Icky additives in non-dairy milk
Almond milk, soy milk, coconut milk, hazelnut milk, oat milk, hempmilk… new varieties of non-dairy milks have been popping up all over grocery store shelves. But are these milk substitutes healthy? Well, not really. While these milk substitutes sound good according to the claims on the packages (things like as much calcium as milk and heart healthy), the ingredients in these processed products tell a different story. Here are seven reasons to think twice before buying non-dairy milks:
This seaweed-based additive is extremely inflammatory and should be fastidiously avoided. As a matter of fact, carrageenan is so caustic to the digestive tract that researchers use it to induce colitis in lab animals! The World Health Organization classifies one type of carrageenan as a “possible human carcinogen” (learn more about carrageenan here). Lesson? Just because a carton of Almond Milk claims the titles “organic” and “heart healthy” does not mean it should be a part of your diet.
2. “Natural flavors”
This term conveniently eliminates the need to list unsavory additives on the ingredient list. “Natural flavors” can even mean forms of MSG and artificial sweeteners. I want to know EXACTLY what is in the food that I eat. That is why I prepare most of my food from scratch and only purchase ingredients from companies who have the rare integrity to list every single ingredient on their product. I feel a visceral distrust of a company that puts “natural flavors” on their ingredient list.
3. Vegetable oils
Most nut or seed milks contain canola oil, corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower seed oil, and/or soybean oil which are all bad news. Vegetable oils are a freak of nature… after all, it takes a lot of effort to get a gallon of oil from corn! Vegetable oils are extracted with toxic solvents as well as high heat and pressure, agents that rancidify the delicate chemical structure of the fatty acids. Further, corn and soy oils are most likely from heavily-sprayed and GMO crops.
To prove my point, watch this video on How Canola Oil Is Made. You won’t believe it until you see it! Canola oil is simply not fit for human consumption (or animal consumption, either, for that matter).
Vegetable oils = icky. Period.
When it comes to non-dairy milk options, soy milk is by far the worst choice. For the sake of keeping this post a reasonable length, I am just going to give you some of the detrimental health consequences of soy in a nutshell:
- Soy contains high amounts of phytoestrogens which may cause estrogen dominance. Pre-pubescent boys are most susceptible to (often irreversible) hormone damage by consuming soy products and parents should make a careful effort to never feed their babies soy-based formulas.
- Soy impairs thyroid function which lowers metabolism. This leads to hair thinning, skin problems, and weight gain.
- Soy contains substances that interfere with protein digestion. This can cause serious pancreas problems, including pancreatic cancer.
- Soy is super high in mineral-blocking phytic acid.
Want more details and studies on the horrors of soy? I recommend The Whole Soy Story by Dr. Kaayla Daniels.
5. Vitamin D2
The natural vitamin D in real milk, as well as the D the human body produces from sun exposure, is D3. Vitamins in a whole-food form, such as in raw milk, provide an easily-assimilated form of the nutrients along with important cofactors for absorption. Vitamin D2 is a synthetic and isolated form of the vitamin and, as a result, is extremely poorly absorbed (here’s the study). It offers no viable benefit to the body and may actually be harmful.
Some experts believe that D2 actually desentitizes the D3 receptors, making us more prone to vitamin D deficiency! Stay far, far away from the D2.
6. Other isolated vitamins
When it comes to processed foods, the sum of the parts does not equal the whole. Here’s what I mean in the case of milk substitutes: companies isolate forms of vitamins and minerals and add it into the milk substitute base. But just because a rice milk claims to have as much calcium as regular milk does not mean the body absorbs and utilizes the calcium from both items the same way. I believe nutrients are always better absorbed in the whole-food form.
For example, real, whole milk provides adequate saturated fats to help the body utilize the calcium and fat-soluble vitamins in the milk. Non-dairy milks offer no natural co-factors to allow assimilation of the vitamins.
As another example, non-dairy milks often contain synthetic vitamin A. While naturally-occuring (non-isolated, food-source) vitamin A only creates toxicity in uber-extreme doses, moderate overdoses of synthetic vitamin A can cause toxicity (read more about synthetic vs. natural vitamin A). This is because the body cannot assimilate the synthetic version of the vitamin.
7. Bonus: Phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors
(Not an additive, but natural anti-nutrients)
As explained in Nourishing Traditions, traditional cultures soaked their nuts and seeds in a salty brine and then dried them in the sun. This reduced the phytic acid content (a substance which impairs mineral absorption) and the naturally-occuring enzyme inhibitors (which cause digestive distress and impair protein digestion). I know that many of you are already fans of soaking and dehydrating your nuts/seeds to make the nutrients more bioavaiable. Unfortunately, commercially-prepared non-dairy milks are not made from properly prepared nuts/seeds.
Let’s take a more detailed look at the ingredients in popular non-dairy milk options.
Silk Original Soymilk
Soymilk (Filtered Water, Whole Soybeans), Cane Sugar, Sea Salt, Carrageenan, Natural Flavor, Calcium Carbonate, Vitamin A Palmitate, Vitamin D2, Riboflavin (B2), Vitamin B12.
Well, the first ingredient is soy. Need we read further down the ingredient list before we place the product back on the shelf? No, but let’s anyways, out of morbid curiosity. I see carrageenan, that caustic carcinogen that we discussed earlier. I also see isolated calcium and vitamin A, which aren’t going to be optimally absorbed by the body. And there is that useless vitamin D2. The verdict? Don’t touch this stuff.
Silk Unsweetened Vanilla Almond Milk
Almond milk (Filtered Water, Almonds), Sea Salt, Natural Flavor, Locust Bean Gum, Sunflower Lecithin, Gellan Gum, Calcium Carbonate, Vitamin E Acetate, Zinc Gluconate, Vitamin A Palmitate, Riboflavin (B2), Vitamin B12, Vitamin D2.
The real red flags here are the foreign-sounding ingredients. Locust bean gum – what in the world is that? Here’s the explanation from Wikipedia:
“[Locust bean gum is a] vegetable gum extracted from the seeds of the carob tree […] The long pods that grow on the tree are used to make this gum. The pods are kibbled to separate the seed from the pulp. The seeds have their skins removed by an acid treatment. The deskinned seed is then split and gently milled. This causes the brittle germ to break up while not affecting the more robust endosperm. The two are separated by sieving. The separated endosperm can then be milled by a roller operation to produce the final locust bean gum powder.”
That is definitely not an ingredient that can be prepared by the home cook! Even if it is from a natural product like a carob pod, I know it is not truly “natural” if it requires such strange and complex extraction methods. The same goes for the sunflower lecithin (a highly processed byproduct) and the gellan gum (a product of a bacterium).
And there is that ominous “natural flavor” label… that’s bad news. The verdict on this popular almond milk option? Avoid it.
Rice Dream Unsweetened Rice Milk
Organic rice base (filtered water, organic rice), organic tapioca starch, organic expeller pressed canola oil and/or safflower oil and/or sunflower oil, tricalcium phosphate, carrageenan, natural flavors, sea salt, xanthan gum, vitamin A palmitate, vitamin D2, vitamin B12.
Okay, so we have some red flag ingredients discussed above like vegetable oils, carrageenan, natural flavors and D2. It also lists xanthan gum, a highly processed, bacterial byproduct ingredient. It certainly doesn’t pass the test of “would your great-grandmother have recognized this as food?”
Hemp nut base (filtered water, hemp nut [shelled hemp seed]), natural flavors, sunflower lecithin, tricalcium phosphate, carrageenan, sea salt, vitamin A palmitate, vitamin D2, riboflavin, vitamin B12. Contains a trace of sugar.
Like other nuts and seeds, hempseeds are a whole food that has been enjoyed by traditional cultures. And the good news is that hemp seeds do not contain phytic acid, so they do not need to be soaked. But unfortunately, this commercial non-dairy milk contains that darned and dangerous carrageenan as well as the red flag ingredients of natural flavors, sunflower lecithin, and D2. Verdict? Pass on this one.
What about coconut milk?
I frequently use coconut milk in my recipes on Empowered Sustenance. Although it is a seed, coconut has an excellent fatty acid profile with lots of metabolism-boosting medium chain fatty acids and very little PUFA. But we have to be careful when buying coconut milks because they can have the same problems of other milk substitutes. I don’t recommend buying cartons of coconut milk, because these often contain carrageenan.
The best option is additive-free coconut milk in BPA-free cans, although the can lining likely still leaches chemicals into the milk. I feel totally comfortable consuming 1-3 cans of coconut milk per week.
In my option, the best non-dairy milk is homemade coconut milk. You can also make coconut milk at home from unsweetened coconut flakes. Make a couple of batches and keep some in the freezer. It will lasts months in the freezer and about 4 days in the fridge.
What milks and milk substitutes are best?
I believe the most nourishing option is real raw milk. Why is raw milk so special? So many reasons! I explain the benefits of raw milk in my post here. That post also debunks the myths about the “risks” of raw milk consumption and addresses the question “isn’t cow milk for baby cows?” If you think you are lactose intolerant or believe you can’t tolerate dairy milk, I encourage you to give raw milk or raw goat milk a try. You will be pleasantly surprised at how well you can tolerate it!
If you still want a nut/seed milk, then the best option is making it from scratch. Again, I recommend homemade coconut milk because it contains the healthiest fats and is free of anti-nutrients like phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors.
If you choose other nuts/seeds, it is best to soak and dehydrate your nuts/seeds according to the directions in Nourishing Traditions. This reduces the problematic phytic acid (remember, it prevents mineral absorption) and enzyme inhibitors (remember, those harm your pancreas). Then blend up the nuts/seeds with filtered water and strain it through a nut milk bag. You can find unlimited recipes for homemade nut milk on the internet.