By Emily Rhodes, MPH, RD, Food and Nutrition Writer, eSavvyHealth
In recent years, a growing number of Americans have sought alternatives to traditional dairy, driven by considerations ranging from gastrointestinal sensitivities to ethical concerns. This shift has given rise to a diverse array of milk alternatives, offering choices for replacing dairy in everything from coffee and cereal to baked goods. Among the abundance of options such as soy, oat, coconut, rice, cashew, and hemp, almond milk stands out as one of the most favored choices. In this article, we will delve into the process of crafting almond milk, explore the various food additives associated with it, examine its impact on health—particularly gut health—and guide you on what to scrutinize when deciphering the labels of not just almond milk, but most milk alternatives.
Almond milk begins its journey with raw almonds, which are soaked, blended, and then strained to extract a smooth, creamy liquid. The process often involves fortification with essential vitamins and minerals to enhance nutritional value, positioning it more closely with traditional dairy.
The exact amount of almonds in commercial almond milk can vary widely, depending on the brand and the specific formulation. In many cases, the almond content in commercial almond milk is relatively low in comparison with homemade almond milk. The resulting almond milk may contain a small percentage of almonds, and the rest is water. The almond content is often expressed as a percentage on the product packaging.
On average, a carton of commercial almond milk might contain around 2-5% almonds. This means that for a standard 32-ounce (1 quart) carton, you might find roughly 1 to 1.6 ounces of almonds, about 23 to 37 almonds. Keep in mind that these figures can vary, so it’s a good idea to check the product label for specific information about almond content. Homemade almond milk, where you control the ingredients, would typically contain a higher percentage of almonds.
Impact on Health
Minimally processed almond milk is a nutrient-rich option that can be part of a balanced diet. Additionally, almond milk is often fortified with vitamins like vitamin D and calcium, which are essential for bone health. In terms of gut health, almond milk is generally well-tolerated by individuals who may be lactose intolerant or have dairy sensitivities. While the omission of dairy may be helpful for some, the addition of substances to emulate the creaminess and texture of dairy may introduce a new realm of potential side effects.
Although almond milk is considered by many to be a wholesome alternative to dairy, some commercial varieties may include food additives for flavor, texture, or shelf life. Common additives include sweeteners, stabilizers, and fortifying agents.
Some of the most popular almond milk brands contain gums, thickeners, and emulsifiers. These may be added to improve the texture and mouthfeel, prevent separation, improve consistency, extend shelf life, and enhance consumer acceptance. While these additives are “Generally Recognized As Safe” by U.S. regulatory bodies, there are reasons to be concerned about their potential effects on the gut microbiota. You can learn more here on how the FDA regulates more than 3,000 food additives.
Some studies suggest that these additives may alter the composition of gut bacteria and could potentially have implications for gut health. However, the specific impact may vary depending on the type and amount of emulsifiers or gums used, as well as individual differences in gut microbiota.
It’s important to note that the overall quality and composition of milk alternatives, including the choice of emulsifiers and gums, can vary between brands and products. While the science may not be established on the impact of emulsifiers and gums on gut health, it may be worth your while to opt for a more wholesome product to prevent any potential gut disturbances.
What to Look for on the Label
When selecting almond milk, it’s important to scrutinize labels for additives, sweeteners, and potential allergens. Opting for unsweetened varieties is likely to reduce added sugars, while organic options may appeal to those seeking products grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. While they may be more expensive, there are brands that simply contain three ingredients: water, almonds, and salt. Due to the lack of additives, you may notice more separation of ingredients, so it’s important to shake well.
Some of the common gums, thickeners and emulsifiers in more highly processed milk alternatives include:
- Locust bean gum or carob bean gum
- Guar gum
- Xanthan gum
- Gellan gum
Almond milk’s popularity continues to climb as consumers seek versatile and sustainable alternatives to traditional dairy. Whether chosen for its nutty flavor, for its nutritional benefits, or based on ethical considerations, almond milk has secured its place in the landscape of milk alternatives. By understanding how it’s made, being aware of food additives and its potential impact on gut health, and carefully examining labels, consumers can make informed choices that align with their preferences and well-being in this era of diverse and evolving dietary options.
Emily Rhodes, MPH, RD is a Registered Dietitian and Clinical Nutrition Manager at Keck Medicine of USC in Arcadia, CA. You can find her at the barn or in the grocery aisle reading a label.
This recipe for homemade almond milk is from Healthline:
- 2 cups (280 grams) of soaked almonds
- 4 cups (1 liter) of water
- 1 teaspoon (5 ml) of vanilla extract (optional)
- Soak the almonds in water overnight and drain before use. Add the almonds, water, and vanilla to a blender and pulse for 1–2 minutes until the water is cloudy and the almonds are finely ground.
- Pour the mixture into a mesh strainer that is placed over a bowl and lined with a nut milk bag or cheesecloth. Be sure to press down to extract as much liquid as possible. You should get approximately 4 cups (1 liter) of almond milk.
- Place the liquid into a serving container and store it in your refrigerator for 4–5 days