Almond Ploy: What’s Really in Your Nut Milk?
Spoiler alert: Your nut milk might not be all it’s cracked up to be. Scan the ingredient list of your current favorite. The more ingredients listed, the higher the chance there are fewer nuts. While you’re there, check for these: carrageenan, sunflower lecithin and locust bean gum. They seem healthy enough — a seaweed extract, a flower, a bean (or yoga pose, depending on your point of view). But in reality, these are additives and thickening agents used to make many plant milks look and taste better, with little nutritional value. One — carrageenan — is even a potential carcinogen.
It’s mind-boggling that the majority of products in this $1.6 billion category1, billed as a healthy alternative to cow’s milk for those who are lactose intolerant, vegan, or simply prefer the taste, might not be so healthy after all.
“They’re faking it,” says Dr. Cheryl Mitchell, Senior Vice President of Ingredient Manufacturing at Elmhurst Milked, a company making nut–based milks with six or fewer ingredients. “I know, because I did it too, and I was the first.” Mitchell is a world–renowned food scientist who created Rice Dream, the first successful mass– market plant-based milk, over 20 years ago, and knows the industry and its processes inside out (she holds over 13 patents. It took consumers a little bit longer to realize they’d been seduced by companies peddling allegedly natural milks that, in some cases, contained only 2 percent nuts. Last year, a leading manufacturer settled a class action lawsuit, alleging false advertising, to the tune of $9 million.
Looking back on her Rice Dream days, Mitchell admits, “I was disappointed with what I had done.... I had to figure out how to maximize nutritional value.” It took 13 years of research and development, which she paid for out of her own pocket, but Mitchell, a second-generation food scientist whose father contributed to the inventions of Tang, Cool Whip and Pop Rocks, and whose mother served three terms as the first female mayor of Lincoln Park, New Jersey, did it. She devised a method and all the machinery necessary to “milk” nuts in a way that would produce a creamy milk that has great flavor and keeps all the protein of the nuts without any unnatural additives, and then partnered with Elmhurst Milked to bring it to market.
At the time, Elmhurst was New York’s oldest dairy, family owned since the early 1900s when, legend has it, the grandfather of Henry Schwartz walked a herd of cows over New York City’s Williamsburg Bridge to his farm in Elmhurst, Queens, and founded Elmhurst Dairy. The company produced milk until 2016 when Henry Schwartz shut down operations. He had met Dr. Mitchell and became convinced that his future was not in cows, but in plants. Mitchell moved from California to Buffalo, New York, and had Elmhurst Milked’s state-of-the-art production facility up and running in just one year; in early 2017 the first round of products debuted, packaged in their now–signature architectural boxes with a sloped pyramidal top that seemed to be created with those who drink straight out of the box in mind (you know who you are, and they’re not judging).
Today, Elmhurst produces 10 types of milks — from the expected almond, rice and oh–so–trendy oat, to cashew, walnut, hazelnut and, an industry first, peanut — and has developed a cult following. Many have found these to be fantastic substitutes for cow’s milk in everything from cereal to smoothies, coffee to cooking. It’s easy to see (and taste) why, and when you start to compare, it becomes clear there is no comparison.
“Historically, plant milk wasn’t trying to offer nutrition, it was just trying not to be dairy,” explained Peter Truby, Vice President of Marketing for Elmhurst Milked. “The problem is, it didn’t offer anything else. There is really nothing nutritional in theirs, but there is in ours.” Elmhurst milks have fewer than six ingredients; the unsweetened versions have just two ingredients: nuts and water. There are 11 ingredients in the leading brand’s unsweetened almond milk:2 “Almond milk” (filtered water, almonds), calcium carbonate, sea salt, potassium citrate, sunflower lecithin, gellan gum, natural flavors, vitamin A palmitate, vitamin D–2 and D–alpha– tocopherol.
The numbers say it all: 18 almonds per glass of Elmhurst product, compared with 4- 1/2 in others; 11 cashews, versus 2; 11 hazelnuts, versus 5; 8 walnuts, versus 2. Elmhurst’s nut milks start with whole, raw nuts, so they smell like nuts, and taste like nuts, sometimes surprisingly so (Walnut! Tastes great and rich in omega-3s! Who knew?), and have up to 5 grams of natural protein from nuts in each glass, to boot.
That holds true for their Milked Oats. Oat milk is the current “it girl” of alternative milks, thanks in no small part to the clever marketing strategy of Oatly, a Swedish brand that originally pushed their product through cool–kid coffee shops like Intelligentsia. “Everybody is excited about the oat milks,” admits Mitchell. “But many are loaded with oils like rapeseed and safflower.” Again, those ingredients sound healthy, but Mitchell maintains they’re unnecessary. “Oats have enough natural materials in and of themselves to make an emulsion — but the others don’t have the technology to use more of the raw materials and maximize the natural ingredients. We do.”
Almond, oat, rice, walnut — whatever the flavor, there’s no denying that plant milks are gaining in popularity and, Truby notes, “The ‘gateway’ to plant milks is coffee. People will try almond or hazelnut milk in their coffee, because it sounds good. Once they’ve opened that door, they’ll try others, like maybe a walnut milk latte.” So it only makes sense to market a whole variety of these milks to consumers via their local coffee shops.
Here’s the conundrum: Most plant milks, with the exception of cashew, don’t want to work in coffee. They might start to separate or look like they’re curdling (they’re not, it’s complicated). Bottom line: the optics aren’t good. So companies started creating “Barista” lines, adding ingredients — sometimes as many as five, including oils — that would make coffee drinks look prettier. Oatly, for example, uses rapeseed oil as an additive, and doesn’t specify the amount of oats per serving. Elmhurst’s Barista line, which debuts this November with cashew, almond, oat and rice, has just five ingredients and no oils - making it, according to Truby, the “cleanest” of the Barista plant–based milk offerings. (The oat version has 16 grams of whole grain per serving). And while they were made specifically for coffee shop use, at the time of this writing, Truby has had interest from two major retailers who want to carry the line.
One might think Mitchell would have enough on her plate, but she’s just getting started — there are rumors of protein shakes and creamers on the horizon. When asked, she remains delightfully coy, choosing instead to look back on a time when plant-based foods weren’t a sexy category and investors laughed at her proposals. “Look at what we’ve achieved — this is the future!”
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