Here's Everything You Need to Know About Plant-Based Milk
The milk section at Whole Foods is like walking up to the counter at the ice cream shop and not knowing which flavor to choose because there are so many to pick from. Whole milk, 1%, 2%, fat free, soy milk, almond milk, cashew milk, hazelnut milk, coconut milk, pea milk...the list can go on and on. This doesn't even include the different flavors each one has... vanilla, chocolate, sweetened, unsweetened, strawberry, turmeric, cinnamon, maple, hummus... (Ok, might have made up that last one. But there are so many flavors out today, it's bound up to end up existing at some point. Convinced.) What's with this new trend? Since when has plant-based milk taken over the shelves?
When Did Dairy Become Scary?
Going dairy free has been very common in the last couple of years; not because dairy is necessarily unhealthy, but because lactose intolerance, or the inability to digest lactose, the sugar found in milk and milk products, has become more common. Lactose intolerance usually stems from the lack of the enzyme lactase, which breaks down lactose into glucose and galactose. Keep in mind this does not mean you are allergic to milk. Lactose intolerance is different from a milk allergy in that it won't lead to anaphylactic shock. (Milk is a common allergen, by the way.) Not digesting lactose causes this sugar to pass through to the colon undigested, leading to very uncomfortable symptoms like bloating or gas. To put it shortly, those who suffer from lactose intolerance know it's not fun.
Although some brands began selling cow milk with the lactase enzyme in it already (meaning the lactose was already broken down in the milk), such as Lactaid, eating a plant-based diet was becoming very common. Therefore, food industries, knowing that a vast majority of the population would not be buying cow milk due to intolerances, and with the rising increase in veganism, knew they would benefit from making a completely plant-based milk substitute.
Soy milk gained popularity in the 2000s, with almond milk passing it in sales in the last couple of years. Since then, plant-based milk sales have soared, and it didn't stop at almond; millions of companies have already come out with everything from flax milk, to coconut milk, to oat milk, to rice milk.
I know what you're asking yourselves. Whaaaat? Since when can we milk these things!!???
It's basically the same idea for every single plant-based milk product out there: Blend nut/seed/oat/etc. with clean water, pour through a cheese cloth to get rid of "pulp", and add any other additives/sweeteners/flavors of choice.
So no, you're not really "milking" anything...almond milk is just almonds blended with water. But the term works, especially in terms of marketing, so we're just going to stick with what works...cause if it ain't broke, don't fix it, am I right?! (And let's be honest...can anybody call it "nut juice" with a straight face?)
Should I Make the Switch?
If you're lactose intolerant and/or vegan and want to enjoy something kind of similar to whole milk, then by all means!If you're not intolerant or vegan...then make sure to read carefully; this is very important.
Yes, plant-based milks are vegan, so no animals products are used in the production process. Additionally, there are no worries about cows that are treated with hormones or antibiotics that can in turn affect our health. They are also very low in saturated fat, which is solid fat that is found in whole milk that can be harmful to our heart and arteries in high quantities. However, keep in mind that whole milk that comes from cows is very high in calcium, which we need for strong bones, Vitamin D (enriched, not naturally present), and protein, an essential macronutrient, and dairy is usually where most people get their daily intake of calcium. Therefore, if thinking about making the switch and ditching the dairy, these things should be considered.
Thankfully, most plant-based milk brands nowadays are fortifying their products with calcium, Vitamin D, other vitamins, and sometimes even a plant-based protein, so that's definitely a plus. However, it is crucial that you read the ingredients on the cartons before purchasing a plant-based milk, because many brands are using GMO almonds and/or adding additives such as emulsifiers, gums, synthetic vitamins, preservatives, and thickeners that are questionable and may be detrimental to our health.
The key ingredients to stay clear of in plant-based milks are: GMO almonds/soy, carrageenan, Vitamin A Palmitate, and natural and artificial flavors.
Also, stay clear of sweetened plant-based milks that may have way too much grams of sugar per serving. It's always best to buy unsweetened and use it in ways that will sweeten the milk naturally or disguise the bland taste, such as in making oatmeal, making smoothies, or with granola/cereal.
So, general rule when deciding if to make the switch or not if you're not intolerant or vegan: whole milk is higher in calcium and protein, so if switching to plant-based milks, make sure you're getting those nutrients from somewhere else. Plant-based milks, on the other hands, are free of saturated fat and are usually fortified. However, keep in mind that some plant-based milks may contain dangerous additives and too much sugar, so be on the lookout for brands that are free of both.
VERY important: Plant-based milks are NOT a substitute for mother's milk or cow's milk, ESPECIALLY in children under one year old. They differ widely in nutrients, especially in essential nutrients for babies. Please consult a doctor or dietitian to decide whether or not switching to plant-based milks is right for you and your individual nutrient needs.
Can I Make My Own Plant-Based Milk at Home?
Of course! This is actually gaining high popularity in people who wish to avoid the added sugars, emulsifiers, gums, synthetic vitamins, preservatives, and thickeners.
What you will need:
1) Nut/Seed/Food Item of Choice (almonds, cashews, pecans, walnuts, pistachios, hazelnuts, oats, flax, coconut shreds, etc.)
2) Lots of clean, filtered water
3) A cheese cloth/nut milk bag
5) Sweeteners/flavors of choice (vanilla bean/vanilla extract, cinnamon, dates, turmeric, cacao, honey, sea salt, etc.)
If using nuts, soak them overnight (about 1 cup) in enough water to cover them, or for 4-6 hours. Rinse them well with clean water after and discard the water used for soaking.
Take the nuts, or any other thing being used (seeds, oats, coconut, etc.) and blend with about 6 cups of water on high for one to two minutes.
Pour through a cheese cloth to separate the liquid from the leftover pulp, catching the liquid in a separate container. Make sure to squeeze the pulp as hard as you can and make sure no moisture is left. (Pro tip: Don't throw away the pulp!!! It can be used as flour to bake many delicious things! There are a bunch of recipes online on how to reuse leftover almond pulp from making almond milk!)
Pour the liquid back in the blender, along with any other ingredient you desire (1-2 pitted dates, cinnamon, cacao...anything!) and blend again for about one minute.
Store in a glass container and keep in fridge for about five to seven days...so much creamier than store bought!
So, no...you won't have to wake up at 5 in the morning and go to the barn to milk your almonds. All you need is a blender, some water, and a cheese cloth! Bet ya didn't think it was that simple.
Whether or not you decide to go plant-based, make sure you're making the correct informed decision that is right for you and your body. There are pros and cons to both sides, and the nutrients in both are a definite consideration. And if you decide to stay with OG cows milk...