A certain friend of mine has been asking me about the differences between soy and almond milk. As many of you know, I dislike milk and never use it. However, I have at one time or another used milk, soy milk, and almond milk. Even though I’ve ingested all three, I’ve never really looked into which might be better. And I’m going to hazard that the answer is one my graduate school professor used all the time: “It depends!”
For a long time I used organic milk because of its increased shelf life. However, I never drank it plain and only used it when making cake, mashed potatoes, and my occasional winter cup of hot cocoa. I switched to soy milk, the most popular and prevalent milk alternative at the time. And for several years, I used only soy milk. It seemed to work well for everything I would have used milk for. I didn’t notice significant taste difference in things like cake and biscuits. Of course, hot cocoa and coffee taste different with soy versus milk. However, more recently I’ve switched to almond milk. Since I’m not lactose intolerant, I don’t avoid milk at all possible costs but never keep it in the fridge. When ordering coffee, I ask for almond milk or soy if they don’t have almond. At other people’s houses or when eating out, I use what’s available or don’t use it at all. In fact, I stopped putting it in coffee unless there is an alternative. Overall it’s not a regular part of my diet. When it comes to dairy, I prefer a little bit of yogurt or cheese.
Milk is often touted as essential and even necessary to your diet and especially children’s diets. And while milk does contain lots of nutrition, it is not always the healthiest choice. Milk is an excellent source of calcium, vitamin D, and potassium. Milk, unless flavored strawberry or chocolate, does not contain added sugars; it only has natural ones in the form of lactose. Additionally, milk comes in many variations: whole, low-fat, lactose free, etc, giving consumers options to choose what is right for their diet.
Nevertheless, hormones and antibiotics are potentially dangerous factors in milk. According to a Harvard scientist, Milk contains hormones, most notably estrogen, which may increase the risk of testicular, prostate, and breast cancer. Additionally, many believe that rBGH, an added growth hormone, is dangerous for human consumption. On the other hand, there are plenty who say rBGH does not affect human health because it does not enter the human body in an accessible format. Nevertheless, it is harmful to the cows, who are more likely to contract mastitis when given rBGH. And I personally, prefer to consume food that has not necessarily harmed the animal in its production (look at that sweet face in the picture above!). But if you’ve ever seen a goat milked, you know while they may not be harmed, they certainly feel it’s not quite dignified.
rBGH also increases the use of antibiotics to treat the increased rate of mastitis. And antibiotic use increases the risk of antibiotic resistant bacteria. While this may or may not transfer to humans while drinking milk, it does cause problems with the spread of disease and new forms of bacteria that do not respond to antibiotic treatment (even the CDC is on board now).
Finally, some people are allergic to lactose or are lactose intolerant. For these people, milk is not a good option.
Soy milk is also a good source of calcium, vitamin D, and protein. Soy milk, however, often contains added sugars. And just like milk, some people are allergic to soy.
While searching, I found several statements linking soy consumption to lower levels of testosterone in men, issues with reproductive health of women, and even increased rates of breast cancer. However, on further searching, I found several medical articles and associations noting a decreased risk of breast cancer, a decreased risk of cancer returning, and no negative effect on reproductive or testosterone levels health if consuming soy products. The one warning I found with soy, is that soy is high in protein and highly concentrated proteins (on the label: “soy protein isolate”) from any source may increase risk of cancer. So, basically, the jury is out on soy and its health effects. Asian cultures that consume much more soy than we do, tend to have fewer of the so-called western diseases. That seems to be the basic assumption for many of these studies. However, Asian diets have more differences from Western ones than just soy consumption.
My big beef with soy happens to be production. Not to get melodramatic on you or anything, BUT soy production is in fact tearing down the rainforest. In fact, it’s second to cattle ranching in its destruction. Soy actually wins out environmentally compared to meat production (that is far-flung and concentrated meat production) but it’s still pretty destructive. And it doesn’t necessarily win compared to local and responsible meat production. Not to mention, soy production uses massive amounts of chemicals to control pests.
Almond milk is a good source of calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin E. Almond milk does not have much protein. But it has fewer calories than soy milk. The original flavor from the grocery store even has fewer calories than skim milk. The downside is that store-bought almond milk is full of additives, including added sugars and synthetic vitamins that according to some can actually harm you. Furthermore, almond milk is not a good choice if you are allergic to nuts!
The United States is the largest producer of almonds in the world and California is the only state that produces them commercially. California has strict pesticide reporting, regulation, and enforcement. And there is an Almond Board that monitors production. From what I can tell, this board has won awards for enforcing sustainable practices such as reduced pesticide use and increased Integrated Pest Management techniques.
And the Winner is?
To summarize: all three offer good sources of vitamin D (all are fortified with vitamin D) and calcium. Milk and soy are better sources of protein. They all vary in their fat and sugar content. Each one may cause an allergic reaction. Almond milk appears to win on the environmental front. And like all the food we consume, there are potential risks in consuming any of these. We are all different and our bodies react differently. I have friends who are lactose intolerant, allergic to soy, or even nuts. I personally try to avoid adding estrogen into my diet because my mom had breast cancer. Therefore, we are all going to choose the milk option that works best for us as individuals. Additionally, cost may be a factor. Regular milk is cheaper than organic, soy, or almond. It’s heavily subsidized making it affordable. So, it depends.
However, I tend to agree with those who argue the best option is to eat close to home and as little processed food as possible. And I tend to agree with this whether you are milking your goat or cow; getting your milk locally; or soaking, blending, and straining your almonds. I do occasionally buy almond milk because it’s convenient. However, when I can, I make it at home from raw almonds. Sometimes I even mix in coconut water and flesh from a young coconut (that’s my favorite option). However, the milk made at home only lasts a few days. It has an extremely short shelf life. From what I can tell, the problem isn’t with any of the actual milks, it’s with the additives and production practices.