Tom Philpott is one of my favorite writers over at Mother Jones. Although he is not a vegetarian or a vegan (not yet, at least–mwahaha), he’s done some great reporting on the horrors of industrial animal farming.
Yesterday, however, was not one of his better days over at MJ. He wrote an article ripping almond milk and demeaning the “hipsters” who drink it.
There are a few things I agree with him about. Commercial almond milk can be expensive (at least compared to conventional, non-organic dairy milk), and that’s not cool. And some brands have an ingredient called “carrageenan,” which is a food additive that’s been linked with gastrointestinal inflammation. Check out this website on carrageenan from a group called The Cornucopia Institute. Although almond milk makers only use a very small amount of it to make the drinks creamier, the good folks over at Cornucopia will make you become completely nuts (pun very much intended) over whether your food has any carrageenan in it.
But carrageenan is in a ton of organic dairy milks, too. Two of the most popular dairy brands, Horizon and Organic Valley, have carrageenan in a bunch of their products. And not all almond milks have carrageenan. Most varieties of Silk almond milk (my personal favorite mainstream brand) do not have carrageenan listed in their ingredients.
Tom also criticizes almond milk makers for adding vitamins and minerals. He asks, “why not just pop a vitamin pill?” Well, his dairy drink of choice (organic kefir) most likely contains added Vitamin D, and possibly added Vitamin A too. Not to mention, all of the added bacteria cultures. Why not just pop a vitamin pill, you kefir-drinking hipster?! (Just playin’)
Almond milk and dairy milk (and kefir) include added vitamins and minerals, and that’s a good thing. Vitamin D is very tough to find in any diet. Because of that, it’s been added to dairy products for decades. And because many people drink almond milk in place of dairy milk (which is admittedly a good source of calcium), almond milk makers add calcium too.
Drowning in Almonds
Philpott, and other almond milk critics, complain that almonds are one of the most water-intensive food products out there. What they fail to realize is that it takes remarkably few almonds to make creamy, delicious almond milk. Almond milk is not 100% pure ground up almonds. Turns out, it’s 2% almonds. How do I know? My favorite brand of almond milk right now is Silk. They have a European division, which makes virtually the same products as their North American Silk almond milk line, but sold under the name “Alpro.” Because of UK food labeling rules, companies have to divulge how much almond is in their almond milk, by percentage of the product. So we can see exactly how much almond there is in almond milk. Almonds make up just 2% of commercial almond milk (expand the ‘Ingredients’ panel in the link to see for yourself). So, yes, while almonds, in a general sense, require a lot of water to grow, a little almond goes a very, very long way.
Really though, the same goes for almonds in any other context. Even plain, straight up almonds. When people complain that almonds require a lot of water, the statistics they cite generally characterize water usage on a “per pound” basis. A pound of almonds is about 370 almonds. Although almonds seem so small, think about how many you actually typically eat. They are highly nutrient dense and filling. Again, a little goes a long way. Most people usually consume them as a snack. I’d estimate that, in a typical sitting, people eat somewhere in the 20 to 30 range, give or take a few. That’s less than 1/12th of a pound.
Compare that to meat. A typical serving of meat is usually about 4 ounces, or 1/4 of a pound. A regular meat-eater probably surpasses one pound of beef in a matter of a couple of days, if that.
What about almond butter? There are 6 almonds in each tablespoon of almond butter. So two tablespoons (about as much as you’d put on an almond butter sandwich) have 12 almonds. That is about 1/30th of a pound of almonds. And, as discussed above, we know commercial almond milk is only 2% almonds. To be fair, I’m not sure if that 2% refers to percentage by weight, or by volume. I’m looking into that question. But it’s clearly a very small amount. Even anti-almond milk crusader Tom Philpott says that commercial almond milk is “a jug of filtered water clouded by a handful of ground almonds.” (As if that’s a problem–I think it’s great it takes so few almonds to make creamy, delicious almond milk.). As you’ll read below, home-made almond milk is often made at a ratio of 1 tablespoon of almond butter to 1 cup of water. Using the above numbers (remember 1 tablespoon of almond butter has 6 almonds), that means an 8-cup container of commercial almond milk has no more than 48 almonds in a standard two-quarter container. And it’s probably even less than that.
Philpott also decries the fact that the first ingredient in almond milk is water. He misguidedly criticizes almonds for consuming so much water, and then says “drenching the finished product in yet more water seems insane.” An 8-cup container of almond milk presumably (and obviously) has 8 cups of water. That is half a gallon of water. A beef burger takes somewhere in the ballpark of 450 gallons of water. So, no, adding a mere half-gallon of water to the handful of almonds it takes to make almond milk is not insane. What’s insane is not considering the context of the absurd amount of water that it takes to make so many other foods, like meat.
Bottom-line: when comparing the water use of almonds to other foods, you need to consider how much of each food people are actually consuming. Even regular almond eaters simply don’t eat a huge amount of them.
One-Minute Almond Milk Recipe
But there’s a really easy, really inexpensive, really lazy way to avoid all of the complaints people have with almond milk. That’s right! A more nutritious drink without any added ingredients like carrageenan. And it only takes a minute to make. First, get your hands on a blender and some almond butter. I get Trader Joe’s raw almond butter for $6.99 a jar. Each jar has 28 tablespoons of almond butter. I usually get at least 20 cups of almond milk out of a jar–which equates to about 35 cents per cup. Very inexpensive.
a cup of water +
slightly more than a tablespoon of almond butter
That’s it. You can add a tiny bit of salt, vanilla and a date for taste. It took me a while to finally make this, but now I make one-minute almond milk every time I have a smoothie at home (ie, at least once a day. I love my smoothies). Almond butter is just ground up almonds, so you’re not losing the almond nutrients that popular almond milk brands tend to filter out.
Silk brand adds locust bean gum, sunflower lecithin and gellan gum. These are additives that supposedly make the drink even thicker and creamier. Every traditional kitchen has gellan gum in the pantry, right? Use these at your own risk!
If you do this in place of almond milk (or any other milk), just be sure you are getting enough calcium and vitamin D elsewhere. A tablespoon of almond butter has 5% of your daily value of calcium, but that’s not enough to rely on. And almonds don’t have any Vitamin D at all.
A Note For The Almond Industry
Hey Big Almond, are you listening? If anyone in the almond making biz is reading this, a couple things:
First, a lot of natural food companies add 50% of Vitamin E per serving to their products, like almond milk. It’s considered a natural, organic preservative with anti-oxidant properties. But I also read stuff like this, which makes me a little uneasy about consuming so much added Vitamin E. Can you make almond milk without so much?
Also, I wish you would come out with less expensive organic almond butter. My $7 Trader Joe’s brand is “raw” but not organic. I’m trying to avoid those pesticides, dude. The cheapest organic brand I’ve found is $15 per jar. Most are closer to $20 per jar. Say this next sentence like a rapper:
Who do I look like,
I can’t afford organic almond butter
I need to work on my rap skills.