I decided to (nearly) eliminate dairy from my diet this past year for a number of reasons. We all know there are a host of ethical issues with industrial dairy farming, but I will focus here on the health-related concerns I have with milk.
First off, I had been learning more and more that dairy is not the panacea that we’ve been led to believe. We have come to associate milk with calcium and bone health because the dairy industry provides a lot of money to the American Dietetics Association (and spends a lot of money on “Got Milk?” campaigns) to tell us so. In large-scale, prospective studies, however, dairy has actually been associated with increased risk of fractures. In the Harvard Nurses Health Study, in which approximately 78,000 nurses were followed for over 12 years, those who drank two or more glasses of milk per day had twice the risk of hip fracture than those who drank a glass a week or less.
An interesting factoid to consider: We are so focused on getting calcium from milk and other dairy products but when you consider that cows are actually vegan, it makes you wonder why we don’t just get our calcium from plant sources like they do.
Second, I was challenged to reflect on the biological purpose of milk. The naturally-occurring hormones in cow’s milk are intended for a mother to nurture its calf – the same for human mother’s milk and her baby. A mother’s milk provides nutrients and hormones to foster growth and development. As we age out of childhood, however, we no longer need these growth promoters (let alone those from a cow) and in fact, they could be detrimental. Along with the natural hormones, most dairy products contain additional antibiotics and hormones from cows being raised to produce the greatest quantity of milk in the least amount of time. These hormones can lead to a host of health issues, including early puberty and cancers. The use of antibiotics in food-producing animals also contributes to the global issue of antibiotic resistance, making it more difficult as time goes on to treat infections. While purchasing organic milk can minimize health risks, it does not eliminate them completely. The main protein in milk, casein, has been shown as well to be a cancer promoter (encouraging cancer cells to replicate).
Finally, we all know many people who are lactose intolerant – but even greater numbers are sensitive enough to dairy that it causes low-level inflammation, which can cause everything from bloating and constipation to rashes and inflamed joints. So, for anyone with arthritis, digestive problems, autoimmune disease or other inflammation-related conditions, minimizing or eliminating dairy is a good idea.
At this point, you’re probably thinking I’m crazy. How can I tell you to stay away from milk, cheese, yogurt and ice cream?! I’m not necessarily saying that you can never have these foods, especially if you don’t have major obvious health or ethical issue with dairy. What I am saying is that we all should think of the sources and amounts of dairy we consume. Substitute your cereal or coffee milk with almond, coconut or rice milk and then occasionally use organic Greek yogurt or a dollop of goat cheese. It’s not about depriving yourself, but maintaining a healthy balance that works for you and your body.
Why make it when I can just buy it?
So these are the reasons I choose to steer clear of cow’s milk. But why make my own almond milk and not just buy it from the store? The main reason is the food additive carrageenan. While carrageenan itself is natural in that it’s extracted from red seaweed (also known as irish moss), research has shown that regular consumption of foods with carrageenan can lead to chronic inflammation. Carrageenan has no nutritional value but is often used as a thickener and emulsifier to improve the texture of many processed foods like ice cream, yogurt, cottage cheese and non-dairy milk alternatives. I once spent 30 minutes (unsuccessfully) looking at every container of almond milk on the shelves at Whole Foods to try and find one that did not contain carrageenan. It was then that I decided to try making my own. The truth is, I don’t even know why carrageenan is a necessity. After a couple hours in the refrigerator, the milk thickens enough that it’s tasty to drink out of a glass.
The question I’m asked most about making my own almond milk is whether it’s hard to do. The truth is, it’s pretty simple. The longest part of the process is soaking the almonds, which requires zero active effort. After the how, the next question I’m asked is whether it’s more expensive to make your own than buy it. That answer is a little trickier because it really depends where you buy your almonds and whether you buy organic ones or not. If cost is a concern, I know people who buy their almonds in bulk from Costco or Sam’s. For me, it’s worth the bit of time and equivalent cost to have control over what’s in my almond milk. In addition, you end up with leftover almond pulp that you can put in your refrigerator (or freezer if it’s ended up stockpiling like mine) and then use for smoothies, as a spread on fruit, in baking recipes or any other creative way you can come up with.
Ok, enough of my ramblings… here’s how I do it:
1 Cup raw almonds
4 Cups water + more for soaking
1/2 tsp vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract
Cinnamon, to taste
You will also need something to strain the milk after blending. A nut milk bag works best and is easiest to handle, but you can try a tightly woven cheesecloth instead.
1. Put almonds into a bowl and cover with water. Cover with a dishtowel and let soak 12-24 hours.
2. When ready to make the milk, rinse the soaked almonds. You’ll see they are plumped up and if you eat one, it is much softer (some evidence even shows that it’s best to eat almonds after soaking because it makes them easier to digest and the nutrients more available).
3. After rinsing, put the almonds into a blender with 4 C water. Ideally, use purified water but I most often use water filtered through my Pur faucet attachment. Add 1/2 tsp vanilla bean paste and cinnamon.
4. Blend for 1-3 minutes (depending on the power of your blender) until the milk looks creamy white and fairly free of almond “debris”. I have a Vitamix so 1 minute is sufficient, but you can eye it to get a good idea.
5. Using a nut milk bag, strain the milk 1/2 the container at a time. The milk will strain through slowly on its own, but I like to squeeze it to speed up the process and make sure I get all the milk out. Just a warning, the first time you do this it will feel oddly like you are milking a cow.
6. After straining, put the milk back into the blender along with a dash or two of salt and more cinnamon if you’d like. Blend for a couple more seconds.
Voilà! You have yummy almond milk that will stay fresh in the fridge for 3-4 days. The milk will separate a bit between uses so just give it a quick stir before pouring. You can make more than the 4 servings, but make sure you only make as much as you will use in a couple days.
A couple notes:
There are also other ways you can sweeten and flavor your almond milk. You can soak 2-3 dates for a couple hours to soften them up and then add them to the blender. You can even add cacao to make a chocolate milk. I’ve also just made it plain with a dash of salt if I’m using it for smoothies because I can add in flavors later.
Other possibilities that I have tried and will post later are hemp milk and cashew milk, which give a variety in texture, flavor and the types of nutrients in the milk.
Lastly, here is the nut milk bag I have and am quite fond of. I am not connecting in any way to the people who make it – I just tried it and like it: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B004ETJH66/ref=wms_ohs_product?ie=UTF8&psc=1
All my friends should be on notice that they might be receiving one for the holidays this year.
- 1 cup almonds
- 4 cups water + more for soaking
- 1/2 tsp vanilla paste or vanilla extract
- Cinnamon, to taste
- Put almonds in a bowl and cover with water. Cover with a dishtowel and soak 12-24 hours.
- When ready to make the milk, rinse the soaked almonds.
- After rinsing, put the almonds in the blender with 4 cups of water. Add 1/2 tsp vanilla paste or extract and cinnamon.
- Blend for 1-3 minutes (depending on your blender) until the milk looks creamy white and fairly free of almond "debris."
- Use a nut milk bag or cheese cloth to strain the milk a 1/2 container at a time. The milk will strain through slowly on its own, but I like to squeeze it to speed up the process and make sure I get all the milk out.
- After straining, put the milk black into the blender along with a pinch or two of salt and more cinnamon if you'd like. Blend for a couple more seconds.