One of the big food stories this past week was Tom Philpott’s article in Mother Jones on almond milk. Philpott deplores the current popularity of almond milk because 1) It’s not an especially nutritious food and, 2) Almond-growing is not friendly to the environment. He says that it’s just a bunch of “ignorant hipsters” who have made almond milk a bestselling beverage.
It’s true that almond trees are thirsty plants. But, from an environmental standpoint, almond milk is still a better choice than cow’s milk. Philpott could have learned about this by reading an article in his own magazine.
I do agree with him on this point, though: Almond milk is not especially nutritious. An 8-ounce glass is the equivalent of about 4 almonds; the rest is water and supplemented nutrients. I like almond milk, but I rarely drink it. I actually don’t drink plant milk much at all, but when I do, it’s always soymilk. I want the protein it provides, and it’s also easy on the environment.
There is more to food than nutrition, though. Sometimes you just need something to pour over your bran flakes. Or you need milk for a macaroni and not-cheese recipe. Or to wash down a chocolate chip cookie. And if you choose to eat in a way that is responsible and compassionate, then plant milk is the only option. Philpott doesn’t get this because he doesn’t embrace a vegan ethic. While he notes that the dairy industry is “nasty,” he’s referring only to its environmental footprint. And he tells us that his own choice is cow’s milk. Or, more specifically, kefir. Which, I have to say, kind of invalidates his whole “hipster” accusation about almond milk.
We have no need for animal foods. And therefore, we have no right to exploit animals to produce these foods. That’s why people who choose to eat responsibly and ethically opt for almond milk. Or hempseed milk. Or soymilk. Or no milk. Vegan choices are never about being “hip.” They are about living in a way that honors values of justice and compassion. I wish more food writers understood this.
Thank you for taking the time to write this thoughtful response. Well said ! I grow weary of constantly having to defend my life style when, to me, the reasons for being vegan are more than obvious.
Have to tell you that Almonds …especially those that are grown in California are not Cruelty Free …. millions of Bees die pollinating them…. The Bees are trucked across the country…then do their work… pollinating ….the Almond trees are sprayed with pesticides while the bees are still pollinating…then they are trucked back… most of them are poisoned and also die on the way back. I used to eat and drink Almonds…I don’t anymore…the Bees and other pollinators…are dying.. and they supply the produce for the vegan diet….
what about organic almond milk though which wouldn’t use those pesticides?
that being said, I don’t drink almond milk much. My favorite milk substitute is hazelnut or soy, and even those I only drink occasionally.
I am largely vegan, so I don’t have an issue with following a vegan diet and I agree with you that almond milk is not cruelty free.
I suppose this is a hot topic now, but I wish that Ginny had chosen not to defend consuming almonds and almond milk because there really are huge issues around this and other agricultural products that have to do with fundamental problems with our food systems.
I would like to see vegans examining the way in which our plant-based foods are farmed as closely as we examine the problems with animal husbandry.
The drought in California and the huge diversion of water to monoculture, unsustainable crops like almonds, there has affected and threatens to affect animal life in California’s lakes and rivers.
In fact, the government had to take action this year to restrict farmers’ (almond farmers being a major offender) use of the natural surface water sources because it was endangering the fish and other water life that depend on it.
I didn’t read the Mother Jones piece, but did read what I assume to be a similar article in Canada’s MacLean’s magazine and it detailed the price of almond farming to the environment broadly and specifically to bees and water life.
We live in a world where everything is connected. We shouldn’t forget that.
I think responsible veganism means looking at all the ways in which our food choices affect other creatures and the planet — be it almonds or palm oil products or whichever other product our warped food systems decide to over-exploit and over-promote.
I didn’t take offense at the “ignorant hipster” comment, not only because I don’t fit into the category but also because I think it IS worth being mindful of the ways in which certain foods are promoted and their impacts on others and the planet in general.
I would have expected Ginny to see things this way, as well, instead of taking the comment/article as an attack on veganism.
Have you seen the list or a picture of the produce in the supermarket which was not pollinated by bees?
Nearly all vegetables are pollinated by bees.
Once the bees are out there, they breed and repopulate, do they not? I mean people on wagons settled the West, how many of those people died along the way? Yet, you buy products that come or arrived from China or overseas, via CA everyday.
For a larger perspective.
How many of the products, which you purchase, are made by slave labor, child labor, etc? Your clothes, your electronics, your computer, your appliances, etc…. Everything says, “Made in China, Made in Indonesia, Made in Mexico, Made in Bangladesh, etc”.
Thank you for writing this response!
One would assume that with the many accusations of vegans not always eating nutritious food came the reality that omnivores only eat healthy food, down to the ingredient. Unfortunately, this guy missed the point you so eloquently pointed out: kefir is way more “hipster” than plant milks. At least people “ooh” and “aah” when someone drinks it. We only get made fun of for plant milks.
I switched to almond milk about a year ago because (oh the horror!) I love the taste of it.
I loved your comment Lisa. I like vanilla hemp milk and chocolate almond milk the best.
i’m confused. i thought soy farming was environmentally damaging. i switched to coconut milk because of it. and which of the non-milks is actually nutritionally the best?
Any farming is environmentally damaging whether it be organic or conventional. When it comes to which plant milk you choose it is really up to you. There are environmental problems with coconut cultivation (http://stanford.io/1kJmKwg) as well as soy farming but at least it appears in the U.S. soy farming is pretty sustainable (http://bit.ly/1kJn26p). As for the best milk nutritionally I think soy is best with a good balance of protein (8-9g/8oz) and fat. I am just careful about sweetened soy milks because so many of them can be very high in added sugars but do recommend them sometimes because many fortified milks are sweetened. Just a matter of what you want and need.
Catherine, the misunderstanding about soy farming is due to the fact that so much land is cleared in South America to grow soybeans for animal feed. The problem is that it takes so much land to grow food for farm animals. When we are just growing soybeans for foods for human consumption, soybeans have a pretty small environmental footprint compared to other protein sources.
I would rather limit the amount of fortified foods in my diet. Almond milk is fortified with calcium, vitamin A, zinc, iron, vitamin D, B12, vitamin E. Some (but not all) of these nutrients have shown significant harms when tested in large scale randomized trials (e.g. calcium, vitamin A, vitamin E). Fortunately, almond milk comes from many manufacturers in an unfortified version. You are not getting a “Frankenfood” that way.
Dan, large supplements of some of these nutrients may be harmful, but the more moderate amounts that are present in plant milks probably aren’t. Also, the fact that they are present as part of a food is different from simply popping a pill. Fortified plant milks can help people meet calcium needs and I don’t know of any evidence that this is harmful.
I put organic, unsweetened WestSoy on my cooked whole-grain cereal in the morning. Rich, creamy and delicious. And there’s lots of protein in just one-half cup.
Amen to that! Thank you for addressing this!
And when I’ve run out of soy milk for my smoothies in the morning, I can make a quick almond milk. Yes, I also like the taste! (And the only things in it are what I choose to put in it–filtered water, organic almonds, and sometimes a bit of agave and some vanilla.)
I have to admit I am always a little puzzled when I see things dismissed as being mostly water. As if water were something we can forgo. Maybe it is because I live in Texas and it is hotter than doughnut grease or I am an athlete or because I insist on training in weather than it hotter than doughnut grease but I am rather fond of water and sometimes mixing things up so you aren’t just drinking straight water is a nice thing.
I’m allergic to raw soybeans, so I can’t drink soymilk unless it has been cooked. What would the next most nutritious plant milk be?
All soy products, including soymilk, are made of cooked soybeans. Even for fermented products like miso or tempeh, the soybeans are cooked before culturing.
I also have an intolerance for soy and use a mixture of almond and coconut milk in my oats every morning, adding extra protein with tahini or nut butter.
What about hemp milk? I think that you have left the best choice for environment and nutrition out.
I think I mentioned it, didn’t I? I agree it’s as good a choice as most other plant milks.
But veganism has hipster overtones and if the hipness factor wasn’t relevant to vegans they’d be drinking far more soy milk which can be used in all the same contexts…..but they aren’t.
While the authors actions seem to conflict with his concerns for the environment, his critique of almond milk is largely accurate and he doesn’t seem to be saying anything about veganism.
What does “hipster overtones” even mean? Vegans are vegans because we’ve made an ethical choice to forgo animal products. Certainly some hipsters are also vegans, but not all vegans are hipsters. If some vegans use almond milk rather than soy, perhaps it’s because they’re allergic to soy. Or maybe they don’t like soy milk, some brands are a little beany tasting. I use soy, but given the choice between almond or animal milk, I’m going with the nuts. I’m not sure why you’d consider almond milk more hipster than soy. It’s not PBR.
I mean that a lot of vegans are “hipsters”, there is a pretty strong association between being vegan and being “hip”. Not all vegans are primarily concerned with ethics.
Its not just that some vegans use almond milk, its that the vast majority seem to consume it rather than soy despite soy milk being a much better option. I’d suggest that is due, in part, due the hipness factor. Its probably also due to the fact that almond milk, the sweetened kind, is pretty much just almond flavored sugar water. Many varieties aren’t that different from drinking soda, or I guess “vitamin water” is a better comparison due to the fortification.
Almond production is an ecological nightmare:
Billions of bees are shipped to California in trucks each year and many of them die:
As a long-term vegan it always shocks me how ignorant many vegans are of their suffering index. I guess as long as death and suffering is one step removed from your purchase it’s A OK.
There will always be death and suffering involved in the production of our food. We need bees for many of our plant foods. Animals will always die when we harvest and cultivate. But the goal is to reduce the suffering that does occur. Because bees die in the production of almonds, or many other foods we eat, should we totally forgo them? I do not think so but we should be more aware of the environmental impact of any of our choices and minimize it as much as possible as we do in the case of suffering.
I think this is another irony of the popularity of almond milk among vegans. Almond production requires huge numbers of bees to pollinate the trees and the bees aren’t treated any better than those producing honey, yet honey is avoided and almond milk is embraced.
But how does eating almonds fit in with a lifestyle that is trying to minimize your environmental impact?
Not to put down your article, especially since I agree with a lot of what you say, but I’m not so certain that almond or any other plant milk is “cruelty-free” unless you specifically mean in terms of animal rights. Many underpaid and abused farm laborers may disagree with that term. I guess I would prefer a label that is a bit more truthful.
I live in an almond-growing area and am a long-time vegan. I can tell you a little about the labor factor of this product. Almond farming is almost entirely mechanized, and so requires little of the manual labor associated with row crops. It is much more like soy and corn farming than, say, lettuce, garlic, and kale. The workers who run the equipment are largely latino/hispanic, but they are relatively well-paid because they have the special skills needed to run the equipment.
A very good organization for better understanding the labor impacts of our food system, from a vegan ‘lens’, so to speak, is the Food Empowerment Project. I highly encourage readers to check out their work (including their famous ‘chocolate list’) at their site: http://www.foodispower.org/
Actually, soy and rice milk are even better alternatives to almond milk. Almost all almonds are pollinated through a process known as industrial pollination. A video description of the process can be found here:
What’s not mentioned in the video is that in addition to the high fructose corn syrup their given, they are also pumped full of antibiotics to that they can survive the unhealthy conditions they have to live in. Transportation is also extremely stressful for the bees. Bees do not do well in environments with a lot of noise and vibration, and they get plenty of that on the back of a truck. Furthermore, they cannot gather nectar while being transported, so they often go several days without food. Around 20% of the bees die being shipped from one place to another. By any measure, industrial pollination is more cruel towards the bees than even the honey industry.
Other food items also utilize industrial pollination, including blueberries, cranberries, apples, and cantaloupes. A more comprehensive list can be found here:
While seeking alternatives to dairy is a step in the right direction, in my humble opinion, it doesn’t go far enough. I would encourage you to look into using alternatives like rice or soy milk, which don’t require industrial pollination.
Ginny, do you think it’s worth to buy cocoa/chocolate or exotic fruits as Fair Trade products or from similar sources?
I do try to buy fair trade chocolate products–so yes, I think it’s worth it.
A cup of oats. A blender half full of water. 60 seconds on puree. Strained. The best “milk” you can make. So cheap. So easy.
I was actually thinking about a similar topic and was wondering your thoughts on it. The Washington Post is reporting that entrepreneurs are close to bioengineering plant products as cow’s milk. This may be good for animals, but I have deep concerns over what this, but also bioengineered vegan analogs of real meat and cheese, would ultimately mean for human health. Here is some more information about it on my blog: http://veganaustin.blogspot.com/2014/07/taking-plant-out-of-plant-based-diet.html
I noticed there is talk of producing a vegan, casein-based cheese. Having watched Forks Over Knives where the researcher says that casein is an on-off switch for cancer, I wonder why they are trying so hard to replicate entirely a tasty, but unhealthy product. Especially with the recent emergence of some fantastic vegan cheezes, such as hazelnut or cashew cheese. Some of them are as good as the best cheeses I’ve had (although still very costly).
The idea that casein causes cancer is based on animal studies in which rats were fed large amounts of isolated casein. They don’t really have much relevance for humans eating dairy foods.
If these foods can be produced safely, and they help omnivores (who are reluctant to go vegan) move away from using animals, then I am all for them.Obviously, people still need to be eating a plant based diet for health, but including small amounts of animal foods in that diet is unlikely to do much harm.
I can’t speak to the biotech safety issues, because that’s all well beyond my expertise. But I’m very much in favor of at least exploring all opportunities to end animal use.
I appreciate your response about the casein study. My question is, would any ethics review board, in light of this, allow casein to be tested in humans in similar rations (would volunteers even agree to do it)? Although casein is already in our diet, so low-level testing (experiments) could theoretically be carried out. Since most cancers are slow-growing, it might be hard to do, and if a positive correlation came up, the study would have to be halted for ethical reasons. And who would have economic interest to fund such studies? So, without the human-testing data, I am (reluctantly) forced to extrapolate from the research done on rats.
Given the huge inputs to produce dairy milk, it boggles my mind that it is cheaper than plant milks like soy, rice or oat. This is the real issue. Is it just lack of a big enough market? Is the soy market now so split with the newcomers of flax, oat, almond, rice, hemp, quinoa milks etc making impossible for the required scales of efficiency to take place? If we can produce veg milks at a lower cost than cow milk, then we can make vegan cheeze at a lower cost too. And there are some great artisan vegan cheezes now, but they are costly.
In my mind, biotech cheeze using casein concerns me for several reasons. One is the cancer factor – an increasing number of people (in my estimation) are going plant-based for the health benefits, and we give them processed/bio-engineered food-like replacements which are likely to have fewer health benefits. When cancer touches someone in your life, you know it is a big deal and you see them fighting for their life.
If the new biotech vegan diet fails to deliver on the health-benefits of the current vegan diet, in a generation, people will reject veganism. Especially if research uncovers a link between the vegan biotech cheeze (and there is a big industry willing to design research to show it).
On whether a small amount of animal products do much harm, you are probably right. I do remember reading about the vegan triathlete/firefighter who tested his cholesterol after eating a hamburger, and it had skyrocketed, but that may not cause harm as it would be removed from his system quickly since he wasn’t eating any other animal products for at least another year.
I really respect your view, outlook, and efforts for the animals, and I think/hope our difference in opinion is a minor one in the big picture.
Melanie, there would be no reason to test casein in similar rations in humans, because humans don’t eat isolated casein and they certainly don’t consume casein in the amounts that were fed to rats. Looking at the effects of huge amounts of an isolated food component–well beyond what any human could eat–just doesn’t tell us anything about human nutrition. Lots of things (including essential nutrients) are perfectly safe in normal portions, but dangerous when consumed in excessive amounts.
And the human epidemiologic data–which always trumps animal research–doesn’t support the animal data in this case.
At any rate, even if exact replicas of animal foods were available to humans–without the input from animals–I’d be in favor of a plant-based diet for health. That is, a diet that is mostly plant foods, with just one or two servings total per day of animal foods.
And if it did turn out that these bioengineered “animal” foods were associated with health problems, it wouldn’t reflect on vegan diets in any way. It would just tell us that bioengineered animal foods are unhealthy.
I was under the impression that the casein cancer link arose from the numerous studies showing that milk consumption raises serum IGF-1 in humans. Is that not the case ?
Jon, I’m sorry to take so long in responding to this. Again, I think most of this research is in animals or is on the effects of isolated casein–so I’m not sure how much we can say about the consequences of drinking small amounts of milk. Although, there is certainly evidence that drinking large amounts of milk might raise risk for prostate cancer. But it’s interesting, because Ornish used isolated soy protein in his prostate cancer studies and that has also been shown to raise IGF-1. It may be that in the context of an overall healthy diet and lifestyle, small amounts of these foods really don’t matter.
The Harvard people seems pretty certain about the link between milk and prostate cancer. It’s only when they talk about the link with ovarian cancer do they use words like “maybe” or “possibly”. My understanding is that all so-called “complete” proteins low in cancer fighting nutrients raise IGF-1 and hence cancer risk. Isolated soy protein falls under that category and I think it was the findings of the Ornish study that caused Drs McDougall and Fuhrman to recommend against fake meats. Small amounts might not be a problem, but then I guess we could probably say the same thing about cigarettes.
The Harvard docs believe that high amounts of dairy foods/calcium raise risk for prostate cancer, and I agree that there is good evidence for this. Although, it’s epidemiological evidence, so always hard to draw that cause and effect conclusion. But what this means, according to the Harvard group, is that men should not consume more than 1-2 servings of dairy per day. So they are not recommending against dairy consumption completely. I recommend against it completely, of course, but for ethical (and environmental) reasons.
It looks as though you have heard of the Real Vegan Cheese project. While Ginny is well versed on the health effects of casein, I recommend talking with Jamie Foley about the actual project and the safety of the products they’re working on. You can read about the project and contact Jamie via his website Skeptical Vegan (http://skepticalvegan.com/) or via Twitter @skepticalvegan. He is awesome and love to answer questions about the project.
Thank you! I love almond milk because I love and respect cows, not because I want to be hip.
Mother Jones is an industry propaganda rag. Wouldn’t surprise me if Mother Jones and the author were paid by the National Dairy Council for their pro-dairy propaganda…while feigning criticism of the dairy industry.
Interesting comment. I can’t say I’m all that comfortable with the publication anymore.
Lovely article. I was freaked about soy milk when I first tried it, but I have really come to love it in my cereal, for baking (pancakes, etc.) and for smoothies. I stick to the organic, as I don’t think the long-term research is out on whether there is harm from genetically modified crops.
The article you are referring to has “ignorance and lack of compassion” written all over. The writer is probably paid by the dairy industry, I wouldn’t be surprised.
Almond milk can be made at home quite easily for a fraction of what store bought almond milk costs.
I see a big issue though in the growing demand of almonds considering the ongoing drought in California, which is one of the main growers of almonds.
In regards of soy milk, personally I don’t like the taste of it at all. Having said that, I hear that there is a lot of GMO Soy out there and consequently a lot of GMO Soy goes into soy products. There are also mixed opinions about soy in connection with breast cancer and soy promoting estrogen in the body, which many women should avoid when faced with breast cancer that has been feeding on estrogen.
It’s true that vast amounts of GMO soy is grown; however most of it goes to become animal feed for meat and milk production or is broken down into various soy constituents and used in a huge range of food “products” as a member of their supporting cast of ingredients that are not there as themselves, but to add some mechanical or nutritional quality to this fake food.
I buy soymilk, tofu, soy yoghurt, tempeh and soy luncheon “meat”, none of which is GMO, all of which is made from whole soy and all of which is available in my local Safeway, Lucky or independent market as well Whole Foods or health food store, at regular prices. Avoiding GMO soy is easy.
As far as I know, unless you are allergic to soy and as long as you eat primarily whole soy and not in absurdly vast quantities, there is no evidence that soy is harmful to anyone.
For a brief overview of soy and breast see:http://www.cancer.org/cancer/news/expertvoices/post/2012/08/02/the-bottom-line-on-soy-and-breast-cancer-risk.aspx
There are different opinions about everything, but not every opinion is worth equal consideration. I’m not suggesting that the debate is settled and that no contrary evidence may at some point appear, but in making decisions we really need to look where the real evidence points us unless we have an extraordinary reason not to.
Susan, among experts on soy, opinions are not at all mixed. It’s pretty clear that soy does not raise risk for breast cancer. In fact, soy consumption during puberty lowers lifetime risk of breast cancer. And women with breast cancer who consume soy have a better prognosis, based on epidemiologic evidence in both China and the U.S. Soy doesn’t promote estrogen in the body at all.
Awww, come on. Don’t you secretly like the hip image behind that glass of almond milk? Just picture yourself in a slinky dress, stiletto heels, fishnet hose and expensive jewelry, sitting at a bar while some handsome dangerous stranger walks up and says, “I’m going buy you an almond milk, gorgeous.” And you say, “I ain’t the kind of girl who drinks almond milk before lunch.” And he says, “Live a little, baby. Life’s too short to follow all the rules,” and he almost tosses you a sparkling glass of almond milk right before gunshots rip through the tavern…(This is a scene from the hit movie, Vegans in Vegas.)
Thank you for this great post. Even before going vegan 5 years ago, I wasn’t a big milk drinker. Now when I need to use milk for cooking or to get something in my tummy to hold me over until dinner I will reach for a cold glass of Almond Milk. Thanks for pointing out the environmental reality of cows milk. Love your blog…I am a big fan. Ken (ecoveggy)
I found the only time I was using a plant based milk was for my morning cereal. In February I chose to have a Zero Waste household and I quit purchasing boxed cereals and starting having a smoothie for breakfast. So, I have no need for a plant milk and I feel better starting my day with a smoothie.
– Plant Based Nomad
Ginny, such a wonderful voice of reason. Excellent conversation about milk/casein.
After many, many years, my husband has decided to go lacto ovo vegetarian, veering away from the heavy animal protein consumption he’s used to. He’s doing it for the animals and the environment. Like me, he just can’t take the cruelty anymore.
Too many plant-based fanatics, and yes, I will use that term, will point to Campbell’s casein study and tell me that my husband is trading one poison for another. I highly doubt it. He’ll be eating moderate amounts of dairy, and not every day either.
Ginny, I am so blessed to have read your books. You are a voice of reason amid conflict and in-fighting among plant based eaters that just turns people off to veganism. Can you blame them?
I am so happy my husband has taken the plunge. He’s crazy about Boca burgers, Morningstar sausages etc. I disagree with those who call these “meats” frankenfoods. They are a good source of protein, fiber and low in saturated fats, and I’d rather see him eat these than the fatty meats and hot dogs he used to eat!
Thank you again.. You are a true blessing.
How does hemp milk rate nutritionally? I currently drink almond milk but I’ve never really given much thought to hemp other than the seeds.