based milk alternative. Feel free to grab them next time you shop. 

 CalorieCarb/sugarCalcium (comparing with Cow’s milk)SodiumAdditivesAvailability
Vitasoy unsweetened almond milkLowLowSufficientLowLittleColes Woolworths
So good unsweetenedLowLowSufficientLowLittleColes Woolworths
So good unsweetened almond coconutLowLowSufficientLowLittleCole Woolworths

My verdict and conclusion

We need to take a neutral perspective when considering the almond milks currently available in Australian supermarkets. If you are a big fan of cow’s milk, please still drink it as it is naturally packed with good nutrients. If you are thinking to change to a plant based milk, almond milk definitely has its unique advantages: compared with soy milk, rice milk or oats milk, almond milk has much less carbohydrates in general, which means it doesn’t raise blood sugar levels. Although commercial almond milk doesn’t have a lot of almonds and is more processed than cow’s milk, it functions well as a cow’s milk alternative, especially when it has sufficient calcium fortification. However, due to its low protein character, it is good to have it with foods that are high in protein e.g. a couple of eggs with breakfast or add some protein powder to make a smoothie. 

Look for almond milk products that are not sweetened; contain similar amounts of calcium as cow’s milk; are relatively low in sodium; and contain minimal additives if that’s a concern for you. Use the above comparisons as your guide. Let us help you shop savvy and Eat Savvi.

Written and date collected by March 2020. 

Reference

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Almond_milk
  2. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319260#health-benefits
  3. https://www.nrv.gov.au/nutrients/sodium
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC91366/

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