How Do You Milk an Almond?

09/18/2015 05:01 pm ET Updated Sep 18, 2016

"My trainer told me that I should drink a shake each morning made with almond milk, protein powder, and fruit." The young woman was discussing her new fitness routine with a group of us drying our hair in the health club's locker room.

"Why almond milk?" I asked, wondering how to get milk from an almond.

The answer, agreed to by everyone listening to the conversation, was that almond milk was much healthier than milk from that definitely milk-able animal, a cow.

"But almond milk doesn't have any protein, well, at least not much," I responded, trying to remember when I had last read a food label on the side of an almond milk container.

"That's all right," she replied. "I just add some protein powder to the shake."

At this point, my wet hair demanded more attention than her nutritional needs, so the conversation stopped. But later on that day, while in the supermarket, I stopped by the milk case to read food labels. I was right. Almond milk contained only 1 gram of protein per serving. Cow's milk contained 8 grams. But to my surprise, almond milk contained a lot of calcium, actually about 45 percent of the daily requirement for this mineral. But where was the calcium coming from? Almonds don't naturally have much, if any, calcium. There it was on the label: calcium carbonate, an additive. So why not instead, eat some almonds and swallow a calcium supplement?

Almonds are natural, but almond milk? Well, it's not quite as natural as cow's milk. It contains sea salt, carob or vanilla bean extract, cane or brown rice sweetener, emulsifiers and preservatives, added Vitamin D and, of course, the added calcium carbonate.

At least my locker room acquaintance was getting protein from the protein powder she added to her blender. But is protein powder as good a source of protein as that derived from real food, e.g., milk or eggs? Trying to ignore my mild obsession with her breakfast, I looked up the nutritional adequacy of protein supplements. It was not a topic for the faint-hearted. Claims for bodybuilding power were as thick as mosquitoes on a humid summer evening. And reading on, I came across blogs with horror stories of protein powders containing rat droppings, heavy metals, and genetically modified plant extracts. Who writes these stories? Were they true?

It is necessary to get beneath all the hype promoting the potency of one protein powder over another to find out about the amino acid contents of these various powders. In order to make new protein, for muscle, skin, or any other organ that needs new or replacement protein, our bodies must have amino acids. Protein is made from amino acids and although we, as humans, can make some amino acids, there are eight, the essential amino acids, which we cannot. We get them from the proteins we eat. Not all proteins contain adequate amounts of these essential amino acids, and are ranked according to their amino acid contents.

Two of the most widely used proteins in muscle building supplements come from milk: casein, which gives milk its milky look, and whey, the watery residue formed when cheese is made as in "Little Miss Muffet, sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey." (Curds are goes into the making of cheese.) Miss Muffet's muscles must have been outstanding, since whey protein is especially good for building muscle. Perhaps this is why she was able to run so fast when the spider frightened her away! The other widely used protein in protein powder supplements is soy isolate, which is produced in a concentrated form, from soybeans.

The Chinese have known about the importance of eating soybeans since approximately 2838 B.C., but they probably did not consume it as a muscle-building protein powder until late last century. And because the amount of essential amino acids is smaller in soybeans than in animal protein, it was assumed that soy was not a particularly good source of protein for athletes, or anyone attempting to develop a large muscle mass. However, in a review of which proteins athletes should consume, Drs. Hoffman & Falvo, in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, pointed out that the concentrated form of soy protein has an amino acid content equal to that of whey and casein.

So for people who would rather drink their meals rather than eat them (no, not a regimen of beer for breakfast and liquor for lunch), soy protein powders are an option, along with powders containing either of the two milk proteins.

But other than eliminating the pesky need to chew, is it better to drink a shake for breakfast containing purified and/or synthetic ingredients than to eat foods in their natural state? On one hand, the answer is yes. Blending rather inedible foods with other foods that taste good (for instance, raw kale and blueberries), makes their consumption less of a challenge and permits the consumption of foods that otherwise might be overlooked. Moreover, shakes can be consumed more easily than a bowl of cereal and milk in the car, or on commuter train, or while hanging onto a trolley car strap.

But we seem to be straying away from eating foods in their natural state and perhaps, ironically, eating more foods that are highly processed. Dumping synthetic foods like almond milk and highly refined foods like protein powder in a blender is not eating naturally. Maybe the time has come to go back to eating real food: milk from cows, eggs from chickens, bread made from wheat flour, and turkey made from turkeys (instead of tofu). If we do so, we can stop trying so hard to get milk from almonds.