Are Store-Bought Nut Milks All They're Cracked Up to Be? Here's the Nutty Truth

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These days, nut milks are in fashion. But like all things that go from humble home kitchen to mainstream grocery store shelf, dignity is most certainly lost. Before you reach for coconut or almond milk and add it to your shopping cart, consider what else may be in the bottle besides the obvious nuts and filtered water. Here is what you should know about store bought nut milks and which brands to avoid and embrace.

The most promising available alternatives for regular dairy milk are coconut, almond, cashew and other nut milks. The problem with grocery store bought versions, however, begins in production. Additives, preservatives and flavorings may be added to give otherwise neutral-tasting nut milks a more appealing taste. What’s at stake here though is your health.

But before we get into nut milks, let’s talk about the other vegan milk alternatives you shouldn't mess with: soy milk and rice milk. Heavily processed, soy milk is no longer the promising bean it used to be in its native East Asia. Soy milk contains isoflavones that disrupt the endocrine system and phytates that cause gastric inflammation. Rice milk is also relatively devoid of nutrition, as its variations often contain too much sugar to justify as “healthy” alternatives to dairy milk.

Synthetic vitamins like vitamin A palmitate and vitamin D2 are added. These vitamins are harder for the body to process than the kinds that occur naturally in food. Over time, synthetic vitamins can cause problems in the body, such as birth defects and bone fractures. Vitamin D2 is manufactured industrially by irradiating yeast. It's controversial, particularly for giving to children, as toxicity can occur at low doses.

Of even more graver concern is carrageenan, a common thickener and emulsifier found in commercial nut milks. Carrageenan is often added to products like yogurt, chocolate, soy milk and ice cream to give them a thicker consistency and make low-fat versions taste fuller. Carrageenan derives from seaweed and is considered a “natural” ingredient, but that doesn’t mean it should be in your diet. It can cause inflammation, gut irritation and even cancer.

When carrageenan enters the gut, it signals your body to react in the same way it would if accosted by the dangerous bacteria, salmonella. This results in gastrointestinal inflammation and sometimes even ulcerations and bleeding. Carrageenan is also considered a carcinogen by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Research Council of the United States.

Responding to increased awareness surrounding carrageenan, in 2014, WhiteWave Foods announced that the substance would be phased out from its Horizon and Silk milk products. Its Silk Almond Milk contains non-GMO almonds and is carrageenan-free. Other carrageenan-free nut milks include Whole Food’s 365 Almond Milk and So Delicious's Coconut Milk. Some carrageenan-containing milks include Blue Diamond's Almond Coconut Milk Blend, Traders Joes’s Fresh Almond Beverage, Califia Farms's unsweetened almond milk* and Califia Farms’s Coconut Almond Milk Blend*. All of the above brands contain synthetic vitamins.

If you come across a nut milk or coconut milk at your local grocery store, scan its label diligently and resort to Cornucopia’s carrageenan shopping guide. In the end, though, the moral of the story is simple: it is nearly impossible to find a commercial nondairy milk pure enough for you to avoid both synthetic vitamins and carrageenan at the same time. (Key words: nearly impossible.) Luckily, I dug deep and managed to find an almond milk option we can all access. Udderly Nuts is an almond milk company that lives up to the high standards we should demand in all dairy alternatives. Its products are PPO-free, GMO-free, soy-free and cold-pressed. They contain no preservatives, emulsifiers, additives, stabilizers or thickeners.

Besides the few local stand-out companies out there making dairy-free milks without compromising health standards, the ones you come across on most grocery-store shelves are using additives. I mean, it’s the only way these nut milks can retain a longer shelf life.

The best solution is sticking to homemade recipes. To avoid all potential dangers, simply make your own almond or coconut milks at home. Once you get the hang of it, it’s easy and carefree to pull together a few times a week.

*Califia Farms has recently announced its plants to make all its products completely carrageenan free by the end of the year.

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Photo Credit: Mike Mozart

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