Almond milk chronicles: A realistic look at its taste, nutrition and benefits

almond milk in the fridge Almond milk regret (Image: Sandhya Raghavan)

During one of my Amazon Fresh jaunts, I noticed that a brand was giving away a four-litre pack of almond milk for a song. I always wanted to give plant-based milk a try, thinking could be my gateway food to full-fledged veganism.

When the four, large tetra packs arrived later that day, I was thrilled. I immediately set about making my first cup of almond milk coffee à la Instagram influencer.

A bad taste in the mouth

The excitement didn’t last too long. I took a sip of the beverage and there it was — instant regret.

“WTF is this taste?” I thought. I always imagined almonds to be decadent, packed with flavour and fat. What I held in my hand was a chalky-tasting liquid that somehow seemed to overpower the taste of coffee.

My heart sank further thinking about the fate of the other three unopened tetra packs in the fridge. How was I going to finish four litres when I can barely get through a sip?

All my tricks to repurpose almond milk failed, including a very insipid rendition of chia seed pudding and Alfredo sauce. And if you want to make your oats breakfast taste viler, try it with almond milk.

That’s when I took a good look at almond milk and how it realistically fares against cow milk.

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What is almond milk?

Almonds obviously don’t have tiny teats. Almost all nut “milks” are made from grinding them with water and filtering the liquid.

Contrary to what we believe, almond milk is not a recent invention by friendly tree-hugging folks. Records (Wikipedia) say that it was first invented in Italy in the 12th century.

Faux milks or mylks are also made from cashew, soy, peas, coconut, hemp, rice and oats.

Almond milk vs Cow milk

Anyone expecting almond milk to taste like badam barfi will be in for a rude shock (like me). If you buy the unsweetened variety, it tastes chalky and bland. To make it somewhat palatable, you will have to add some kind of sweetener, either sugar or maple syrup.

Almond milk is a dairy substitute, which means it can be used instead of milk in coffee, tea, oatmeal, cereal, etc. But its resemblance to milk starts and ends with its colour and consistency.

In other words, it’s only a cow milk substitute because it’s a white liquid that’s potable.  It won’t taste or behave like regular cow milk, but it’s a sacrifice you have to make if you want to go plant-based.

Cow milk though bland has a distinct aroma and taste, which we associate commonly with dairy. They are attributed to the unique composition of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, micronutrients and enzymes.

Bovine milk is a compositionally and structurally complex colloidal dispersion that consists of tiny fat globules and protein nanoparticles (casein micelles) suspended in a watery medium that contains various soluble components, including sugars, oligosaccharides, proteins, and minerals (Jukkola & Rojas, 2017)

Plant-based milk contains different types of fats and molecules that give it a different mouthfeel and flavour depending on its source. Soy milk has a “bean-y” flavour while almond milk is “nutty.”

“This can be off-putting to some consumers because it does not meet their sensory expectations, and means that milk cannot always be simply replaced with seed milk alternatives,” says a 2019 review in Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety.

Many consumers have grown up drinking bovine milk and are therefore familiar with its distinctive physicochemical and sensory attributes. It is a low-viscosity fluid, with an optically opaque creamy white appearance and characteristic bland flavor profile (Schiano, Harwood, & Drake, 2017). As a consequence, consumers often expect plant-based milk substitutes to have fairly similar attributes

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The benefits of almond milk

While it’s not a perfect substitute for dairy, almond milk does have its merits, if you are willing to look past the taste.

It’s great for people who have cow’s milk allergy and are lactose intolerant.

Almonds are also rich in monosaturated fatty acids or MUFA, which can help in weight loss and weight management. There’s some compelling evidence that MUFA reduces low-density lipoprotein content in the body.

Although almonds are high in fat, almond milk itself is low in calories. That’s because only a small quantity of almonds is in the final product after it’s diluted with water. A cup of almond milk (236.5ml) is between 30-40 calories. The same quantity of skimmed cow milk is 80 calories.

The nuts are also a good source of nutrients like proteins, fibre, vitamin E and manganese. Here’s a complete nutritional profile of almond milk.

Of all plant-based milks, almond milk is considered nutritionally better.

The dark side of almond milk

That being said, it’s also important to know the unpalatable side of almond milk, starting with the taste.

Don’t let me get to you. You could develop an acquired taste if you kept at it. But speaking from experience, almond milk won’t give you the same satisfaction dairy can.

It is obviously harder on the pocket. Foodiosity says that almonds used for milk could be sold as nuts. So the high price covers some of the costs.

Almond milk brands may be ripping you off. Business Insider calls it a “scam” after it found that popular brands of almond milk may have only trace amounts (2%) of almonds in it. That means there’s very little protein in the end product.

 Each half gallon carton contains very few actual almonds. Evidence shows there may be just over a handful.

If the environment is your concern, you won’t be thrilled by what you are about to read. Almond is a water-guzzling plant. It takes five litres of water to produce a single almond.  A study said that almond production uses 17 times more water than dairy production.

So there you have it. Unless you want to adopt a plant-based lifestyle for humane or environmental purposes, you are better off sticking to cow milk.

As for the four lonely one-litre tetra packs lying in my fridge, they are up for grabs.