The path to a dairy-milk alternative has been wrought with many twists and turns.
For many years soy milk was a popular destination, until it fell out of favor due to its lack of calcium and fears that its high phytoestrogen content might increase the risk of breast cancer. So consumers moved to rice milk, but its lack of protein and nutrients, watery consistency, and high sugar content also limited its popularity.
Now the group in search of nondairy milk has arrived at almond milk, enthusiastically and en masse. According to Nielsen, sales of refrigerated almond milk today account for 4.1 percent of total milk sales compared to less than ½ percent four years ago.
Mary Taggart of Wakefield and her husband, Jim, started drinking almond milk last year after the Wakefield couple did a food detox. Jim had been a whole-milk-only guy for years, but to his wife’s surprise, he’s become an enthusiastic almond milk convert. “This guy wouldn’t even let me buy low-fat,” she says. “To see him drinking it is mind boggling. He doesn’t feel as congested, and I never felt good with a lot of dairy.”
Enthusiastic almond adopters like the Taggarts are pushing demand for almond milk — and the nut itself — to historic heights. Add in an insatiable almond appetite in China and you have a recipe for both skyrocketing demand and rising prices that John O’Shaughnessy, general manager of the consumer division at Blue Diamond Growers, calls “extraordinary.
“It just continues to snowball,” says O’Shaughnessy. “[Prices] have gone up by about a third since 2009, and there has been no falloff in demand since these prices have been passed into the marketplace.”
Rene Becker of Hi-Rise Bread Co. bakeries in Cambridge pays 50 percent more for almonds than he did two years ago, a significant portion of his budget, given that he uses the nuts in both homemade pastries and milk. He blends up 10 or 12 gallons of homemade almond milk a week between his two shops, especially during the cooler months. “It just tastes so much better than anything else out there,” says the bakery owner. A regular cappuccino at Hi-Rise costs $3.50, but it’s $5 with almond milk; a latte costs $6 (instead of $4 for a traditional cup made with cow’s milk). “It foams beautifully. A lot of regulars buy a cup of almond milk [on its own],” says Becker. “In and of itself, it’s great.”
Many consumers like Dave Falcone also say the higher cost isn’t their main concern. The Canton resident started snacking on almonds and using almond milk in his scrambled eggs last September as part of a wider attempt to fight an autoimmune condition. “I’m happy with it, and I feel better with it. If it’s the product I want, even if it’s $1 more, I’m not going to complain about a buck,” he says.
Kathy McDonald of Medfield estimates she spends about $12 on the nut milk and packages of raw nuts weekly. A clinical social worker and mother of three, McDonald says her mission to incorporate almond milk into her diet a year ago was because she thinks it’s healthier and lower in calories (1 cup of almond milk is 40 calories; 1 cup low-fat cow’s milk is 120 calories). She uses Silk unsweetened almond milk daily in her cereal, and also blends it into smoothies with strawberries, bananas, flax seed, coconut oil, and protein powder. “I eat healthy. I work out a lot. I do find the almond products sustain you more than an empty calorie,” she says. “I like the calorie count and the protein, and I really like that it’s less processed and better for you and your body to use.”
But Dr. Wayne Shreffler, director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Food Allergy Center, says the dairy substitute isn’t a stellar beverage from a nutritional standpoint. “It’s not a great protein source,” he says, adding that it also only provides a fraction of the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin D. “You need to drink a lot of it. We often say, ‘Use almond butter.’ ”
Depending on the brand, Shreffler also cautions that many almond milk manufacturers add sweetener during the production process.
You don’t want to use a milk substitute that has a lot of sugar in it,” he says. “That’s not necessarily a good thing.”