Remember when we thought soy milk was so good for us that we ordered it in every coffee, poured it over our cereal every morning and then men started to get boobs? That was the moment when soy milk started to go downhill for me. But there’s a new non-dairy milk in town that’s filling the gaping, carton-shaped hole soy milk left behind. That would be almond milk. A recent Nielsen study reported that the vaguely nutty, vaguely milky liquid is now America’s favorite dairy substitute, while consumption of cow’s milk is steadily decreasing.
If you’re not lactose intolerant, you may want to ask yourself why you’re drinking a dairy alternative. According to a recent article in The New York Times, the nutritional advantages of non-dairy milks aren’t all that apparent. When it comes to protein, plant-based milks fall short. They hardly contain any, while some have none at all. (For the record, cow’s milk has about eight grams, and soy milk has a comparable amount, but the jury is still divided on whether it’s good for you or awful.)
“But nuts are so healthy!” every nut milk drinker tells herself while she pours hazelnut-flavored almond milk creamer into her morning coffee. How about, healthy-ish. “Plant-based milk beverages do contain nutritional benefits from the actual ingredients they’re based on, but only small benefits since they’re generally strained liquids,” says Jackie Newgent, RDN, culinary nutritionist and author of The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook. “If you want to get the biggest bang for your nutritional buck, your best bet is to eat whole nuts, for instance.”
You say you’re drinking plant-based milks to help the environment? Good for you! It’s a bit more complicated than that. True, it takes a mind-boggling 144 gallons of water to make a gallon of dairy milk. But some say that the mad rush to grow profitable almonds has been catastrophic for California’s dwindling water supply. “This isn’t conclusive research; however, when comparing conventional dairy milk to almond milk, it seems dairy milk emits more greenhouse gases, yet almond milk uses more water for production,” says Newgent.
Hang on, you’re drinking nut milk because you like how it tastes? On a recent afternoon at Man Repeller HQ, we tried a sampling of plant-based milks (i.e., a curated selection of what we could find at our local Whole Foods), so we can tell you how they measure up.
Full disclosure, my milk of choice is whole, non-homogenized, cream-on-top. But, as much as there are certain truths in life that I don’t want to accept, the current dominance of nut milk is something I can’t ignore. We ended up tasting cashew, hemp, macadamia, a medley (in this case, coconut-almond), coconut, and, of course, almond milks. There was a clear winner.
But before we even took a sip, we looked at the ingredients. Most contained some combination of additives and stabilizers whose purpose is to create a silky mouthfeel and homogeneous consistency, but that also meant more random stuff in the ingredients list. Even when you’re buying a so-called healthy dairy alternative, cautions Newgent, you need to read the label. “Watch out for added sugar,” she says. “When in doubt, choose one that is the ‘cleanest,’ which doesn’t contain gums or other ingredient stabilizers which are meant to improve the product’s appeal, not it’s nutritional value to you.”
(If you really want control over what goes into your nut milk, you can always make your own.)
Califia Farms Unsweetened Almond Milk, 48 oz. for $4.99
The almondy, marzipany smell of the milk gave way to a flavor that one taster called “stale cardboard,” and the color was a disconcerting pale grey. This milk is fortified with calcium and other vitamins, but caveat emptor, some nutritionists question whether these added-value vitamins are actually bioavailable (can be used by the body).
Suncoast Gold Unsweetened Macadamia Milk, 33.8 oz. for $5.99
This one smells sweet (thanks, vanilla), but it actually isn’t. It tastes vaguely of salted macadamia nuts. The texture, which is a little gummy and coats your mouth, isn’t so good.
Living Harvest Tempt Hemp Milk, Unsweetened Vanilla, 32 oz. for $4.19
The more we tasted it, the less we liked this hemp milk. The texture was gritty and the aftertaste, bitter.
Blue Diamond Almond Breeze, Unsweetened Vanilla Coconut, 32 oz. for $2.19
“It smells like dessert, but tastes like cardboard,” said one taster. “The branding speaks against my inclination of a Brooklyn-living, artisanal-loving lifestyle.”
So Delicious Unsweetened Organic Coconut Milk, 32 fl oz. for $2.99
For someone who wants an alterna-milk that doesn’t take like anything, this isn’t a bad choice. The flavor is deodorized coconut (read: no flavor at all), and the color, fittingly, is bleached white.
Malk Organics Unsweetened Cashew Milk, $8.99 for 28 ounces
This organic cold-pressed nut milk is the purest, and most expensive, of the bunch. It was also the most delicious by far. The ingredients are just water, cashews and Himalayan salt. It smells a bit like cereal milk and tastes like it too — a little salty, a little nutty. The finish is clean, i.e., no strange aftertaste, and the mouth feel, instead of being viscous or slippery, is just normal. We couldn’t stop drinking it.
Photos by Krista Anna Lewis.