Hot Take: We Might Need to Give Up Almond Milk

If it's not something, it's another thing. While I usually take my coffee black, I sometimes enjoy an afternoon almond latte, and I love pouring almond milk over a muesli breakfast blend of dry oatmeal, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, and flax. I was pretty perturbed to learn that it takes more than a gallon of water to grow one tiny almond, and that 90% of almonds are grown in California, a state which is notoriously water-scarce. 

It got me thinking: Do I need to give up almond milk?

Turns out, the whole thing is pretty complicated. One of my favorite investigative journalism outlets, Mother Jones, published a scathing editorial a few years ago about almond milk. The author denounces not just almond milk's environmental impact, but it's lack of nutritional value in comparison to actual almonds. The evidence is pretty damning, but other authors have pointed out that the main problem is California's water scarcity--if the nuts came from a place where water was more abundant, the 1-gallon-1-almond ratio wouldn't have the same impact. So what's the alternative?

Bad news: It turns out most nuts take a LOT of water to produce, and it was hard to find information about sustainable sources of nuts.

Good news: We don't have to get hung up on nuts! There are a lot of milk alternatives that are made from other, more sustainable plants, but contain similar levels of nutritional energy. Particularly interesting to me was pea milk, made by a company called Ripple, which claims to be a creamier alternative to "thin, chalky nuts" (oh yes, they did!). Pea milk seems to have significantly more protein than almond milk, and is a viable option for people who don't do lactose, nuts, or soy. As far as I can tell, pulses, the edible seeds of plants in the legume family, such as chickpeas and lentils, are far less water-intensive than nuts. According to this handy HuffPost article about the water impact of your favorite foods, almonds can take as many as 1,900 gallons to produce 1 lb, whereas pulses were ranging between 500-800 gallons used per pound.

Oats are another nut-alternative that looked interesting to me, though pouring oat milk over my morning oatmeal would feel very silly. A Swedish brand called Oatly is making a significant, dairy-free splash in the U.S. milk-alternatives market, positioning their product to baristas and coffee shops as the best milk alternative to put on-bar. They even reportedly took out advertising placements in areas they knew baristas would be commuting to work. With killer branding and a solid product, Oatly is winning some influential fans: La Colombe recently made the stuff the official milk alternative offering in all their cafes.

Oatly seems to be available on Amazon and other e-grocery sites, but it's not in stores yet and I'm pretty analog when it comes to sourcing my food. So what am I gonna do for breakfast?

Call me crazy, but I want to try making my own milk alternatives! I found some easy-looking recipes for oat milk at home (sorry Oatly), as well as quinoa milk. But who knows how often I'm going to want to squeeze mashed oats or quinoa through cheese cloth--it will be a fun (hopefully delicious) experiment, but I doubt it's going to be my new go-to milk alternative. At the end of the day, I'm not going to fully give up almond milk, but I am going to rethink how much I consume water-intensive products like nuts, beef, and chocolate. 

Anyway, just some food for thought.


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Kate Kelly