Almond milk – examining the science behind this food fad

Food fads are plain annoying, but I just tend to ignore them, unless I’m feeling in a mood. Yesterday, I had purchased my favorite drink at  the Big Coffee drive through, which is just a large bold coffee, black. Well, something got mixed up and I ended up with a latte, which I generally don’t mind. Except this latte was made of a foul tasting substance, almond milk. Really?

Food fad believers often intersect with anti-science activists in other areas, like vaccines, GMOs and quack cancer cures. Sure, there may be a subset of individuals who think that almond milk tastes great – which would lead me to question the quality of their taste buds – but they aren’t the majority. Most people just believe that almond milk is healthier.

Well, does almond milk have any health benefits beyond regular every day milk? And is there some unintended consequences to buying almond milk?

Let’s look at almond milk. No taste tests are required.

Almond milk – what is it?

First of all, it’s not milk, unless the almond tree suddenly has been reclassified as a mammal. Fun fact – the almond is in the genus Prunus, which includes not only almonds, but also peaches, cherries, plums and apricots. It’s closely related to peaches. Go thrill your friends with that factoid.

Essentially, almond milk is made of puréed almonds, water, and whatever stuff thrown in to give it flavor and shelf life. Basically, the manufacturing process includes the following steps: almonds are soaked in water, ground into pulp and then the liquid almond “milk” is strained from the almond pulp. The remaining pulp has no food value and is just waste.

Almond milk first gained popularity with vegans, who avoid milk products, and lactose-intolerant individuals, who need to avoid milk because of the inability to break down lactose, a disaccharide (sugar) in cow’s milk. Then it became a fad.

In fact, commercial almond milk has only a whiff of almonds, around 2%. The other 98% is made of water, sugar, sunflower lecithin, and carrageenan.

Because our readers should not be afraid of long chemical names, I thought I’d explain a couple of the ingredients.

Lecithin is generally a phospholipid, and is a yellowish-brown fatty compound that attracts both water and fatty substances. It’s used to give almond milk that creamy texture of real milk. Lecithin is considered a safe food additive, so it’s really no big deal.

Carrageenan is a polysaccharide – a long chain of monosaccharides, or simple sugars – derived from algae. It’s put in the almond milk to thicken it, again, to give it a milk-like texture.

I’m not afraid of any of these agreements, they are in lots of different foods. Almond milk really just a chemical concoction, not something that would be found in nature. And it’s got so little almond in the drink, I think the liquid sees a photo of an almond.

Is it healthy?

I’m not a big fan of classifying food as “healthy,” because there’s really not much evidence consuming one particular food provides benefits to human health. In general, all food is broken down into fats, amino acids, and monosaccharides (along with a few micronutrients, such as vitamins) in the gut, and those are all the same from food to food. Almond milk is not superior to any other food.

Clearly, almond milk is helpful to those who are lactose intolerant. However, there are lactose free milks – an enzyme is generally added to break down lactose into the monosaccharides, galactose and glucose, which are two of the four sugars that can be absorbed by the human digestive tract.

Here is a comparison of the nutritional content between cow’s milk and almond water milk:

[infobox icon=”quote-left”]Beyond the dire environmental impact, almond milk’s nutritional facts may put you off the nut water for a while. A typical serving of unsweetened almond milk has about 40 calories, 30 of which are from fat, 180 milligrams of sodium, 1 gram of protein and 20% of your daily recommended calcium intake. Whereas a serving of 1% milk has 118 calories, 25 of which are from fat, 143 milligrams of sodium, 10 grams of protein and 35% of your daily calcium. [/infobox]

Thus, from a purely nutritional content, they are hardly any differences between the two. Yes, almonds themselves have some high levels of micronutrients, especially riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin E.

However, it’s wise to remember that almond milk is only 2% almonds, and in manufacturing almond milk, most of the almond itself is wasted. A 240 ml serving of almond milk (about a cup for you barbarians who ignore the metric system) weighs about 240 g (see how sweet the metric system is). So, that means about 5 g of almonds.

That’s about 5% of a full 100 g serving of almonds, upon which most nutrient levels are based, which means that almond milk provides little of what is in the raw almond. For example, a full 100 g serving of almonds provides about 26.2 mg of Vitamin E, well over what is recommended per day. However, almond milk provides maybe 1-2 mg of that same nutrient.

So, if your reasons for drinking almond water, I mean almond milk, is for some nutritional superiority, get over it. It’s not nutritionally superior.

 

Let’s talk about the environment

If you didn’t know, I’m a Californian native. I’ve lived here for a big percentage of my life. I love California, and it’s run by liberal Democrats who have turned the state into an economic and cultural powerhouse, so what’s not to love.

One issue that troubles most Californians is water. We have too many people who need too much water. Moreover, California has a lot of water-intensive agriculture, which feeds the rest of the country.

California grows a big chunk of food for the rest of the country – broccoli, spinach, carrots, many fruits, the bulk of nuts, and many other foods are mostly grown here. With respect to almonds, over 99% of almonds for US consumption are grown in California. So your almond milk requires California, since almonds love the weather and soil in our state.

almond milk

Unfortunately, 1 almond, not a serving, just one, requires about 4 liters of water to grow. It takes about 96 liters (about 25.3 gallons) of water to grow one serving of almonds. Almond production in California uses over 10% of our precious water, or about 4.2 trillion liters (or about 1.1 trillion gallons) of water.

All that for hipsters who think it’s healthy and better?

To be fair, milk production takes water too.  A lot of water, about at the same level as almonds for the same amount of food. But that’s a strawman argument – California can’t afford the water for either milk production or almonds.

Here’s the thing. I could make an economic and environmental choice to buy milk or cheese produced in Wisconsin, which has more water than it needs for agriculture. But there are no choices with almonds – you drink almond milk, you drain our water supply. Maybe you don’t care, but if we have to cut water supplies to farmers, suddenly your prices for dozens of foods will skyrocket.

Thinking about it. Those who buy into the “almond milk is better” trope, you might be responsible for rising food prices, because less water is available to grow broccoli for example. Now, California can probably afford to produce almonds for consumption as a snack food. And frankly, that’s a better way to get more nutrients.

Keep drinking almond milk, you can say goodbye to guacamole, made mainly from California avocados. I have an affinity for guac, so don’t get me started.

Summary

I hate food fads, because I would venture to guess the bulk of them are pure and utter nonsense. I go with Michael Pollan’s adage, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” (Note – I disagree with most of Pollan’s other food beliefs.) He’s suggesting we don’t worry too much about the food we eat.

If you want to drink almond milk for some health reason, there are probably some better choices. If you’re drinking it because you feel it has some moral and nutritional superiority, give up. It doesn’t.

And if you drink almond milk for taste. I have no evidence to support this comment, but you have no taste.






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The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!