Sunday, May 6, 2012

Not Milk? A Crash Course to Dairy Alternatives (and Hummus!)

                                            Welcome to Milk 101!

Recently, I gave a speech on the general faults of big business in the dairy industry. It was essentially a composition of quick hits at every blatantly absurd thing they've been up to as of late --- advertising, scientific studies, farming, government influence --- the whole nine yards. Here's one example: 
The quote: "My hero? Think hard. It’s milk."
I was thinking in terms of heroes that it might be Ghandi or MLK... but MILK probably would have been my next guess if I’d thought a little harder about it. 

"Some studies suggest that teens who choose it instead of sugary drinks tend to be leaner, plus the protein helps build muscle." Hold the phone... people who drink less sugary drinks..... are generally less fat... than people who drink more sugary drinks?! What! Why didn't anyone tell me?!

"So grab a glass. Then you can change the future, too."  And what’s this? Grabbing a glass of milk will enable me to change the future? FORGET SCHOOL. I've got milk.

Sarcasm aside, it wasn't a challenge to make the popular 'Got Milk?' advertisements look mildly incoherent and majorly ridiculous in one swift motion.

Anyway, I touched on a number of dairy downsides in my speech, but didn't have time to provide solutions. Rather than leaving off on a "milk is bad-- the end" note, I figured this would be my best option for a follow-up. For anyone curious about ways to de-milk their kitchen, here's the good, bad, and odd of popular dairy alternatives. (Hey, at least they're hormone, pus, blood, fecal matter, and antibiotic-free. Yum.)

I'll create a post on dairy product alternatives (cheese, ice cream, yogurt, etc.) soon, but for now, let's start with the basics: Milk!

This is my milk of choice, and contrary to popular belief, it's not some new-age drink made from lactating almonds. During the Middle Ages, almond milk became popular in the Middle-East and throughout Medieval kingdoms. Unlike cow's milk, almond milk doesn't spoil at room temperature, which meant it didn't have to be turned into butter or cheese in order to preserve it without a refrigerator. It also served as a handy staple during Lent, when consuming dairy wasn't an option. It's made by blending (or grinding) almonds and water, straining the almond pulp from the liquid, and storing the remaining smooth, creamy beverage.

The 'Original' Almond Breeze contains no cholesterol or saturated fat, unlike its bovine competitor. It's 60 calories/cup (half the calories of whole milk and even less than than skim milk), is high in nutrients like vitamin E, iron, fiber, and calcium, and has one fewer gram of sugar than milk. We're talking about a lightly sweetened drink there... and it still contains less sugar. I use the completely unsweetened version of Almond Breeze (40 calories/cup, shown on the far right), but if you're new to milk alternatives, the Original flavor is usually the most popular choice (on the far left).

You can use almond milk as you would skim or 1% milk -- it works as a lactose-free substitute in baking, cooking, making sauces, hot cocoa, etc. There are even recipes for almond milk puddings. I started drinking almond milk a few years ago, and now my entire family drinks it. We don't even have dairy milk in the house anymore.

There are two kinds of coconut milk available at most grocery stores. The kind sold in cartons is called 'coconut milk beverage', which is a drinkable, milk-like substance made from a much less concentrated version of canned coconut milk. It has a caloric value equal to skim milk, but a much different composition. Canned coconut milk is the 'real' thing, which is a rich, non-dairy cream (as in, you don't want to chug a glass of this stuff.) It's made by soaking or blending grated coconut meat in water and then straining it. Coconut milk is often confused with the water inside a coconut...  alas, that liquid is called, 'coconut water.' Creative.

Coconut milk is remarkably similar in fat content, nutrients, and pH to that of human breast milk, making it easily metabolized by the human body and pretty nutritious, to boot. It's high in saturated fats, but a little bit of coconut milk goes a long way when used in baking or cooking. Plus, coconut milk still has 33% fewer calories than heavy cream, so it actually reduces the caloric value of many rich desserts like ganache, cream pie, and ice cream. Even if you despise the flavor of coconut, don't shy away from the idea of using it just yet. Most recipes that call for it taste nothing like coconut, and I've gotten many a coconut-hater hooked on homemade coconut milk ice creams (in flavors like key lime pie, salted caramel, and dark chocolate cookie dough) by refusing to reveal the secret ingredient.


Hemp milk is extremely nutritious, which you can ooh and ahh over in more detail by clicking here. It's high in omega-3 fats (which means it instantly turns any coffee into rich deliciousness), and even contains all 10 essential amino acids... as in, all the protein found in animal meat is also found in a plant... that's served in drinkable form... and available in your next latte. Pretty cool. It's made by blending hemp seeds and water, then straining out the leftover seeds. 

Hemp milk's texture is pretty creamy, even though the unsweetened version only contains 70 calories per cup. However, the flavor is unique, which means it may take some adapting to if you decide to dive straight into the unsweetened version (remember, even cow's milk contains 8 g sugar/serving). If at all curious about mariju- I mean, "hemp" milk (kidding, it's legal in all 50 states), a flavored version usually lends to a higher success rate.

Rice & Oat- 
Rice and oat milk are the sweetest and and most watery of all milks. They're made by (you may have guessed this by now) blending cooked or soaked brown rice/oats with water and straining out the little leftover bits. Because of the relatively weak consistency of both, they're not recommended for baking or cooking, but work in cereal, smoothies, or on their own.

Rice milk has no aftertaste, no cholesterol, no lactose.. and honestly, not that much of anything besides carbohydrates. While rice milk is palatable, is doesn't contain much calcium, fiber, protein, or many vitamins and nutrients on its own. Like any other beverage, rice milk can be 'enriched', so if you opt to drink it, be sure that it's been fortified. That way, you're drinking more than just 120 calories of carbohydrates per cup (the same caloric density as 2% milk, but in the form of 33 grams of carbs.) 

Oat milk is also high in carbs/sugar/calories, but it contains more protein and fiber than rice milk, making it more of a bang for your caloric buck. But, in rice milk's defense, oat milk is typically less popular in taste tests. Plus, rice milk is gluten-free, whereas most oat milk is not. Overall though, neither of these options are particularly nutrient-rich compared to other milks, so unless you have allergies to/grievances against nuts, coconut, and hemp, these two aren't the most beneficial choices.

In the classic spirit of organization, I've saved the worst for last (although now that I think about it, maybe that's not how the saying goes...) Regardless, I avoid consuming straight soy milk for a number of reasons, primarily because soy is an ingredient that's almost impossible to avoid. Soy is in everything. It's called protein isolate, tofu, genistein, edamame, vegetable oil, or lecithin on nutrition labels, meaning that a lot of the time, people don't even recognize soy when they see it. It's found in milks, all kinds of sauces, meats, pills, bread, mayo, energy bars (like Luna bars), protein powders, meat-substitutes, and dairy-substitutes. Even if you don't drink soy milk or eat soy products, you still consume it, and if everything should be consumed in moderation... guzzling soy milk will tip the scale out of your favor.

That being said, soy has been under fire recently as a faux-health food. The large amounts of plant estrogen, manganese, and protein enzyme inhibitors it contains are being linked to health problems with more and more frequency. Farmers often use soy to fatten up livestock because it contains Goitrogens (basically, they can mess with your thyroid, which regulates your metabolism and controls weight gain). Plus, 80% of soy is genetically modified... thanks, Monsanto! And when it comes down to it, soy milks tastes pretty bad. I feel like soy is one of the main products that scares people away from vegan food, and I don't blame them. When compared to the taste and health benefits of other non-dairy milks, why anyone would choose soy milk as their personal preference escapes me.
image from: this site
Overall, almond, coconut, and hemp milk are the best choices in my opinion. Almond is the lowest calorie (and the most popular in taste tests), coconut and hemp are rich in healthy fats, and all three are full of nutrients and satisfyingly creamy. There's also no obligation to commit to just one (I hope... considering I use them all). Almond milk is fantastic in baked goods and shakes, coconut milk makes a great sauce or soup base, and hemp milk is perfect in coffee.

On that note, these aren't just substitutes for cow's milk. Each one is its own product with different uses and advantages, but we compare them all because the English language was feeling lazy and dubbed them all 'milk'. One dish that dairy milk isn't typically used in is hummus, but I love using almond milk in it. Most recipes call for water, but almond milk makes a creamier and more flavorful dip that can be left out at parties for hours without risk of spoilage... unlike dairy milk. Nut juice: 1, udder excrement: 0.

Try this tangy hummus with red peppers, cucumber, carrots, in wraps, spread on sandwiches, with pita, or flax chips for a rich, satisfying, nutritious snack or lunch. Plus, my (no longer secret) ingredient, pignolias, give it dimensional flavor and the element of surprise... and who doesn't enjoy dipping carrots in the element of surprise?

Pignolia (Pine Nut) Hummus:
- 1 can chickpeas + 1 tbsp baking soda
- 1/4 C lemon juice
- 1/4 C pignolias (raw, toasted and roasted all work nicely)
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1/2 C almond milk
- 1 tsp za'atar or 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1-2 tsp honey or agave
- 1 tbsp olive oil

Drain and rinse chickpeas, then soak for 10 minutes in a bowl filled with water + dissolved baking soda. Drain and rinse chickpeas again (the canned smell should be pretty much gone by this point), then add them to a blender or food processor. Add in all other ingredients and blend until smooth. Top with a sprinkling of pine nuts and refrigerate until chilled. Dig in.

What's your favorite dairy-free milk? Do you have a brand allegiance?