The Rant: Dairy Alternatives Are Mostly Unhealthy
A new mini-industry has made its... whey ...to shelves and cupboards nationwide and that deserves a discussion.
Dairy alternatives are getting glugged down happily by millions, guilt-free. A recent report pegs the sector’s worth at $32 billion over the next 5 years.
All those happy people, and I'm about to ruin it for everyone.
I say that, but if you’re a regular reader, you know what will really happen in this rant... I'm going to tell you all the ways almond-cheese, cashew-yogurt, and the ol' standby soy milk can be beneficial, but I'll open your eyes to how manufacturers are misrepresenting their products and selling you unhealthy garbage.
I don't want your $32 billion to go anywhere near the products touted as dairy alternatives.
Most of our grievances come come down to trust. We trust that when we buy something labelled "almond milk" we are actually getting that thing. Go figure. Today's rant will highlight all the ways the dairy alternative manufacturers are not deserving of that trust.
Moooove over, branded oat milk: we're delivering the truth and you can't stop the Rant Train...
You Love Milk, But Hate To Drink It
I think milk's great. Some people don't. We’ve got enough stuff to worry about as a society right now, so let’s just agree to disagree.
If you're unfamiliar, there are many really great reasons why people don't want to consume dairy. Here’s a quick list, since people love lists now:
- Allergies: As I discussed with Dr. Michael Daines on our podcast, dairy is one of the biggest sources of dietary allergies due to casein, the main milk protein.
- Intolerance: Dairy's problematic for most due to the inability to breakdown lactose, or milk sugar. This leads to anything from a little gas or pain to what we professionals refer to as "Defcon 5" diarrhea.
- Ethics: Some people have a big problem with modern farming methods or even using animal products in general.
- Evolution: A not so great reason, in my humble opinion, is the concept that we're drinking milk of another animal and we've not yet adapted to digesting it etc etc. I mean, that's fine, but I don't know if it scientifically matters. If you can tolerate it, eat it. Some of us can, some of us can't. No big deal.
Despite all it's liabilities, there's a lot to love about milk. It's pretty delicious. It's a low calorie, healthy food (when done right), that has a unique flavor many love. It's rich in healthy fats and micronutrients like calcium, Vitamin D, and more. From milk and dairy products you can make awesome stuff like cheese, yogurt, and my favorite food group: ice cream.
It would make sense that we'd want to replace all that yummy and healthy goodness if we can't or choose not to ingest milk. Like we said, no judgement. No one here is going to force anyone into dairy. In fact, it just means more The Tonight Dough ice cream for me.
And it is in this space that dairy alternatives were born.
Dairy Alternatives 101
“I choose almond milk for our smoothies because it tastes good and has less sugar and calories than milk,” says Wonder Woman aka my wife aka Mom of Triplets + 1. She’s not alone in her thought process.
If we don't want milk, we're not out on our dairy-eres. There are a number of healthy foods that can be turned into "milks" and used as substitutes. The most common are nuts (almonds, cashews, coconuts), soy, rice, and oats.
Many people resort to buying their dairy alternatives because, well, we're not wizards for goodness sake! Have you ever tried to find the udders on an almond?
Just kidding of course. But, making your own dairy alternatives can be a lengthy process. After all that work, you’re left with a great food that unfortunately isn’t good for very long. It’s work that most of us don’t want to do.
When we sub out milk, we’re trying to replace its:
- Low calories
- Healthy protein & fat content
- Micronutrients like calcium, Vitamin D, and more
It’s very easy to swap milk for a dairy alternative for the first two, as Mrs. Big Mouth Pharmacist so prudently does. Most dairy alternatives are great tasting and even have the same consistency as dairy. It's very easy to use them as substitutes for recipes, and you even save on calories!
It gets a little murky if we’re trying to use a dairy substitute to match or improve on the nutritional profile of milk. Nuts are a great healthy protein and fat source, and real nut milk can have healthier macronutrient combinations.
Matching micronutrients is when it gets real challenging. We have to remember that the vitamins, minerals, and other goodies found in dairy will be different from dairy alternatives. While almonds are rich in calcium, they have approximately 1/3 of the amount of traditional milk, for example.
With this, I present you the thesis for this article:
STOP TRYING TO MAKE DAIRY ALTERNATIVES EXACT SUBSTITUTES FOR DAIRY!
Many consumers don’t understand that nutritionally, these dairy alternatives are not direct substitutes. Some may even shy away from trying almond or oat milk because they don’t want to skimp on their main source of calcium. Thankfully here in America, a little confusion can be solved with a bunch of manipulation.
Manufacturers have created Franken-milks to meet consumer demand. “Make my almond milk ‘as nutritious’ as regular milk!” You asked for it.
The result? A number of products with a number of BIG problems.
Problem 1 - It's More Like Juice Than Milk
What happens when you need to mass-produce almond milk to have it literally everywhere, but keep it fresh, and ensure a single, unique taste so every consumer gets that branded experience?
In one of our original rants, we broke down why we’re not fans of juicing. With juice, we don’t like people separating out the healthiest part - the fiber and pulp - from the vitamins, water, and sugar. In dairy substitutes land, it’s a concern, but less of one, especially since the leftovers can be (and often are) used in other recipes.
Our biggest, juice-iest problem is with store bought juice. The fruit juice, which itself is already a waste product from some other farming process, is manipulated over and over again, destroying the integrity of most of the remaining nutritious parts. It’s stored in vats and continuously hyper-processed until it’s devoid of color and flavor.
“But my OJ is orange and didn’t kill those 2 people,” says a very loyal fan. There’s a reason why Tropicana looks and tastes the same in Woodstock, West Hartford, and West Hollywood. Heck, it tastes the same now as it did 20 years ago! Proprietary flavor mixes where the specific chemical-y ingredients don’t have to be disclosed are the answer. Dyes and other compounds to improve the consistency and appearance are the exclamation point.
All those wonderful tricks in making juice cheaply but consistently are repeated, ad nauseum, with dairy alternatives.
“Contains cashews.” Yeah, it also “contains more chemicals than my swimming pool.”
The over-processing, nutrient degradation, and manipulation for flavor and consistency isn’t the only problem...
Problem 2 - There's Extra Junk In The Almond Milk Trunk
We buy our supplements and nutritional products based on the front of the packaging, which is entirely marketing.
We should, instead, pay attention to the ingredient panels, which is an almost complete truth about what's in the bottle.
A quick glance at many dairy alternatives' ingredients list will reveal something hidden in plain sight: there's a laundry list of added ingredients in these products.
I’m a simple man with simple needs. Peanut butter should be peanuts and salt. Almond milk should be almonds and water. The work week should be 4 days max.
I had one of our crew review 21 different dairy alternatives. These were among the highest grossing and most widely distributed products. We tallied up how many times which types of ingredients showed up on the “Other Ingredients” section of the Nutrition Facts Panel.
Here’s the awesome and enlightening survey:
Almost all contained added sugar, salt, and "natural flavors."
Many had gross, modified oils that are of the unhealthiest out there. We touched on those in our Guide To Dietary Fats, but essentially they are chemically modified, trans-fat-ish compounds that lead to health problems, not stop them.
The frequent use of thickening agents like guar gum was disturbing. It’s like using foaming agents in toothpaste (check out our upcoming conversation with our holistic dentist on the Podcast). It’s a completely unnecessary ingredient and serves no purpose but to make us feel cleaner. We also THINK these dairy alternatives should be thick like milk. Anyone who has had homemade almond milk knows that it’s a bit watery.
“Natural flavor” makes this, as we previously said, almond-juice and not almond-milk.
What does ‘natural flavor’ even mean? Why is there no rule allowing us to know what specifically is in that ‘natural’ flavor?
While we’ve got the ingredient list out, let’s talk about the biggest problem I have with dairy alternatives - the vitamins.
Problem 3 - Unhealthy, Synthetic Vitamins
In an attempt to make our mass produced dairy products resemble the nutritional content of milk, we’ve had to spike our chemically-stuffed dairy alternatives with even more synthetic compounds.
You want calcium? How about a little Vitamin A? Boom ya’ got it.
Unfortunately, you’re going to be getting isolated, synthetic vitamins, in the cheapest and often the most inabsorbable forms.
Calcium found in almost all dairy alternatives is calcium carbonate. This calcium is not from the almonds or oats, but from a drum from a raw material supplier from who knows where.
We’ve discussed in our fan-favorite article Calcium Doesn’t Work, why exactly carbonate is no good. Long story short: calcium carbonate is very natural as it is found in rocks and chalk. Yup, calcium carbonate comes from rocks and shells.
So, yes, you’re getting 200mg of ‘calcium’ with your store-bought cashew milk, but it doesn’t REALLY count. It’s added, synthetic calcium supplementation from the worst possible source. How well do you think we absorb that stuff? What do you think happens when too much of it gets in our blood?
So if you skip dairy, just know that you’ll come up short on dietary calcium. It’s just the breaks. Don’t sweat it, but supplement instead with one of our food-sourced calcium products.
It’s not all about calcium. Vitamin A. B vitamins. Vitamin D (which is normally Vitamin D2). Vitamin E. All isolated ingredients you’re more likely to find in the mediocre middle-level supplements than you would naturally occurring in a premium, nutritious food.
Part of the reason this happens is the same reason they use flavor and guar gum: consistency. Foods will vary from batch to batch and it’s difficult to keep to target nutrient goals. By using synthetic vitamins, we can make claims on the label that wouldn’t be scalable for the mass-produced mayhem that’s going on.
To summarize, almost all dairy alternatives aren’t what they say they are. They are hyper-processed and chemically modified to give the perception of an equal substitute, so much so that synthetic vitamins are used to try to convince us we are getting something nutritious. We are being lied to.
Dairy Alternatives Buying Guide
I stressed mass-produced products so much today because that’s what almost all of us will see when shopping for these dairy alternatives. Niche brands that produce with integrity are few and far between - just like with the supplement industry.
There are many great options out there, so here’s a couple simple pointers on what to look for:
- Look for products that have only a few ingredients
- Make sure the ingredients are FOODS that you can easily recognize
- Be on the lookout for added vitamins
- Natural (or artificial) flavors are a BIG red flag. Except for flavored products, of course, like hazelnut creamers.
I’ll point out a few we’ve recommended over the years:
- Elmhurst Plant Milks
- New Barn Almond Milk
- Malk Milk
- Nutpods for non-dairy creamer
- Forager Cashew Yogurt
- Sweet Home Butter Alternative
- Chosen Foods Vegan Mayo
There’s an even better alternative - DIY!
DIY Almond Milk Recipe (And A Future Book!)
The best way to enjoy dairy alternatives is to make them yourself. You’ll get all the benefits, none of the nonsense. Here’s our favorite almond milk recipe:
Even better: We’re releasing our own DIY Dairy Alternatives eBook in 2 weeks! Sign up below for early access and get it the minute I approve it!
Get Our Dairy Alternative eBook
Get Early Access To Our Dairy Alternative eBook by signing up. You'll be the FIRST to get your hands on our DIY recipes for dairy alternatives, made by the experts at Woodstock Vitamins!
If you’re not a fan of dairy, you should at least be a fan of dairy jokes: Why do cows have hooves and not feet? Because they lac-toes.
I’m trying to lighten the mood because I’m about to keep it real as I do. The problem of unhealthy dairy alternatives, I believe, is 80% our fault.
We want our dairy alternatives to be more dairy than they should be, instead of accepting that they will be different. They’re close, but different.
It’s easy for us to believe the hype in marketing and the false promises on the front of the box or bottle. We almost want to believe because we’re so tired. It takes too much effort to fact-check the mega corporations that are lying to us at every. single. turn.
Even when we do know there’s a problem (like we do now!), we don’t push back. We vote with our wallets, and our $32 billion says we’re cool with everything as it is.
My job is to nudge you. All we need to do is just make a little effort. A simple turn of the package 90 degrees will get you so much closer to the truth. It cuts through the BS. Transparency is the first step to holding people accountable..
You can make better decisions when you’re made aware of the problem and armed with truth. The system doesn’t want that. Break the system.
It takes just a little effort. A slight change of perspective, and you’re closer to what’s real.
I want to arm you with that knowledge and give you that nudge. That’s all I can hope for on my professional journey.
Just trying to keep it real...
Neal Smoller, PharmD
Owner, Pharmacist, Big Mouth