Here at FoodFacts.com we have a pretty clear idea about how consumers have embraced almond milk. There are many in our community who absolutely adore it. They go to great lengths to find brands with clean ingredient lists. They’re thrilled that there’s a common alternative to cow’s milk that isn’t soy based, that’s not lacking in flavor and is actually healthy.
Now, though, because of a simple article out of Mother Jones a great debate about the finer points of almond milk is raging across the Web.
Blame Tom Philpott, a Mother Jones food writer whose inflammatorily-titled essay, “Lay Off the Almond Milk, You Ignorant Hipsters,” has been raising ire, defensiveness, and amusement since it was published last Wednesday.
“What’s the point of almond milk, exactly?” Philpott asks in his perplexingly annoyed screed, just 16 lines before deftly answering his own question (to avoid lactose and soy, to boycott the less-than-compassionate dairy industry, and to still have something to put on your cereal). He admits that he’s a bit clueless about the whole thing. “Evidently, I’m out of step with the times on this one. ‘Plant-based milk’ behemoth White Wave reports that its first-quarter sales of almond milk were up 50 percent from the same period in 2013,” he writes, adding that the company’s CEO announced during a May earnings call that almond milk now makes up about two-thirds of the country’s plant-based milk market, beating out soy milk (which has a 30-percent market share) and other players like rice and coconut milks.
Still, he goes on to swipe at almond-milk drinkers for being fooled into thinking the following: that the beverage is packed with nutrition, that it’s free of additives, and that it’s worth its price, concluding that “the almond-milk industry is selling you a jug of filtered water clouded by a handful of ground almonds.” Which is not quite a shocker to anyone who has ever bothered to read a nutrition label.
So what is Philpott — who chooses to drink the fermented milk product kefir — so worked up about, exactly? It’s kind of unclear. But that hasn’t stopped all sorts of foodies, vegans, and lactose-intolerant folks from weighing in.
Celeb nutritionist and NYU professor Marion Nestle also stands with Philpott, responding to his piece in an email to Yahoo Health. She notes, “Oh what fun. I couldn’t have done this better myself.” Regarding almond milk being a good option for those with concerns about dairy or soy, she says, “Option for what? Milk is not essential in the diet. The nutrients it provides are provided by many other foods. If people like the taste of almond milk it can be used like cow’s milk, but its nutritional value is pretty low unless people drink a lot of it.”
Beth Greenfield, over at Yahoo, raised a few points with a little help from Matt Ruscigno, a California-based vegan nutritionist and athlete (who agrees, incidentally, that there’s some marketing magic involved in selling a product that is mostly water):
Hipster factor: “It’s a million-dollar market — it’s not just hipsters,” Ruscigno wisely notes. “It’s mostly moms and everyday people looking for an alternative to dairy milk out of concern for animals, lactose intolerance, and other health concerns.”
Environmental footprint: Philpott has a fixation on almonds this week; on Monday, he wrote about how increased demand for the nut is contributing to California’s drought. Now he’s worried about all the water in almond milk cartons. “The water that’s added isn’t wasted, we are drinking it,” Ruscigno points out. “It’s not like beef, where it becomes runoff. He acts like it’s the same.” And what about the cruelty factor of dairy? Philpott admits that the industry of producing cow milk is “nasty.” Not nasty enough to quit the kefir, apparently.
Inflated price: “If we are talking about value, we have to point out that dairy is subsidized by the U.S. government in almost every step,” Ruscigno notes. “It’s artificially cheaper. If that wasn’t the case, then dairy milk would cost way more. It’s unfair to only point to almond milk’s expenses and ignore the big culprit.”
Additives: Philpott calls out commercial almond milk for containing additives such as carrageenan, a seaweed-derived thickener with much-debated health concerns, and vitamins (such as D and the synthetic A palmitate, the latter of which is found in kefir, by the way). Fine. True enough. But there’s a really, really easy solution: Make your own almond milk. It’s slightly cheaper, more delicious, and a cinch to pull off. Here are two awesome options from nut-milk-loving friends, one basic, the other a bit fancy. As for the missing nutrients? Make it up in other places. Simple.
FoodFacts.com would like to point out that while it is certainly true that many mainstream brands of almond milk do, in fact, contain additives like carrageenan, it is absolutely possible to find brands that do not. And while Ms. Greenfield is correct that it’s pretty simple to make your own almond milk — and we know many people who do — if you aren’t so inclined, it’s not incredibly difficult to find a brand without additives.
In regard to almond milk being “filtered water clouded by a handful of ground almonds” and not much more, Philpott is being rather short-sighted. Almond milk isn’t cow’s milk, so its nutritional benefits are going to be different from its counterpart. That doesn’t make almond milk nutritionally vacant. Quite the contrary, it does have its unique benefits. If Philpott looked a bit closer he would find that almond milk is heart healthy, containing no cholesterol or saturated fat and being high in Omega 3 fatty acids. It’s high in the antioxidant vitamin E so it may help to prevent cancer and stave off signs of aging. It’s also rich in flavanoids that may help prevent degenerative diseases like osteoporosis and type 2 diabetes. While cow’s milk is fortified to provide vitamins and minerals like copper, zinc, iron, magnesium, manganese, calcium, phosphorus, potassium and selenium, all of these occur naturally in almond milk. And let’s not forget that almond milk is naturally low in fat and calories, containing only 40 calories and 3 grams of fat per serving — and that fat is healthier fat than the fat we consume from cow’s milk.
So while Marion Nestle is correct that cow’s milk is not essential to the human diet, for those humans who like pouring milk over their cereal or their oatmeal or in their coffee or tea who are looking for an alternative, we still think there are plenty of benefits to almond milk. There’s really no debating it.