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Nutrition Comparison: Almond Milk vs. Dairy Milk

Schatzie has bachelor's degrees in animal science and English and a master's in education.

A bottle of almond milk.

A bottle of almond milk.

Why Drink Almond Milk?

Almond milk contains many beneficial vitamins and minerals. For those who cannot consume dairy due to allergies or an intolerance, this plant-based milk is a great alternative. It is even considered by some to be a superior beverage.

One reason why is that most almond milk has fewer calories and less saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and sugar than cow's milk. It also typically has more potassium, fiber, iron, vitamin E, phosphorus, and magnesium. It contains a substantial amount of calcium as well, so substituting it for dairy will likely have minimal impact on the body's calcium levels.

Dairy milk outperforms almond-based milk in protein content. However, it is important to remember that the FDA has found it more beneficial to get protein from sources low in saturated fat, and almond milk has no saturated fat, whereas most dairy milk does.

Further, almond-based milk lacks cholesterol; dairy milk has cholesterol. And, perhaps most importantly, almond milk is lactose-free.

A jug of almond milk in the fridge.

A jug of almond milk in the fridge.

Homemade vs. Store-Bought Almond Milk

To get the most nutrients from every almond, drinking homemade milk is recommended.

Homemade (and How to Make It)

This milk can be made by soaking a cup of almonds overnight, combining them with 4 cups of water, and then processing the mixture in a blender. Salt, vanilla, or honey are optional additions for extra flavor, but try to add as little of these as possible while still achieving a good taste. After straining out the pulp, the remaining liquid is fresh and high in unaltered nutrients.

Store-Bought

In stores, the milk undergoes processing, and ingredients are often added for product preservation and flavoring. However, marketed almond milk is still a great alternative to store-bought dairy products.

 A Closer Look at Almonds

Almond milk is simply ground-up almonds blended together with water. Vanilla, chocolate, and other varieties have added flavorings and sweeteners, and most products on the market are fortified with vitamins and minerals, but the basis of these milks is still ground almonds. Therefore, to determine just how healthy this milk is, a closer look is needed at the almond itself.

Protein

Almonds are a good source of protein. In fact, research backed by the Food and Drug Administration has found that eating nuts such as almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts, macadamias, and pecans in place of other protein-containing foods with a high saturated fat content can actually reduce the instances of cardiovascular disease. Several studies have convincingly shown that almond consumption actively lowers levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol as well.

To gain optimal health benefits, the FDA suggests individuals consume servings of one and a half ounces, or 34 almonds, daily while also following a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol. Although almond milk has less protein than dairy, it is free of saturated fat, whereas all dairy milks with the exception of skim versions are not. Almond milk is also cholesterol-free, making it superior to even most skim milk in this regard.

Vitamin E

Almonds contain the exceptionally beneficial alpha-tocopherol version of vitamin E. According to Oregon State University, this is the only form of vitamin E consistently maintained within the body’s tissues and plasma and also the only form that satisfies recommended dietary allowances(1). Vitamin E works as an antioxidant and therefore reduces damage to the body caused by free radicals. Being fat-soluble, it actively protects against lipid radical damage and LDL oxidation(1). This keeps cells healthy and prevents heart disease.

Magnesium

Magnesium is also found in almonds. This mineral exists within the body at high levels and is found in bones, blood, organs, cells and tissues(2). Magnesium plays an essential role in more than 300 different reactions and is crucial for the proper functioning of nerves and muscles(2). It also provides immune system support and regulates blood pressure and sugar levels(2).

Fiber

Fiber in almonds has many health benefits as well. Diets that incorporate large amounts of fiber regularize bowel movements, maintain gastrointestinal health, lower bad cholesterol, stabilize blood sugar, and promote weight loss (3). Adding more fiber to a diet in the form of almond milk therefore improves health.

Calcium

For individuals who drink dairy milk to get their calcium, they will be pleased to find that almonds contain calcium too. Calcium is important for far more than just the prevention of osteoporosis; it is also essential for muscle and nerve functioning and enables blood to properly clot (4). Further, it prevents cancer, improves cardiovascular health, and aids in weight loss (4).

Phosphorus

Phosphorus in almonds has its own health promoting effects. Next to calcium, phosphorus is the second most common mineral found in the body. When food is eaten, phosphorus helps release its energy and makes it more readily available for use by the body (5). Phosphorus is also contained in DNA and RNA and is therefore needed for growth and in the production of new cells and tissues (5). It actively controls what passes through cell membranes as well (5).

Iron

Almonds provide their milk with iron, which is a crucial mineral in many bodily functions. It is the carrier of oxygen from the lungs to the entire body and an enabler of cellular energy production (6). Iron helps muscles use and store oxygen and is also a main element in the structure of red blood cells and various enzymes (6).

Potassium

Almonds also provide a source of dietary potassium. Potassium is a key electrolyte that is needed to transmit electricity throughout the muscular, nervous, and circulatory systems. Without proper levels heart beats, nerve impulses, and muscle contractions are all negatively affected (7). Potassium is also used by the enzyme responsible for processing carbohydrates (7).  

The milk aisle in a grocery store.

The milk aisle in a grocery store.

Store-Bought Almond Milk vs. Store-Bought Dairy Milk

For those who, for whatever reason, choose not to make almond milk from scratch, this section is meant to illustrate that healthy marketed almond beverages exist and to show the key comparisons that should be made between them and available dairy in an in-store situation that prove them superior.

An example of a comparison of beverages follows below.

In this comparison, two products were picked randomly from the same store. One was an almond beverage (a brand of milk in original flavor that can be found in almost every major grocery store in the US), and the other was a gallon of generic store-brand dairy milk.

The results are displayed in the table below:

 Well-Known Brand Original Flavor Almond MilkGeneric Grocery Store 1% Dairy Milk

Calories

60

130

Total Fat

2.5

2.5

Saturated Fat

0

1.5 

Cholesterol

0

15 

Sodium

150

160 

Potassium

180

0

Fiber

1

0

Sugar

7

15

Protein

1

10

Vitamin A

10%

10%

Vitamin C

0%

4%

Calcium

30%

40%

Iron

2%

0%

Vitamin D

25%

25%

Vitamin E

50%

0%

Phosphorus

2%

0%

Magnesium

4%

0%

These two products are used as examples only; others may have slightly different compositions and nutritional profiles (these just happened to be the milks that I grabbed out of the grocery fridge). The goal here is simply to illustrate that almond milk is available on the market that is nutritionally superior in several ways to available dairy and how a comparison of labels proves this.

Summary of the Comparison

Compared to the generic dairy, this well-known, top-selling brand of almond milk has:

  • fewer calories and less saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and sugar
  • more potassium, fiber, iron, vitamin E, phosphorus, and magnesium
  • equal amounts of vitamin D and A

The almond-based milk does have less beneficial protein and calcium. But, again, this must be weighed against the harmful ingredients it does not contain that are directly correlated to impaired cardiovascular health and that exist in the dairy.

A trip to most grocery stores and a comparison of most products should yield similar results.

How to Use Almond Milk

This milk can be utilized in many different ways; you can do much more than simply drink it plain.

1. Smoothie

Ingredients

  • 2 bananas, sliced and frozen
  • 2 cups almond milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • a sprinkle of nutmeg

Instructions

  1. Combine the first 3 ingredients in a food processor and blend until a nice, smooth consistency.
  2. Add nutmeg on top.

Many other fruit can be substituted for the bananas: Try mango, pineapple, blueberries, etc. and find your preferred combination.

2. Ice Cream

Ingredients

  • 3 bananas, sliced and frozen
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 cup plain almond milk
  • 1 tablespoon candied ginger, chopped

Instructions

  1. Chop bananas and honey in food processor and add almond milk, incorporating until smooth.
  2. Pulse in the candied ginger.
  3. Freeze for one hour in appropriate freeze-safe container.

Courtesy: Food and Wine

3. Baking

In any recipe calling for dairy milk, you can substitute almond milk instead in a 1:1 ratio. If using flavored almond milks with chocolate or vanilla, keep in mind the overall sweetness of the final result may be affected. Adjust other sweeteners accordingly.

Sources

1. Oregon State University accessed at: http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/infocenter/vitamins/vitaminE/

2. Office of Dietary Supplements accessed at http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/magnesium/

3. The Mayo Clinic accessed at http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/fiber/NU00033

4. TODAY Health accessed at http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/16996943/ns/today-today_health/

5. Live Strong accessed at http://www.livestrong.com/article/368873-calcium-magnesium-and-phosphorus-health-benefits/

6. California Government accessed at http://www.cdph.ca.gov/healthinfo/healthyliving/childfamily/documents/mo-agb-ironhandout.pdf

7. Live Strong accessed at http://www.livestrong.com/article/282528-why-are-serum-potassium-levels-important/

8. Live Strong accessed at http://www.livestrong.com/thedailyplate/nutrition-calories/food/generic/almonds-2/

Comments

Zaton-Taran from California on October 21, 2015:

I also like almond butter over peanut butter, because of the vitamins and protein. Great hub. https://hubpages.com/food/Energy-Foods-to-Fight-Fa...

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on April 23, 2015:

I love almond and soy milk. Great news to know it's healthier than regular milk. As for recipes, I would have to try them sometime. I love the varieties that the almond milk have like cashew and chocolate. Voted up for useful!

kim on April 05, 2012:

I like the glass jar size. Where did you get it?