A cocktail of disparate elements have come together to make people hyper-aware of their choices in everyday life. The Information Age is both a blessing and a curse, as the superhighway of the internet provides access to scientific studies, conflicting opinions and a range of options like never before.
Due to advanced farming techniques that have been culminating since the Industrial Age, America is responsible for exporting large amounts of food, in addition to putting food on the shelves in U.S. supermarkets.
The techniques used to create and produce this food have caused new allergies to crop up like never before, and has taken a toll on the environment. One of these allergens is lactose.
Whether it’s being lactose-intolerant, or a new wariness of the dairy industry, people are seeking out other choices. This vast library of options is paralyzing: rice milk, soy milk, coconut milk, almond milk … the list goes on. (If you have trouble with lactose, using a high quality enzyme supplement can help tremendously!)
Almond Milk’s Popularity
Even though milk isn’t strictly necessary to human life and health, as anyone with dairy allergies could tell you, it’s become ingrained in Western culture as a cornerstone beverage.
According to the Washington Post1, there’s a reason for this, and it affects why the dairy industry is fighting alternative milks:
“When World War I ended, and all that dairy our leaders had squeezed out of farmers to nourish soldiers overseas had no one to drink it, the government poured the excess into our schools — where it has stayed, thanks to federal subsidies for serving it. Dairy got its own group on the dietary pyramid, and federal guidelines were released recommending three servings of dairy a day.”
This is largely why finding a way to keep milk in their diet, while making sure it’s healthy and cost-effective, is important to most people.
Two popular almond milk products: Silk and Almond Breeze. Courtesy: Wikimedia
Out of all the options listed above, almond milk is the most popular plant based / non-dairy alternative on the market today. Over $700 million is spent annually on almond milk in the U.S.2
This is due to a wide range of factors. You can pick up almond milk in any supermarket, right next to gallons of regular milk. There’s no need to go on a quest to a hidden health food store to find almond milk, it’s mass produced in response to this demand.
People are also trying to be conscious of their health, and make better choices that do not pose a risk to themselves, their children or the environment. In comparison to dairy alternatives, almond milk is quite low in calories.
Farmers gathering almonds in California, 1923. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Regular cow’s milk has around 150 calories per cup. In contrast, unsweetened almond milk has around 45 calories per cup3. There are other pros4: one serving of almond’s milk provides half of your daily Vitamin E, and is usually consumed by people who also want to control their blood sugar. However, as good as almond milk might seem on the surface — and as popular as it is — there are many issues related to its consumption.
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What’s Actually in Almond Milk
Is almond milk bad?
As any almond milk aficionado would tell you, some brands are definitely better than others. The creamy consistency is one reason that draws people to almond milk over other plant based milk alternatives.
An almond farm in central California, 2007. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
However, that creamy consistency of almond milk is completely artificial.
Silk, a popular almond milk brand that can be found in the vast majority of supermarkets, contains the following ingredients: water, almonds, and a “vitamin and mineral blend,” which includes: calcium carbonate, vitamin eacetate, vitamin A palmitate and vitamin D2.
Almond milk also contains sea salt, locust bean gum, gellan gum, and ascorbic acid. Other brands utilize carrageenan, which is present in most popular dairy products, notably ice cream. In studies, this has been linked to gastrointestinal issues5.
Some people wonder whether their dairy issues aren’t with dairy at all, but rather with carrageenan in most processed dairy products.
Another issue with the water-additive nature of almond milk is that it’s not nutritious enough to feed to infants who are relying on milk for their sole sustenance during the first year of life, like cow's milk is intended to do for the first part of the calf's life.
Studies have advised against it, and mothers are forced to find other options — whether that’s breastfeeding, or cows’ milk formulas — to make sure their infants are well nourished.
That’s because when the individual components are broken down, most brands of almond milk are mostly just water and additives. Only 2% of the actual almond milk has any nuts involved.
A major almond company, Blue Diamond, has faced recent lawsuits over issues involving people who feel cheated by this. While the company’s defense is true — that many other popular drinks, such as coffee or sports drinks — are 98% water, this leads to another issue with almond milk: water.
Read More: The Vegan Diet: Is Veganism Really Healthy?
Almond Milk is Bad for the Environment
For the U.S. and the world, California is crucial to maintaining the almond supply. Used in snacks, baked goods and almond milk, the nuts require something that California has in abundance — sunshine and a temperate climate.
However, since the demand for almond milk is rapidly spiking, an avalanche of environmental issues are resulting.
Almond Milk Production Uses a Trillion Gallons of Water Each Year
Statistically, 80% of the world’s almonds are grown in California. This is an overwhelming portion of the world’s entire supply, and something that Californian farmers need to maintain. However, almonds are a demanding crop when it comes to water, using over a trillion gallons of water each and every year!
Water is something that California hasn’t had much of, due to catastrophic droughts. Ten percent of California’s total agricultural water supply is used to grow almonds, which equals a whopping 1.1 trillion gallons of water5. Unfortunately, it gets worse.
Almond trees being irrigated. Courtesy: Capitol Public Radio
In times of drought, farmers are forced to change up the crops they grow in order to stay afloat financially. In 2015, when a particularly revealing article was published in the Sydney Morning Herald, one million acres of Californian land are already being used to grow almonds. This is more land than the entire state of Rhode Island!
The prediction of the time was that 150,000 more acres would be conscripted into the cause of growing almonds, which would take up even more water. This demand for water, which is something that California historically lacks, has prompted farmers to take more drastic measures.
This involves farmers drilling for water in order to hydrate the almonds that they’re growing5. Unfortunately, drilling for aquifers has presented issues that capitalize on problems native to California.
This state is known for resting on several fault lines, which has produced massive earthquakes over the years. Drilling for aquifers could prompt earthquakes that are more severe and more frequent.
In other words, drilling for water is bad for the environment of the internal structure of the land that is California.
Almond Farmers Are Depleting Ground Water
So far, an environmental crash hasn’t occurred. “California farmers reaped 2.1 billion pounds of almonds6” in 2014, which ties into economic supply and demand rules that prove that the world is more than ready to consume as many almonds as California is able to grow. However, this doesn’t take issues of groundwater depletion into account.
When the groundwater is lowered this drastically by aquifers being over-pumped, drastic geological changes occur. In the San Joaquin Valley, which is the prime location for growing almonds, the US Geological Survey found that the ground “has literally been sinking by an average of eleven inches per year … groundwater depletion is also making the Sierra Nevada and Coast Mountain range slowly rise — enough to potentially trigger earthquakes6.”
According to scientists at Berkeley, it’s unlikely that these aquifers and groundwater have a chance of being restored by rainfall. Jay Famiglietti, a hydrologist, says6 that “We’re on a one-way trajectory toward depletion, toward running out of groundwater. So it’s not unlike having several straws in a glass, and everyone drinking at the same time, and no one really watching the level.”
All of these ecological and environmental disasters waiting to happen can have a catastrophic impact on physical safety, food security and access to water.
The snowball effect of the economic demand for almonds is having a disastrous effect, and all the signs are pointing to where it will lead: collapsing infrastructure, increasingly severe droughts and rationed water, severe earthquakes and an unpredictable toss-up of California’s agricultural system. However, even without taking these ramifications into account, almonds can wreak havoc on human health too.
Almond Cultivation Is Killing Honeybees
Another environmental issue exacerbated by the $700 million almond industry is honeybees. Many scientists today are concerned about honeybees going extinct. While there are many creatures that are equipped for pollination, honeybees are by far the most versatile.
This worry about disappearing honeybees is well-founded, and there is a population of controlled U.S. honeybees that are specifically utilized for farming pollination purposes.
Out of that entire pool of controlled honeybees, California uses 60% of them to pollinate almond trees. However, this task has an alarming toll on honeybees.
Twenty-five percent of those bees die from all the pesticides that are used to keep bugs from taking over almond trees5. This death rate is only hastening the honeybee extinction that scientists are worried about, and this is not to mention how bad for the environment these pesticides and chemicals are.
The Health Risk of Almond Milk
Almonds are often touted as the cure-all, as a healthy fat that comes in a deliciously crunchy package. However, almonds can pose health risks.
Additionally, studies8 have been conducted that confirm cyanide levels in almonds.
“[Cyanide] levels in bitter almonds are approximately 40 times higher than levels found in sweet almonds … Knowing that the acute lethal dose of cyanide for mammals is as low as 0.5 kg of the body weight … the consumption of 50 bitter almonds is deadly for adults.”
Obviously, not all almonds share this cyanide level, but it still presents a health risks. Almonds are also associated with lowering testosterone levels.
Hormonal Imbalances Caused By PUFAs (Polyunsaturated Fats)
Other issues with almonds involve anti-nutrients, inflammation, PUFA content and hormonal problems. Anti-nutrients are tied to the fact that almonds aren’t technically a nut—they are part of the seed family.
Rather than contributing to the body’s overall store of nutrients, almonds actually deplete from that store. This is partially because they contain lectins.
Lectins are sticky proteins that coat your intestinal tract, making it difficult to properly absorb micronutrients … it is also important to understand the other ways that lectins can negatively affect our health … they attach to insulin receptors on fat cells. Remember, insulin is the fat-storage hormone. And once attached, lectins never detach, indefinitely telling the fat cell to store more fat … many food allergies are actually immune system reactions to lectins.9
Another issue is that almonds are quite high in omega 6. Diets that are too high in omega 6 can cause inflammation, which is directly linked to multiple health issues.
This includes “many of the most debilitating health conditions and disease including heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.”9
However, the biggest issue revolving around almonds is PUFA content, which stands for polyunsaturated fatty acids. In a list published by “Nutrition Data”10, almonds make the list of top fifty foods that are highest in PUFA.High levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids have been tied to a shorter lifespan in studies focused on mammals.
Another study examines issues between PUFA levels and brain activity and functions in fetuses. In this study, assessments were conducted close to birth, at weeks 30, 32, 34, and 36. The focus of the study was gauging short and long-term memory.
The conclusion was that there may be “some negative relationships between fetal brain functions and early PUFA status.”11
This type of information is especially shocking, when you consider that most people switched to almond milk for health reasons.
Even with all of this information taken into account, some people are still unwilling to revert to that gallon of 2% dairy milk at their local supermarket. There are many reasons for this—lactose intolerance, an unwillingness to contribute to unethical practices in the dairy industry, and not wanting to subject their bodies to the antibiotics, toxins, and health risks that are embodied in that gallon jug.
Food writer Anjali Prasertong12 summed it up neatly: “Of course, not all milk is created equal. I don’t consider cheap milk from sad cows on industrial farms the better alternative. Instead, I seek out the best-quality milk I can find, from local sources when possible.”
Even though finding locally sourced dairy milk is not an option for the lactose intolerant, it is a solid option for everyone else. Carefully researching other options—or seeing if it is possible to replace the nutrients that are present in dairy with other nutrients in a well-rounded diet—are the best option for people who need to cut lactose out of their diet entirely.
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From the toxic chemicals in plastics to the endocrine disrupting additives in your meat, the Western lifestyle is slowly stealing your health. You may not immediately notice the health implications of drinking from BPA-laden containers or eating a turkey that has been injected with antibiotics, but the cumulative effects over time will leave you hormonally imbalanced and suffering from micronutrient deficiencies that can lead to disease and poor health.
Eating organic produce and grass-fed meat is a good first step to reclaim your health, but it is just the beginning of your journey. Learning how to optimize your diet and lifestyle for hormonal and metabolic health will reinvigorate your body and help you return to a state of total wellness.
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Citations and Sources
- 1.Roberts M. Big Dairy is going after your almond milk. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2018/07/24/big-dairy-is-going-after-your-almond-milk/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.0f8c105f31dd. Published 2018. Accessed April 15, 2019.
- 2. Koba M. Almond milk sales are soaring, but is it good for you? Fortune. http://fortune.com/2015/05/27/almond-milk-sales-soaring-health/. Published 2015. Accessed April 15, 2019.
- 3.Krans B. Almond Milk vs. Cowâs Milk vs. Soy Milk vs. Rice Milk. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/milk-almond-cow-soy-rice#almond-milk. Published 2017. Accessed April 15, 2019.
- 4.Glassman K. Why Is Almond Milk Good For You? WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/why-is-almond-milk-good-for-me#1. Published 2017. Accessed April 15, 2019.
- 5.Berry S. The unhealthy truth about almond milk. Sydney Morning Herald. https://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/health-and-wellness/the-unhealthy-truth-about-almond-milk-20151109-gkupts.html. Published 2015. Accessed April 15, 2019.
- 6.Your almond habit is sucking California dry. Mother Jones. https://www.motherjones.com/food/2014/07/your-almond-habit-sucking-califoirnia-dry/. Published July 14, 2014. Accessed April 15, 2019.
- 7.Almonds: Health benefits, nutrition, and risks. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/269468.php. Published 2017. Accessed April 15, 2019.
- 8.Chaouali N, Gana I, Dorra A, et al. Potential Toxic Levels of Cyanide in Almonds (Prunus amygdalus), Apricot Kernels (Prunus armeniaca), and Almond Syrup. ISRN Toxicol. 2013;2013:610648. [PMC]
- 9.Don’t eat another nut before reading this! | Calton Nutrition. Calton Nutrition. https://www.caltonnutrition.com/nuts/. Published April 12, 2016. Accessed April 19, 2019.
- 10.Foods highest in Polyunsaturated Fat in Nut and Seed Products. Nutrition Data. https://nutritiondata.self.com/foods-012047000000000000000.html?maxCount=77. Published 2018. Accessed April 19, 2019.
- Published 2009. Accessed April 19, 2019.
- 11.Why I Stopped Drinking Almond Milk & Went Back to Regular Milk Instead. Kitchn. https://www.thekitchn.com/why-i-stopped-drinking-almond-milk-started-drinking-regular-milk-again-197085. Published 2018. Accessed April 15, 2019.