There are so many choices these days! But which vegan milks are best for us, and the planet?
By Arwa Lodhi
Recently, there’s been a lot of talk on social media and in the news about how almond milk is hurting the bees. There’s also been a ton of warnings about the ‘dangers’ of drinking soy milk. There’s even an expression now – ‘soy boy’ – to refer to the alleged feminising effects soy milk can have on men! But how true are these headlines?
Given the fact that cows produce loads of CO2 and take up even more precious resources like food and water, there can be little doubt that any non-dairy milk is much better for the environment than cow’s milk. The milk with the lowest greenhouse gas emissions is almond milk, because the trees lock up a lot of CO₂ as they grow.
However, almond milk does require the most water to produce of all the vegan milks, while soy milk uses the least water – but soy is also known as one of the biggest causes of deforestation, especially the Amazon.
So the question remains: which vegan milks are best for you and the planet? The answers are not easy, as I discovered doing my research, below.
Which Vegan Milks Are Best For You & The Earth?
It has been eaten without issues in Asia for thousands of years, but today, some here in the West have started doubting the health benefits of soy. Although has been proven do a lot of good for your body, such as lowering cholesterol, improving fertility and reducing menopause symptoms, there are some potential health risks related to high soy consumption.
For example, if you have thyroid issues, you should know that soy contains goitrogens, substances that may negatively impact the thyroid by blocking iodine absorption.
The GMO Issue
But there’s a bigger issue to worry about: the fact that most soy is genetically modified. No one is sure about the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) yet, and most scientists agree that more long-term scientific studies are necessary to determine their effects in humans and in what quantity they’re safe. But what is certain is that most genetically modified soy products contain the pesticide glyphosate, which is a probable carcinogen.
The simple solution? To avoid GMOs and exposure to glyphosate, just stick with organic soy, and you should be fine.
But soy has another issue: deforestation. Growing global demand for meat and dairy products has contributed to the doubling of soybean production in the last 20 years. Soy is primarily used to feed pork, poultry, and dairy cows, though significant amounts are also used to produce vegetable oil and biodiesel. Large soybean fields in the tropics, particularly in Latin America, are often planted on newly deforested land—or they may expand onto former pastureland, pushing cattle to the forest frontier. Every year around 480,000 hectares is deforested for soy in major soy-producing tropical countries.
So, while soy does indeed rank as one of the biggest causes of deforestation, there is good news: you needn’t feel bad if you’re a soy-drinking vegan. The vast, vast majority of the soy that’s killing the planet is grown for livestock feed, not soy milk or tofu.
Almonds Make For Busy, Busy Bees
There’s no doubt that almond is the new dairy — but does it harm bees? In “The Dark Side of Almond Use,” the Atlantic magazine noted how the booming almond industry uses – and abuses – many, many bees.
For example, the California almond industry, responsible for 80% of the world’s production, trucks in 1.6 million honeybee colonies to pollinate their orchards each year. That’s about half of the honeybees in the entire United States. By the end of 2014, 15% to 25% of the bee colonies brought in to pollinate the orchards had been damaged in some way. The Pollinator Stewardship Council blamed these losses on the heavy use of agrochemicals on almond trees. More specifically, they pointed to a process called tank-mixing – when pesticides and fungicides are sprayed together, forming a toxic cocktail. This is usually done to save time on application.
Given the damage the chemicals used in almond growing does to bees in the USA, it’s hard to call American almond milk ‘vegan friendly’, or even ‘healthy,’ since some of those chemicals will surely make their way into the litre of almond milk we buy in the store.
But on the other hand, since both beekeepers and farmers rely on bees, it’s in their best interest to keep them healthy by reducing or eliminating the toxic mix of fungicides and pesticides they use on their crops.
To help save the bees, the California Almond Board recently released new Best Management Practices to make sure orchards are safe for bees. Some of the beekeeper-grower agreements include being more open about pesticide use, as well as making sure there are alternative bee food sources available nearby that don’t contain pesticides – but there were no strict regulations for pesticides.
In short, as far as honeybees are concerned, what’s good for the bee is good for the farmer, and is good for us. While bees have been harmed making almond milk, this has been noted, and hopefully practices will change rapidly to ensure all involved parties – human, plant and animal – are treated better, so that they continue to thrive in their mutually beneficial relationships.
Remember: it’s not really the almonds that are hurting the bees, it’s the pesticides used on them. The solution? If you care about your health and bees, buy organic almond milk only.
That being said, there is another dark side to almond milk – and it doesn’t at all involve bees.
But…Almonds Are Sucking The Earth Dry
Almonds suck up a lot of water. And with demand for almond milk soaring, the ecological implications are potentially dire. For example, in the San Joaquin Valley in America, where almond production reigns, the ground has literally been sinking by an average of 11 inches per year, due to the use of over-pumping of aquifers.
Groundwater depletion from well-digging is also making the Sierra Nevada and Coast Mountain ranges slowly rise—enough to potentially trigger earthquakes, a 2014 Nature paper found. Why would farmers be scrambling to drop wells to prop up a thirsty crop during an historic drought? Surging demand—both from Asia and in the United States—have kept almond prices high even as the state expands production. Between 2009 and 2013, almond prices doubled and even tripled, depending on the variety.
Of course, not every farmer can afford to make the huge well investments required to churn out almonds in a drought. As this 2014 Oakland Institute report shows, it’s the huge financial firms that are snapping up farmland, switching from row crops to almonds and other nuts, and dropping in wells, to better position themselves to cash in on the vegan milk craze and Asia’s rising, almond-munching middle classes.
While there are some nuts that are good for the planet, as I will mention in more detail below, almonds are simply not one of them.
Coconut & Cashew: The Case Against Carrageenan
As mentioned above, droves of us have given up cow milk for vegan milks thinking they are healthier. And the truth is, they would be – if it weren’t for the one ingredient most of them contain, which also just happens to be a carcinogen.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this ingredient – carrageenan – is ok, since so many foods marketed as ‘healthy’ contain it. Even some organic foods have it on their label! But researchers have recently shown that this thickening agent made from healthy seaweed can be actually bad for your health.
Carrageenan is used as a food additive thickening emulsifier to improve the texture and consistency of foods. It doesn’t add flavour or increase shelf life – all it does is add thickness, which is why it’s most commonly found in boxed coconut, almond, cashew and dairy milks, yogurts, and ice creams, of both the dairy and vegan type.
It’s also in:
- Frozen dinners
- Organic juices
- Frozen pizzas
- Deli meats such as sliced turkey
- Canned soups, both organic and not
- Processed sauces and dip mixes
- Infant formula
- Nutritional shakes
Of course, there are loads of healthy brands that make foods in these categories that don’t have carrageenan or any other major additives. Rude Health, for example, makes really pure almond and coconut milks. Be sure to read your labels!
What Is Carrageenan?
Carrageenan is a glucose-related sugar called a sulfate polygalactan. It comes from normally good-for-you red seaweed and algae. Its name is derived from an Irish coastal region named “Carragheen,” where the original harvesting of the seaweed began.
The problem is that carrageenan is heavily processed with chemicals (namely, potassium hydroxide). This removes the cellulose and neutralises its acidity. In its degraded form, carrageenan exposes an unstable sulfur compound that is known to cause inflammation in animals and humans. In fact, degraded carrageenan is commonly used in the scientific world in order to induce inflammation in lab animals. Yipes!
This degraded form is called poligeenan and is not used in the food industry. However, it is known that when stable carrageenan is heated (almond latte, anyone?) or exposed to strong acids (such as stomach acid) the sulfur component becomes unstable and reactive, causing inflammation. And we all know that inflammation in the body can lead to several diseases, including cancer, right?
Once again, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not done its due diligence in testing food safety. As with aspartame and other toxins, they have listed the substance as generally recognized as safe (GRAS) since 1973 with very little safety testing, fooling even the most health conscious of us.
Carrageenan Consumption and Chronic Disease
Dr. Joanne Tobacman, MD, is a physician-scientist who has studied the carcinogenic effects of carrageenan for over 2o years. She found that the carrageenan was stable and safe while in the food product itself, but would too easily break down in the digestive process and cause health problems. Her research linked carrageenan consumption to the development of diabetes and digestive problems.
Dr. Tobacman also found that carrageenan could contribute to the development of ulcers and cancerous tissue growth. The International Agency for Research on Cancer reported in 1982 that there was enough evidence to claim that carrageenan is a likely carcinogen in humans.
A study dated to back to 1981 cautioned researchers to investigate carrageenan consumption in humans before widespread usage. This study used strong language and cited multiple sources showing that carrageenan has carcinogenic effects when added to food or drinking water of several animal species.
A 2012 study discussed how gut microflora metabolizes red seaweed and carrageenan and how this influences the balance of microbial species. Many experts believe that carrageenan promotes gut inflammation by altering the balance of microflora.
Some of the symptoms associated with altered gut microflora are similar to those found in studies associated with the use of carrageenan. This includes irritable bowel syndrome, colon polyps, ulcers, and abnormal tissue growths. Studies even propose that the body exhibits the same response to carrageenan as it does to a bacterial infection from Salmonella and its development of disease.
The Bottom Line on Carrageenan in Food Products
An Easy Solution
If you want optimal health and minimal cancer risk, it’s best to avoid food products containing carrageenan. Be sure to read labels and watch out for E407 – that’s the food additive code for the thickener. If your favorite foods contain carrageenan, look for alternative brands that are free of this like Rude Health and Orgain. If you adore a certain brand that does have carrageenan, then write the manufacturer and/or call their customer service number and ask them to remove it as soon as possible.
And of course, remember: it’s always best to make homemade nut milks. It’s super easy to do: just use a high speed food processor to blend nuts and water at a ratio of 1 to 3 (eg. using three cups water and one cup of nuts), then strain the liquid with either a cheesecloth or strainer. Add vanilla, cinnamon, a little raw honey or stevia to give it some sweetness, and then store in your refrigerator in a glass jar for up to around 3-5 days. Check the video below for more information.
Different Vegan Milks, Different Benefits
Right. So now we know: almonds are generally not good for the planet, as they take up so much water, and it’s really best to consume organic vegan milks, without glyphosate or carrageenan. But what about the other benefits and detriments of vegan milks not mentioned above? Here’s a brief summary:
The good: It tastes great in coffee, and is readily available. Pretty high in calcium.
The bad: As mentioned, almonds use a lot of pesticides and suck up a lot of water. It’s also pretty low in protein or fiber.
The good: Easy to find, packed with protein, cheap. Good in coffee.
The bad: Often packed with glyphosate (unless it’s organic). Often a cause of deforestation: for soybeans to be economically viable, large swathes of land is needed to grow them. As a result ecosystems throughout Latin America are suffering from extreme deforestation. The Amazon, the Gran Chaco, and the Atlantic Forests are all victims. Almost 4 million hectares of forests are destroyed every year.
The good: A great alternative for those avoiding soy or nuts. Low in calories, good on cereal.
The bad: Not very creamy, a bit thin. Not much nutrition.
The good: Rich and creamy, it’s great in most drinks and recipes.
The bad: A bit expensive.
The good: Brazil nuts are grown in the Amazon. They actually support the rainforest because they don’t grow well without their natural, diverse ecosystem around them. Cultivating them gives locals an economic incentive not to slash and burn. A good source of selenium.
The bad: More expensive than most milks.
The good: This milk is super rich and creamy, loaded with healthy fats, and perfect in desserts and curries.
The bad: Coconut milk typically has a stronger flavor that is likely to stand out in drinks. Usually has a high CO2 footprint due to shipping around the world.
The good: Packed with calcium. Eco friendly crop that needs little to no pesticide. If asking which vegan milks are best for the planet, this is your answer.
The bad: Hemp milk is typically on the thinner side and has a flavor that goes better in savory recipes than in sweet ones.
The good: No fat. Some fiber. Oat milk is also naturally sweet, making it great for coffee and baking. Relatively cheap.
The bad: Oats often have loads of glyphosate.
The good: Contains omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for cognitive function. Flax milk is also a good source of calcium.
The bad: It tends to be thinner than other varieties, and thus isn’t as nice in coffee. Harder to find than other milks.
The good: Hazelnuts are a dream to grow: long-lasting, hardy, erosion-blocking, and requires no pesticides. Good for the planet!
The bad: A bit pricey. It’s not very versatile, because of its stronger flavor, but it’s perfect in coffee beverages.
So,which vegan milks are best? From the information above, I’d say hazelnut, flax and Brazil nut milks are best for you and the planet. Next best would be hemp – equally nutritious, easy to grow without pesticides. And tasty, too!
Soy is OK – if it’s organic. It’s readily available, high in phytonutrients, and doesn’t cost a mint.
But in my opinion, almond milk just isn’t sustainable. It takes up too much water, uses too many pesticides, and consequently, harms too many bees.
Of course, we need to be aware than any monoculture crop isn’t great for the planet, but as mentioned, choosing a vegan milk is always a better choice than dairy.