Cow’s milk is getting less popular — according to Statistics Canada, per capita consumption dropped by 21 percent from 1997 to 2016 — and milk alternatives are on the rise. For those who are thinking of making the switch, there’s a whole aisle of options, including soy milk, coconut milk, rice milk and hemp milk. But the most popular alternative by far is almond milk: According to Nielsen, in the U.S., consumers bought more than twice as much almond milk in 2015 as all other “milks” combined.
People often switch to almond milk if they’re vegan, lactose-intolerant, or even just counting calories: almond milk only has about 30 calories per cup, versus 129 for a cup of 2% milk. And plenty drink it because it’s believed to be both healthier and easier on the Earth. But is it really? We dug into the science behind the claims to see if they held up.
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How does almond milk stack up on bone health?
It’s great! Almond milk has most of the same micronutrients — a.k.a. vitamins and minerals — as cow’s milk. Most importantly, both contain about 30 percent of your recommended daily intake of calcium and have added vitamin D, which helps your body absorb calcium. According to Maria Ricupero, a registered dietitian who works for Toronto General Hospital, unless you have a very healthy diet, it’s challenging to get enough calcium without either milk or a milk alternative.
Does that mean almond milk is nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk?
Not quite. When you get into macronutrients — the balance of protein, carbohydrates and fat — cow’s milk is better. The key is the protein: A glass of 2% milk packs 9 grams of protein, which helps build muscle and keeps you feeling full. “I see milk as almost a complete food,” says Ricupero. “It has a nice combination of protein, carbohydrate, maybe a bit of fat, and the micronutrients as well.”
A glass of almond milk, on the other hand, only has about 1 gram of protein. That’s the main reason why Ricupero recommends that if you’re looking for a milk alternative, you opt for soy milk, which has about 7 grams of protein per cup. “Soy is the most comparable to milk in terms of vitamins, nutrients and protein,” she explains.
Is almond milk better for your heart?
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Probably not. The argument here is that while cow’s milk contains quite a bit of saturated fat (unless it’s skim milk, of course), almond milk has none. But the newest evidence has suggested that eating saturated fat doesn’t increase your risk of developing heart disease. Unfortunately, there’s no definitive answer yet. “Systematic reviews are showing that for healthy people [without a heart condition or diabetes], saturated fats don’t increase the risk of cardiovascular disease,” explains Ricupero. “But there’s also some other research that tells us there’s about a 14 percent increased risk of getting a heart attack when saturated fat intake is high.” Her bottom line? Saturated fat is fine in moderation. Don’t chug homo milk, but if you’re drinking two or three cups a day of 1% or 2% milk, your heart won’t suffer as long as the rest of your diet isn’t super high in saturated fat.
Does drinking almond milk instead of dairy milk lower your risk of cancer?
There’s really no strong evidence right now that links dairy products to cancer. Drinking lots of milk and consuming lots of animal fat is a risk factor for prostate cancer in men, and might increase your risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, but those links need more research to be confirmed. Milk also doesn’t seem to affect the risk of breast cancer, the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women. (While we’re on the subject, soy milk doesn’t increase the risk of breast cancer either — in fact, it might decrease it.)
Is almond milk better for the Earth?
Probably. Almond milk has made headlines for being a water-sucker: It takes 1.1 gallons of water to grow an almond, and most almonds are cultivated in drought-stricken California. But milk production also requires tons of water, and cows are also a major source of greenhouse gases (because they burp and fart out methane — enough that every cow has about the same impact on global warming as a car does). “To produce milk and dairy foods in general requires a lot of resources,” says Ricupero. “The choices we make really do have an impact, not just on our health, but on the health of the planet.”
Originally published September 2017; Updated September 2018.