Ironically, it was easier to find a good vegan milk a decade ago than it is today.
That seems counter intuitive, given the plethora of brands on the market today. But with increased demand has come increasingly creative ways of how to make it. Not for better, but for worse.
Then there was the California drought.
You probably have noticed the smaller, more shriveled up almonds for sale during the past few years. California is responsible for virtually all U.S. production of not just this nut, but also walnuts and pistachios (1). The lower crop yields caused by the drought mean less supply and inevitably, higher costs for milk manufacturers.
And let’s not forget China.
How Trump would probably describe it is that “China is ripping off America!”
The Chinese are totally obsessed with this nut and their burgeoning middle class means there are more buyers there than ever before. China does not have the Mediterranean climate necessary for growing them, which means this is one thing they actually have to import.
Perhaps these factors are why it’s so hard to buy organic almond milk nowadays. Silk Organic Original flavor is “available exclusively at Costco, Sam’s Club and BJ’s” according to Silk’s website. Maybe the limited supply is why it’s only being sold at a few places?
New Barn Organic is sold at Whole Foods. It will also cost your whole paycheck, if you plan on using it daily for cereal and everything else. With only 28 fluid ounces inside, charging the $6 price tag for New Barn should qualify as price gouging. Trump needs to stop them from ripping us off, too!
Califia Farms is not organic, yet it still costs a fortune. They do tout being non GMO, but then again this is not a crop which has really been genetically tinkered with. At least when it comes to the mature trees which currently produce the crop.
Trader Joe’s does not sell an organic version, at least under their own label. Whole Foods 365 brand and the shelf stable Pacific Foods cartons seem to be the most affordable options if you insist on USDA certified organic.
Whether you’re talking organic or non-organic, a decade ago when you bought almond milk, it seems there was a higher likelihood that the actual nut was the first ingredient listed after water.
How much almond is actually in almond milk? Most manufacturers refuse to answer that question. But from their ingredient labels we do know they are using thickening agents like carrageenan and guar gum, along with emulsifiers like lecithin, which may help disguise how few nuts they’re actually using.
What is carrageenan? A red seaweed extract which has become quite controversial due to the growing body of research suggesting it might cause gastrointestinal inflammation and other nasty side effects (2) (3) (5). Those with Crohn’s, IBS, and other autoimmune GI diseases are particularly pissed about its usage, and understandably so.
Guar gum comes from what is known as the Indian cluster. It actually looks a lot like an American string bean, except it’s probably coming from a distant land – India and Pakistan grow over 80% of the world crop. Some studies have reported increased gas and bloating from guar gum, but it took large amounts to cause it (6).
Lecithin is a fat which can be animal or plant derived. The latter form is used for these milk alternatives. You often see it coming from sunflower oil in order to make the milk soy free. Lecithin is one of the most common food additives and using it as an emulsifying agent is fine, so long as it’s not for the purpose of emulsifying (equally dispersing) a bunch of filler ingredients within the carton.
Ingredients in almond vs. soy milk
Soybeans are cheap and plentiful, so in soy milk, you will probably see them as the first thing listed after water. Thickeners like gellan gum are often much further down on the ingredients. Though part of that is because less is needed, since soy can have a naturally creamy texture on its own.
Here’s a look at the Silk Original Soymilk…
INGREDIENTS: Soymilk (Filtered Water, Soybeans), Cane Sugar, Contains 2% or less of: Vitamin and Mineral Blend (Tricalcium Phosphate, Calcium Carbonate, Vitamin A Palmitate, Vitamin D2, Riboflavin [B2], Vitamin B12), Sea Salt, Natural Flavor, Gellan Gum.
Compare that to Silk Original Almondmilk…
INGREDIENTS: Almondmilk (Filtered Water, Almonds), Cane Sugar, Contains 2% or less of: Vitamin and Mineral Blend (Calcium Carbonate, Vitamin E Acetate, Vitamin A Palmitate, Vitamin D2), Sea Salt, Sunflower Lecithin, Locust Bean Gum, Gellan Gum.
Bold emphasis added by us, to point out the differences for the main ingredients (excluding the added vitamins and minerals).
The soymilk just has gellan gum listed dead last, while the almond milk has sunflower lecithin, locust bean gum AND gellan gum.
Switching to soy may seem like the better, or at least easier, option for minimizing your consumption of fillers like guar gum. Given that its such a potent estrogen food (as in, phytoestrogen), drinking too much soy may not be the best idea. Especially for men.
Is carrageenan-free really better?
Finding almond milk without carrageenan and guar gum is now easier. Thanks to backlash from consumers, the big brands like Silk (owned by WhiteWave Foods), Almond Dream, and So Delicious have gone carrageenan free or are in the process of doing so.
Does that mean their nut milk is using more nuts to replace them? Fat chance.
Other thickening agents have showed up on ingredient labels such as xantham gum, gellan gum, locust bean gum, and acacia gum.
True, some milk brands used them before, but now you’re seeing them more often. Sometimes, multiple ones listed in a given product.
Now in defense of the manufacturers, even the best tasting almond milk brands will need to make use of at least some sort of emulsifying agent and probably a little thickener. Otherwise, it would taste like water with ground powder in it.
Cashew milk is naturally more creamy, but that’s not the case with most other nuts. Since cashew allergies are more common, we would not want that to become the de facto vegan milk.
Lawsuit alleges just 2% almonds
Some people have alleged there are no almonds in almond milk but that’s false. Yes, there are some products like Ripple which don’t use any, but they’re not claiming to. If you see the name of that nut on the package, it’s going to contain at least some.
But how much almond (or hemp, flax, etc.) is really in a given milk which goes by that name?
The vast majority of manufacturers are reluctant to provide such data, citing it’s a proprietary trade secret.
Albert, et al. v. Blue Diamond Growers, Case No. 1:15-cv-04087, was a class action lawsuit filed in 2015. Based on the plaintiff’s analysis, it was alleged that almond milk only contained 2% almonds.
If true, that means a half-gallon carton sold in the refrigerated section at your grocery store might only contain around 30 almonds inside. In addition to Blue Diamond, WhiteWave is a defendant in this lawsuit.
As far as the lawsuit’s status, a US district judge in New York dismissed the injunctive relief, because those who filed the suit already admitted they stopped buying the products in 2015 and therefore, “have suffered the same exact injury that unsuspecting consumers and proposed class members are now suffering.” (7)
However under NY and CA consumer claims Rule 12(b)(6), the almond milk class action lawsuit is still ongoing.
In June 2016, Blue Diamond Growers asked for a stay since it agreed to a nationwide settlement over the accusations. Stay tuned for what happens next.
Sometime after this lawsuit got underway, Trader Joe’s changed the name of their refrigerated almond milk to what they now call an almond beverage.
Is the timing and name change just a coincidence? You be the judge.
Seems like a smart move for Trader Joe’s as well as other manufacturers. Perhaps we still start to see that term used more often.
Now to be clear, no one knows for sure how many almonds are in Silk almond milk, or Blue Diamond, or So Delicious. Not even the more expensive brands like Califia Farms or New Barn disclose that data. Even today, there is still not proof of exactly what percentage of these products is the namesake ingredient.
What we do know for sure though is how much is used in Europe.
A vegan milk that tastes like milk according to reviews, Belgium-based Alpro, is considered a high quality brand.
In their version, the nut is the first thing in the ingredients after water. That’s not always the case with some milk substitutes. They openly disclose the percentage of almonds used:
INGREDIENTS: Water, Almond (2%), Calcium (tri-calcium phosphate), Sea salt, Stabilisers (Locust bean gum, Gellan gum), Emulsifier (Sunflower lecithin), Vitamins (Riboflavin (B2), B12, E, D2)
Based on that, it does seem like there is a good chance that American brands would have a comparable percentage as Alpro, right?
If they are using around 2% almonds, maybe that is too low. But you probably wouldn’t want much more than that, either.
What percentage is ideal?
Now just like how cow milk is naturally around 85% water content, you wouldn’t want your plant based milks to have too many nuts, seeds, or coconut in it. Since one ounce of dried almonds is 160 calories, if the concentration was 10% in your milk, that would mean 128 calories per 8 ounce glass.
Keep in mind that’s 128 calories before any sweetener or emulsifier is added. As mentioned, for these to taste like milk instead of grainy water, you really do need some. Even if you sweeten with zero calorie monk fruit, there would still be some added calories coming from thickeners.
For weight loss or management, you probably want an unsweetened milk which is no more than 50 to 70 calories per 8 ounce glass. That would mean a max of 3.9% to 5.5% concentration of almonds, if you were using that one ingredient plus water with absolutely nothing else added.
But you probably need at least some guar gum, xantham gum, acacia gum, or other thickener to make its texture taste like cow milk. The question is, what’s the lowest amount needed to accomplish that smoothness?
Even if the bare minimum amount of thickening agents and emulsifier were used, the optimal concentration of almonds used would still likely be a percentage in the low to mid single digits. Anything more than 3% to 5% would likely be too many calories per cup, based on the growing trend among consumers for low calorie unsweetened almond milks.
In a nutshell – no pun intended – even if 2% really is being used, it probably is not that far off from how much you would want anyway.
This is a catch-22 because as you reduce the calories, you’re also reducing the protein, calcium, and other beneficial nutrients.
It is true that almonds a good source of calcium relative to other nuts, but you would have to eat 576 calories worth (100 grams) to get 26% of your daily value.
For seniors, those with osteoporosis, or other bone health concerns, that’s a drawback. That’s why the best plant based milk is fortified. Silk adds calcium carbonate. Almond Breeze adds that and potassium citrate, a supplement which has been found to improve calcium balance in the body (8).
If you look at the nutrition facts labeling, you will see most brands – both big and small – will add calcium.
As far as calories, if you compare this nut to cashews, pistachios, and peanuts, the difference is less than 4% among them.
Since almonds are one of the highest protein nuts, the math for protein content would also be similar to those just mentioned.
Walnut milk is new. A couple niche regional brands make pecan milk. Those two have a calorie count which is around 20% higher than the aforementioned.
The math with hemp and flax is comparable, too.
In short, any viable nut or seed is high calorie and high fat. So you can’t get around this conundrum by switching the type used.
Something like a 25% or 30% concentration would likely make you fat or gain weight, if you were using it daily for cereal, shakes, or anything else that’s more than a splash in your coffee.
Whether you’re a dieter, bodybuilder, or just an average woman or man, perhaps the best option is not a 100% pure single ingredient beverage. Rather, it’s the right type of blend which balances nutritional content with how many calories you’re consuming in the process.
The ideal solution is a plant based milk which contains higher amounts of the good stuff (nuts), lower amounts of the bad or nutritionally useless stuff (i.e. fillers and emulsifiers), along with some added calcium and plant-based protein (such as pea or rice).
Using plant-based proteins may actually kill two birds with one stone… replacing fillers with something of actual nutritional value.
Our favorite brand?
With all of the brands mentioned in the article, when it comes to their ingredients, we actually think folks might be beating them up too much.
Are their products perfect? Nope.
But name one processed food – any food – sold at the grocery store which is not influenced by ingredient cost and availability. We see lots of corners cut with even the expensive superfood snacks you only find at Whole Foods and haute health grocers.
Rather than put them through the ringer, we think they’re doing far more good than bad. They’re making dairy free milk replacements mainstream and affordable.
Whether you buy them due to animal welfare concerns, or for your own health reasons – like the fact they all have zero cholesterol since they’re made using plants – there is plenty of good coming from this trend.
In fact, our biggest complaint about the brands mentioned is actually their sodium content. Remember, the most controversial filler, carrageenan, has already disappeared from most of these products. There is far more evidence to suggest adverse health effects from consuming too much salt than there is for a thickener like guar gum.
Sadly, low sodium plant based milks don’t really exist, at least in the mainstream.
If you think the solution to that problem is to go back to dairy milk, think again. According to the USDA National Nutrient database, one cup (an 8 ounce serving) of cow milk naturally contains 107 mg of sodium. The best plant based milks will have somewhere between 90 to 170 mg.
When it comes to salt, both animal and plant-based are less than ideal.
With all the pros and cons considered, currently our favorite brand is Orgain. They make an unsweetened vanilla organic almond milk which is rich in protein (a whopping 10 grams per serving) and only 80 calories. Since its shelf stable, you can buy it on Amazon.
Finding it at a brick and mortar grocery store is tough. In Los Angeles, we have only seen the ready-to-drink Orgain protein shakes for sale most places. The milk is hard to come by.