Is Almond Milk Unhealthy? Sustainability of Milk and Chemophobia

When I googled “almond milk,” near the top was a Sydney Morning Herald article titled The Unhealthy Truth about Almond Milkwhich would make anyone think that almond milk is bad for you. When I read through the article, I realized that the article mainly focuses on the environmental problems with almond milk production. Growing almonds uses a considerable amount of water. That being said, dairy milk production results in significant water use as well, and all the deforestation issues linked with soy production also apply to dairy milk because dairy cows eat soybeans, and most soy is grown not for human consumption but for the meat and dairy industry:

Another impact of the dairy industry on the Australian environment is by its massive use of water and land area. In 2004-2005 the dairy industry was responsible for 19% of all the water used in Australian agriculture. This is more than 12% of all the water used in Australia. Cows need a lot of land to graze on (if they get the opportunity) and the production of their feed also takes up a lot of land area. The production of cattle feed is a major reason for deforestation and is putting pressure on nature both in Australia and overseas.

In terms of the environment, dairy milk is not ideal not only due to water and land use but also due to methane and manure produced by cows. Cows consume a considerable amount of feed (soybeans). A more sustainable option includes eating insects (e.g. Exo cricket bar) because, unlike cows, insects are cold-blooded and therefore don’t require energy to keep their blood warm. Insects can also be stored in trays that can be piled vertically making it more space efficient. Another option is algae (e.g. Thrive algae oil), which is being used considerably now in Soylent. The latest Soylent iterations use algal oil or algal flour. Algae is a very efficient converter of simple sugars into protein and fat. Unlike animal products that convert plant sugar and plant protein into animal protein and animal fat, algae plants are clean and sterile areas where bioreactors convert simple plant sugars into algae protein and algae fat. There is no need to kill animals or wipe away their blood and manure.

Focusing back on the Sydney Morning Herald article, the article mainly discusses the environmental issues facing almond milk. It does, however, briefly mention health issues:

Even the watery carton version can be a good source of vitamin E, which helps with cell regeneration in the body. It’s also full of omega 3 fats, which are handy helpers for balanced mental health and cholesterol levels. That’s about it, though.

Some brands only contain 2 per cent almonds, while the other 98 per cent of your expensive “milk” is water with some emulsifiers, and sometimes the odd sweetener thrown in, along with nutrients such as vitamin A and D that have been artificially added. Nutritious.

Basically this says nothing. The first paragraph states that almond milk contains vitamin E and omega 3 fats and then says “that’s about it, though” suggesting that almond milk has very little nutrition. But this is not a huge problem. For example, pure filtered water contains no vitamins in it. It just contains water. But is this a problem? No, water is important. Furthermore, if we are to eat or drink based on nutrient density, we wouldn’t drink milk because all milk has little nutrient density as measures by the aggregate nutrient density index (ANDI). Almond milk’s ANDI score is 19 and soy milk is 31. Simply put, green vegetables have the highest nutrient density as measured by the ANDI score. Green vegetables have ANDI scores of around 900 or more whereas all milks have ANDI scores below 50. The bottom line is that if we wanted high nutrient density we’d drink a green smoothie. However, most people who drink coffee do so to get caffeine, and the milk is designed to mask the bitterness of the espresso and to cool the beverage down. Dairy milk, soy milk, almond milk, and coconut milk all achieve this.

The second paragraph about how almond milk contains only 2 per cent almond is, in my opinion, not a big issue. If you put a handful of almonds into a blender and only put in a little bit of water, the resulting mixture will be extremely thick and creamy. It would not mix well with coffee and would be very high in calories. The almond milk content in almond milk varies from 2 to around 15 per cent, but the bottom line is that you cannot put too much almonds in almond milk otherwise it would cease to be an almond milk and would become almond butter.

When the article states that almond milk is mostly water with emulsifiers, sweeteners, and vitamins artificially added it, it is appealing to chemophobia. RationalWiki defines Chemophobia as follows: “Chemophobia is the fear, distrust, or dislike of anything seen as ‘chemical.’ Like various other ‘phobias,’ its use is non-clinical as it is not recognised as an actual irrational fear, but rather describes a set of prejudices against chemicals.” Basically everything is made up of chemicals, and adding emulsifiers, sweeteners, and vitamins to almond milk doesn’t make it unhealthy. To read out the ingredient list of almond milk and announce that it contains many complicated sounding chemicals is completely irrational and appeals to the prejudice that many hold against science and scientists.

The Aeon article aptly titled ‘Chemophobia’ is irrational, harmful – and hard to break describes it best:

[E]ven as much of the world became cleaner, the anti-chemical movement became so polarised that all artificial chemicals are now considered tainted. This false assumption has led to a popular demand for products that are ‘natural’ or even ‘chemical-free’.

In reality, ‘natural’ products are usually more chemically complicated than anything we can create in the lab. To demonstrate, I broke down the components in an ordinary banana. (For brevity’s sake, I omitted the thousands of minority ingredients, including DNA.) Here is the result:

INGREDIENTS:

WATER (75%), SUGARS (12%) (GLUCOSE (48%), FRUCTOSE (40%), SUCROSE (2%), MALTOSE (<1%)), STARCH (5%), FIBRE E460 (3%), AMINO ACIDS (<1%) (GLUTAMIC ACID (19%), ASPARTIC ACID (16%), HISTIDINE (11%), LEUCINE (7%), LYSINE (5%), PHENYLALANINE (4%), ARGININE (4%), VALINE (4%), ALANINE (4%), SERINE (4%), GLYCINE (3%), THREONINE (3%), ISOLEUCINE (3%), PROLINE (3%), TRYPTOPHAN (1%), CYSTINE (1%), TYROSINE (1%), METHIONINE (1%)), FATTY ACIDS (1%) (PALMITIC ACID (30%), OMEGA-6 FATTY ACID: LINOLEIC ACID (14%), OMEGA-3 FATTY ACID: LINOLENIC ACID (8%), OLEIC ACID (7%), PALMITOLEIC ACID (3%), STEARIC ACID (2%), LAURIC ACID (1%), MYRISTIC ACID (1%), CAPRIC ACID (<1%)), ASH (<1%), PHYTOSTEROLS, E515, OXALIC ACID, E300, E306 (TOCOPHEROL), PHYLLOQUINONE, THIAMIN, COLOURS (YELLOW-ORANGE E101 (RIBOFLAVIN), YELLOW-BROWN E160a), FLAVOURS (3-METHYLBUT-1-YL ETHANOATE, 2-METHYLBUTYL ETHANOATE, 2-METHYLPROPAN-1-OL, 3-METHYLBUTYL-1-OL, 2-HYDROXY-3-METHYLETHYL BUTANOATE, 3-METHYLBUTANAL, ETHYL HEXANOATE, ETHYL BUTANOATE, PENTYL ACETATE), 1510, NATURAL RIPENING AGENT (ETHENE GAS).

This exercise illustrates a larger point. The distinction between natural and synthetic chemicals is not merely ambiguous, it is non-existent. The fact that an ingredient is synthetic does not automatically make it dangerous, and the fact that it is natural doesn’t make it safe. Botulinum, produced by bacteria that grow in honey, is more than 1.3 billion times as toxic as lead and is the reason why infants should never eat honey. A cup of apple seeds contains enough natural cyanide to kill an adult human. Natural chemicals can be beneficial, neutral or harmful depending on the dosage and on how they are used, just like synthetic chemicals. Whether a chemical is ‘natural’ should never be a factor when assessing its safety.

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