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Last week we learned all about soy and both the health benefits and risks that is posed. While there are many soy milk drinkers out there, another popular non-dairy option is almond milk. This week we will learn more about this dairy alternative all about almond milk nutrition.
Down with Dairy?
How much milk do you drink? For one reason or another, people are drinking less milk these days. (Personally, I suspect dairy allergies or concerns over the antibiotics in the dairy industry.) Food allergies are on the rise in the US. The CDC estimates that food allergies have increased 50% since 1997. About 1 in 13 children have a food allergy. Based on my childrens’ class allergy lists, I am not surprised by this statistic.
With the rise of allergies, intolerances, and other health reasons to avoid dairy, alternative “milks” have become more popular. I visited my local grocery store and checked out all the alternate milk options. I found almond milk, coconut milk, rice milk, soy milk, hemp milk, flax milk, and more. Then within these different milk options there were also several flavor options: vanilla, chocolate, sweetened, and unsweetened.
Nut Milk 101
If you’re new to the world of alternative milks, like I am, here’s a little background. Nut milks are traditionally made by soaking a raw nut in water for 6-8 hours and then blended and strained, resulting in a milky liquid. So, if traditional almond milk is just almonds and water, what’s in the almond milk you buy in the store? Are there other additives? Are there any health concerns with almond milk?
Today, we’re going to take a look at the current best-selling alternative milk: almond milk. Last year, the brand Silk reported a 12% increase in sales and a 50% sales increase in their almond milk alone.
Shopping for Almond Milk
I found almond milk in two different sections of my grocery store: refrigerated in the dairy section and on the shelf in the dry goods aisle. The price was about $3-5 per carton/box. Here are a few of my general observations:
-all brands are fortified with extra nutrients and sometimes extra protein
-all the brands have quite a few non-nutritive additives like carrageenan, lecithin, gums, preservatives, and/or flavorings
the shelf-stable brands had more additives than the refrigerated brands
-several brands are certified GMO-free while others contain GMO ingredients, check the labels or look for the “Non-GMO Project” stamp for a quick option
The Good News
If you cannot (or choose not to) consume dairy, you have lots of options available! There are lots of brands of almond milk and different flavors. There are unsweetened, unflavored options, perfect for adding to savory recipes or drinking. If you don’t like the taste of plain almond milk, there are options with sugar and/or vanilla or even chocolate. There are shelf-stable almond milks that you can buy and take on the go. I even saw almond milk “boxes” that you can pack in lunches.
The Bad News
If you’re trying to avoid processed foods and food additives, you’re out of luck. Freshly made almond milk lasts just 2 days when refrigerated. All the store-bought options last 7-10 days after opening. Although many brands are technically “preservative-free”, there are still additives (like d-alpha-tocopherol) that extend the shelf life. Here are a couple examples of store-bought almond milk ingredients lists:
Almond Breeze Original Unsweetened (shelf stable)
Almond Breeze Original Unsweetened (shelf stable)
Almondmilk (filtered water, almonds), calcium carbonate, tapioca starch, sea salt, potassium citrate, carrageenan, sunflower lecithin, natural flavor, vitamin a palmitate, vitamin D2 and d-alpha-tocopherol (natural vitamin E).
365 Organic Almond Milk (Whole Foods store brand, refrigerated)
Organic almondmilk (filtered water, organic almonds), tricalcium phosphate, sea salt, xanthan gum, potassium citrate, sunflower lecithin, vitamin a palmitate, ergocalciferol (vitamin d2), dl-alpha tocopherol acetate (vitamin e).
Manufacturers have made almond milks more palatable by adding sugar, flavorings, and sometime additives to improve the texture. The additive that gets the most negative press right now is carrageenan.
What is Carrageenan?
Carrageenan is a food additive that is extracted from red algae and used as a thickener or stabilizer. You’ve probably seen it added to yogurt, ice creams, chocolate and more. It’s usually added to help improve the texture of low-fat foods to make them seem more like their full-fat counterparts.
In some animal studies, carrageenan has been shown to be carcinogenic and/or to cause irritation or ulcers along the digestive tract. In humans, it is believed to be an inflammatory agent, meaning that it will cause inflammation and open up the intestinal lining to damage.
There are two sides to the carrageenan story. On one hand, the animal tests were typically conducted by adding carrageenan to the water supply and not part of the food supply. Also, the concentrations of carrageenan tested (about 1-5% of the total diet) are much higher percentages than you would typically consume in one food, let alone your whole diet. The studies also didn’t specify whether the carrageenan used was degraded (the bad kind) or undegraded.
On the other hand, recent research is showing that most undegraded carrageenan, becomes degraded during digestion – meaning that benign carrageenan ends up as potentially harmful carrageenan in the end. There are also concerns raised about the environmental impact the carrageenan industry is causing, specifically to delicate coral reef systems.
I don’t believe carrageenan is harmless (several people have reported side effects and irritations from carrageenan and there is still a lot of talk about it be a carcinogen), but I don’t want to incite panic either. Carrageenan is currently one of the ingredient exemptions for organic food labeling. Buying certified “organic” will not guarantee the product is carrageenan-free. Personally, I choose to avoid carrageenan and limit my exposure. How do you feel about it? If you want to avoid it, this shopping guide helps you choose organic brands that do not use carrageenan.
If you don’t drink dairy, almond milk is a handy alternative. However, the store-bought varieties have a lot of additives that aren’t ideal, turning a natural food into a processed one. Don’t feel bad about buying almond milk, but (pretty please) you HAVE to try making it yourself at least once!
I’ve never liked the almond milks I’ve tried before, but after making homemade almond milk I was hooked! It’s a completely different taste and texture, and definitely worth a try. The simple process takes less than 5-10 minutes and has very little clean up. You may never pay for almond milk again.
Have you tried making your own almond milk? Do you have any tips or recipes to share? I’m new to this, so please share your experience!
The following is part of an Organic Living Journey Guest Post Series now written by Mariana who has a mother’s heart and scientist’s brain.