Is Almond Milk Actually Healthy?

Almond milk has quickly become America's favorite alternative to cow's milk. But is it really as healthy as many believe?

Almond milk is flying off the shelves.

It's now America's favorite alternative to dairy milk by a massive margin, easily overshadowing choices like soy milk, coconut milk and rice milk. According to Nielsen, almond milk sales grew by 250 percent between 2011 and 2016.

Cow's milk is as American as apple pie, but as plant-based diets continue to become more mainstream in our culture, many have abandoned it. Almond milk looks and tastes similar to cow's milk, and almonds have long been associated with a plethora of health benefits. But is the healthiness of almond milk grossly overestimated by the general public?

STACK investigates.

When it comes to almond milk brands, White Wave is king. The company—which produces both the Silk and So Delicious lines of almond milk—did nearly $94 million of almond milk sales in 2016. That makes them the most popular almond milk company in America.

With that, let's dive into the nutrition facts for Silk Original Almondmilk. A one cup serving contains 60 calories, 2.5 grams of fat, 0 grams of saturated fat, 35mg of potassium, 8 grams of carbohydrate, less than a gram of fiber, 7 grams of sugar and 1 gram of protein. It also contains 45% of your daily calcium, 25% of your daily vitamin D and 20% of your daily vitamin E.

Silk Organic Original Almondmilk possesses almost identical nutritional facts (albeit with significantly less calcium). Silk Unsweetened Almondmilk also possesses similar nutritional facts, but with 30 calories, 0 grams of sugar and less than a gram of carbohydrate per serving.

Such varieties of almond milk contain significantly less calories than cow's milk (a cup of whole milk contains 148 calories while a cup of skim milk contains 83 calories). If you simply begin using a cup of unsweetened almond milk with your morning cereal in place of a cup of whole milk, you'll instantly cut out 826 calories a week.

High amounts of calcium, vitamin D and vitamin E are all pluses. Calcium is crucial for building strong bones and maintaining healthy heart, nerve and muscle function. Vitamin D plays an important role in bone health, but it also has a big impact on athletic performance (and many people are unknowingly deficient in it). Vitamin E helps prevent plaque from developing inside your arteries and helps the body make red blood cells.

RELATED: Why Are So Many Athletes Ditching Dairy?

But almond milk is low in one important nutrient commonly associated with cow's milk—protein. Protein is a powerhouse nutrient. It can help curb overeating by keeping you fuller for longer. High-quality protein provides the amino acids muscles need to repair and rebuild, allowing you to recover from exercise and get stronger over time. The body can also use protein as a source of energy.

Most almond milks contain just 1 gram of protein per serving (both whole and skim milk contain 8 grams per serving). Kinda strange considering that almonds themselves are known as an awesome source of protein, right? Well, here's the thing—almond milk actually contains very little almonds. A serving of 23 almonds (1 oz.) contains 6 grams of protein. That means that one serving of almond milk (which has just 1 gram of protein) contains less than four actual almonds. In reality, almond milk is largely composed of filtered water.

Aside from protein, sugar can be a concern when it comes to almond milk. If you're looking for the absolute healthiest form of almond milk, you'd be wised to go for an unsweetened, unflavored variety. Unsweetened almond milk contains zero grams of sugar. Therefore, we can conclude that the sugar content in sweetened almond milk is of the "added" variety. Sweetened, unflavored almond milks usually contain about 7 grams of added sugar per serving. Not terrible, but not ideal. But flavored varieties (such as vanilla or chocolate) of almond milk often contain 16-22 grams of added sugar per serving—a downright dreadful amount.

Added sugar is perhaps the biggest issue in the modern American diet. "Added sugars contribute additional calories and zero nutrients to food," the American Heart Association states. "Over the past 30 years, Americans have steadily consumed more and more added sugars in their diets, which has contributed to the obesity epidemic." Diets high in added sugar have been linked to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, tooth decay and even cancer. The AHA recommends a daily limit of 24 grams of added sugar per day for women and 36 grams per day for men, but the average American consumes a whopping 88 grams of added sugar per day. If your almond milk is packed with added sugar, it's not a healthy choice.

One other concern to keep in mind is carrageenan, a potentially dangerous ingredient we've covered previously. Some almond milks do contain carrageenan, but many do not. To check out what products do and do not contain carrageenan, check out this guide from the Cornucopia Institute.

Almond milk does possess a clear advantage over cow's milk for the many people who are unable to properly digest the latter. Issues such as lactose intolerance, a milk allergy or sensitivity to A1 casein are all reasons why an otherwise healthy person may struggle to digest dairy milk. For such folks, products like almond milk can be a godsend.

So, is almond milk actually healthy? It's hard to give a definitive answer on this one. If you're looking to cut down on calories and added sugar and aren't overly concerned about protein content, unsweetened almond milk can certainly be considered a healthy beverage option. It's also high in calcium, vitamin D and vitamin E. Is it better for you than cow's milk? That's debatable, but it really depends on the individual.

However, flavored varieties stuffed with added sugar just aren't a wise choice. Not only do they make it easy to consume large amounts of added sugar quickly, but they don't have enough protein or fiber to help balance things out.

If you're someone who's looking to move away from cow's milk, there's no harm in giving almond milk a shot. Just make sure you're checking out the sugar content before you buy, and realize that you need to find additional protein sources to make up for what you're missing by nixing cow's milk.

Photo Credit: bhofack2/iStock, pashapixel/iStock

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Topics: PROTEIN | NUTRITION | CALORIES | HEALTHY EATING | WEIGHT LOSS | ALMOND MILK | ALMONDS | VEGETARIAN | EATING HEALTHY | DAIRY PRODUCTS | DAIRY