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Is Almond Milk Bad for the Planet? (+ Some Myths Debunked)

First almond milk and other plant-based milks are lauded as a healthy alternative to regular milk; the next thing is they are being hailed as environmentally destructive. I exclusively drink nut milk at home (I make my own) and when I first starting hearing these claims, I decided to look into it a little more.

I want to live as sustainably as I can, and I also want to understand as much as I can about where my food comes from.

Articles with headlines like “Almond milk: quite good for you – very bad for the planet” and “Your Almond Habit Is Sucking California Dry“, published by reputable news sources (in this case, The Guardian and Mother Jones respectively), make it easy to see why many people think nut milk is bad for the planet.

But these articles don’t tell the whole story.

The headlines definitely don’t tell the whole story.

Sustainable choices are rarely completely black and white. There’s often compromise, or prioritizing one aspect of “green” over another.

If you stopped at the headline, you’d think that almond milk is bad for the planet. I want to go beyond the headline, to find out what reasons they give, and explore the rest of the story.

NB Statement quoted below were taken from this article by the Guardian.

The ‘Water’ Issue

The main environmental concern with almond milk seems to be the amount of water needed to grow almonds, coupled with the fact that most almond trees are grown in drought-hit California.

“It takes 1.1 gallons (4.16 litres) of water to grow one almond.” (The Guardian quoted this article, which stated where they obtained their data from: Mekonnen, M. M and Hoekstra, A. Y 2011.)

There are 92 almonds in a cup, which makes a litre of homemade almond milk. That means 1 litre of almond milk requires 384 litres of water to produce.

(Store-bought almond milk appears to have a much lower almond content, listed as around 2% of the total. Most brands do not list the number of almonds used per litre, but it is thought to be much less than homemade nut milks.)

“This isn’t to say cow’s milk, which takes about 100 litres of water to produce 100ml of milk, is more environmentally friendly”. (The Guardian quoted 250ml as requiring 255 litres; this source contains the research data.)

A litre of cow’s milk requires 1016 litres of water to produce.

Almond milk requires 384 litres of water per litre, and cow’s milk requires 1016 litres of water to produce, which is 2.5x more water. Almond milk is less water intensive than dairy milk.

 Environmental Impacts: the ‘Cows Versus Trees’ Issue

It is very frustrating when environmental impacts are measured on one factor alone. For many companies, using plastic is considered a more environmentally friendly option than using paper or glass, as it has a lower carbon footprint and is cheaper to transport. But when you take into account reuse-ability, recycle-ability and nenew-ability, it is a different picture.

Talking about the environmental impact of almonds based solely on water usage is only part of the story. What about the fact that almonds grow on trees, which stabilise soil, add oxygen to the atmosphere and decrease soil erosion?

Compare this with dairy cows, which are big contributors to greenhouse gas emissions (methane), require huge swathes of land to produce feed, and contribute to soil erosion and waterways pollution.

Animal welfare and ethical issues aside, growing trees seems the more environmental choice over raising cows.

The ‘Location’ Issue

Almonds seem to be targeted because they are grown in California, which has been hit by drought in recent years.

“More than 80% of the world’s almond crop is grown in California.”

This means 20% is not. Australia is the second-largest almond producer. I exclusively purchase Australian almonds as they are local to me. All produce has a printed country of origin, even products purchased in bulk stores. I purchase all my nuts from The Source Bulk Foods (they have 33 stores across Australia), as they stock Australian almonds as well as other nuts from Australia.

Almonds are also grown in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. World production is 2.9 million tonnes, and the USA produces 1.8 million tonnes. There are a million+ tonnes of almonds not grown in the USA to choose from.

For all of us living outside the USA, we have the option to purchase non-Californian almonds. However, Californian almonds are definitely more common.

If low food miles and sourcing locally grown or produced food is a priority, and almonds don’t grow close to where you live, almonds might not be the best choice for you.

“Its production is not concentrated in one area of the globe.” Meaning that whilst dairy milk is produced globally, almond production is concentrated in California.

Does distribution even matter? Or is it more about scale?

In 2014 California produced 2.14 billion pounds of almonds. In the same year California produced 42.3 billion pounds of milk. Regardless of worldwide production distribution, California produces more milk than almonds, and milk has a greater water footprint than almonds.

When the water used to produce Californian almonds is dwarfed by the water used to produce Californian dairy products, it seems a little misleading to claim that it is almonds that are “sucking California dry.”

They may not be blameless, but they seem to get more blame than they deserve.

The ‘Scapegoat’ Issue

California might have a lot of almond trees, but it’s an agricultural powerhouse, growing more than 200 crop varieties including almost all of America’s apricots, dates, figs, kiwi fruit, nectarines, olives, pistachios, prunes, and walnuts. It leads in the US production of avocados, grapes, lemons, melons, peaches, plums, and strawberries.

California also produces huge numbers of animal products including milk, beef cattle, eggs, sheep, turkeys, hogs and horses.

Dairy and livestock are considered far more water intensive than vegetable crops. Almonds use similar water to other nut trees (and 99% of America’s walnuts are also grown in California). “Fresh” crops like lettuce and broccoli not only need large quantities of water to produce, they need to be refrigerated and are often air-freighted to their destination.

Why do almonds get a bad rap, whilst all the banana bread bakers adding Californian walnuts to their loaves get not a single talking-to?

I wonder if it is because almond-milk drinkers are seen as trendy hipsters. I wonder if people are trying to make it into a “class” issue (if almond milk is seen as middle-class). I wonder if it is because the dairy industry has a lot of money to push towards fighting the growing nut milk industry and the potential decline of dairy milk sales.

I can make my guesses, but I can’t know for sure. I do think that almonds (and almond-milk drinkers) are unfairly targeted. The issues go much deeper.

The ‘Packaging’ Issue

It is not the growing of almonds that is so bad for the planet. It is the mass manufacture of almond milk and the global shipping to stores worldwide that is having a negative environmental impact.

Shipping water all around the globe is crazy. Most of us wouldn’t dream of buying bottled water (assuming we have drinkable water coming from the tap), but carton nut milk is 98% water. It is virtually the same thing!

Then there’s the containers. Nut milk is usually packaged in Tetra Paks, and these aren’t as easily recycled as their manufacturers would like us to think they are. Theoretically recycable is not the same as actually recycled in our town/municipality/state.

Recycable or not, they are designed to be used once only and not refilled.

Buying carton nut milk, especially one that has been manufactured overseas, is not an environmentally sound choice. From a transport (and energy) perspective, dairy milk has a lesser impact as demand is typically for fresh milk, so it is sold locally.

The great news is, it is really easy to make your own almond and other plant-based milks. I typcially make my own cashew milk and almond milk, but you can use any type of nuts. I’ve made macadamia milk, walnut milk, and brazil nut milk. I’ve even made seed milks! Experiment, and find your favourite.

Yes, seed milk is a “thing”. And they are surprisingly delicious! This one is my favourite, pumpkin seed milk.

What is the Most Environmentally Sustainable Milk Option?

At it’s heart, I don’t think this is about almonds. Or dairy cows.

The real issue here is industrial agriculture in a fragile, sensitive environment, and pursuing profit at the expense of the planet.

If you can, support local farmers, and buy products produced in your local area – or as close to your local area as possible. If you choose to drink nut milk, consider buying nuts and making your own. Oat milk is another (nut free) option.

If you’d rather buy packaged plant milk, look for one that has been manufactured locally (even if the ingredients are from overseas). Coconuts require far less water than other nuts, and grow in climates where rain is plentiful.

Of course, we could refuse milk entirely, dairy, almond or otherwise. We could drink black coffee. We could just drink water, which we harvested from the roof in our rainwater tank. We could… but will we? There’s the perfect world, and then there’s the real world – the one we live in.

I think it’s important to ask questions, and to try to understand where our food comes from. I think it’s valuable to understand why we make the choices we do. Sometimes our choices are less than ideal. It isn’t about being perfect. It’s about trying to do the best we can.

3 Zero Waste Recipes: DIY Cashew Milk, Homemade Almond Milk + Almond Pulp Brownies

Nut milk. The name sounds kind of ridiculous. But it looks like milk, has a similar shelf life, can be used in similar ways, and in many cases the nuts do actually have to be “milked”, so it’s easy to see why the name took hold!

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When I started out on my plastic-free journey, I bought cow’s milk that came in returnable glass bottles. But it wasn’t stocked in many places, so finding it was hard – and a bit of effort. Gathering those glass bottles together to return them meant a heap of clutter and a journey across town with them all (there was no deposit return either, only goodwill). Plus what to do with all those lids?!

I began making nut milk alongside dairy milk, because it was a lot easier to find nuts in bulk, and they have a long shelf life (they will last for months in a jar in the pantry, or even better, the freezer). I found nut milk worked just as well in baking, in porridge and in coffee, and I began to use it more and more.

Eventually I thought more about the impact of the dairy industry on the planet. Cows need a lot of water and land to produce milk, they produce huge amounts of methane, cause soil erosion, and the product has to be transported fresh, meaning a higher carbon footprint. Nuts use less water, the trees are beneficial for the environment, and the products have a long shelf life.

Nut milk seemed like the greener option. I decided to stop buying dairy milk altogether (my husband stopped too, but later).

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But of course, I don’t buy nut milk. Some commercial brands of nut milk are little more than bottled water! Alpro’s nut milk contains only 2% almonds, and the second biggest ingredient is sugar. Unnecessary packaging aside, shipping all that water across the globe seems like such a waste when we can ship dry nuts (or even better, use local ones) and make our own.

And I have to tell you, making your own is super easy. It requires no specialised equipment, and takes very little time. You’ll need a blender, but it doesn’t have to be a fancy one.

How To Make Cashew Milk

Cashew milk is my go-to milk because it’s the easiest. Cashews are already quite soft, so they do not need to be soaked for a long time. They also contain very little fibre, so there is no need to strain.

To make:

Soak 1 cup of raw cashews in water for a few hours or overnight. Rinse, and blend with 4 cups water. Done.

I tend to blend my cashews with 1 cup of water at a time, for 30 seconds, before adding the next cup of water. I find that there are less (no) lumps in it this way.

Makes 1.2 litres. Lasts 7 – 10 days in the fridge. It may get thicker over time, in which case add a little more water to it.

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Cashew milk works absolutely amazingly in coffee, too :)

How to Make Almond Milk

Almond milk is the most common nut milk, but it isn’t the easiest or quickest to make. That doesn’t mean it’s hard, mind! It just needs soaking a little longer, and also straining.

To make:

Soak 1 cup of raw almonds in water for at least 12 hours, and even 24 hours (change the water every 8 hours or so). Rinse, and blend with 4 cups of water.Now you need to strain.

I strain my almond milk using cheesecloth as it has a fine weave and is 100% cotton. Spread the cheesecloth over a bowl or jug, pour the milk over and allow the almond milk to drip through. Squeeze to get any remaining drops out.

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I bought my cheesecloth off the roll at a fabric store – it is very inexpensive. (Cheesecloth is not the same thing as muslin. Muslin has a much looser weave and the fibre all gets stuck!)

Alternatively, you could use a clean tea towel or old pair of tights, or even a fine mesh sieve. Before I had the cheesecloth, I used one of my mesh produce bags. There is absolutely no need to buy an expensive plastic nut milk bag!

Makes about 800ml, and leaves a cup of almond pulp. Don’t throw the almond pulp away! It will last in the fridge for a week, or freeze it. And then make chocolate brownies : ) (Recipe below).

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Fresh almond pulp (almond milk on the right). I use cheesecloth the strain, and scrape the excess pulp off with a knife.

How to Make Other Nut Milks

Other nut milks can be made in the same way, and most will require some kind of straining, although they won’t produce as much pulp as almond milk does. I’ve made macadamia milk (no need to strain), brazil nut milk and walnut milk.

Cheaper Nut Milk Alternatives

Nuts can be expensive. Increasing the ratio of nuts to water will make a more cost-effective milk, but will also dilute the milk. I tend to use the ratio 1:4 nuts:water but this could be increased to 1:5 or 1:6.

As well as nuts, you can also make plant-based milk with seeds, oats and peanuts (which are techincally a legume, not a nut).

Pumpkinseedmilk

Homemade pumpkin seed milk :)

These work out much cheaper than nut milks. I’ve tried making sesame seed milk (not recommended – it has a very strong flavour!), pumpkin seed milk (which is absolutely delicious) and sunflower seed milk. Flaxseed milk is also popular, although I’ve never tried this.

As above, the principle is the same. Soak, then blend 1 cup seeds with 4 cups water, and strain.

Now, let’s talk about what to do with the leftover pulp.

What to Do with the Leftover Pulp: Make Almond Pulp Brownies

This recipe has become my go-to almond pulp recipe. I’ve made savoury crackers, and macaroons too, but nothing beats chocolate-y goodness, so I always come back to this one.

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Ingredients:

180g sugar (I use rapadura sugar)
1 cup almond pulp, approx (the pulp left over from using 1 cup of almonds to make almond milk)
80g cocoa powder (I’ve used both cocoa powder and raw cacao for this – I prefer cocoa powder but it doesn’t really matter. You might want to add a little more sugar if using cacao, though)
1/2 cup (110g) coconut oil (I use deodorised as I find the coconut oil flavour a little intense in desserts)
9 tbsp aquafaba (chickpea water – effectively a waste product being put to good use. Find out more here!)
1/2 cup (60g) spelt or other flour
1 tbsp vanilla essence
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup macadamias/walnuts/raspberries/chocolate chips/something else delicious
(or you could leave plain. But I consider all good brownies to need some kind of crunch)

Optional: a few tablespoons of cacao nibs and/or chopped nuts to top.

Method:

Line a square baking tin (if you use baking paper) and preheat the oven to 175°C.

Melt the coconut oil in a pan. Turn off the heat, add the almond pulp and stir to combine.

In a separate bowl, combine the sugar, cocoa powder and flour, and mix well. Add to the pan and stir in. It might seem really dry at first, but it will incorporate. Once combined, add the vanilla essence, salt and walnuts (or delicious thing of your choice).

In a tall cylinder, whisk the aquafaba to form stiff peaks. (This will take longer than you think.) I use a stick blender with a whisk attachment and it takes at least 5  minutes of  constant whisking. Add the aquafaba to the brownie mixture in the pan, slowly folding to incorporate with as little stirring as possible.

This yellow liquid is what you get when you cook chickpeas and strain (and keep) the water

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Once incorporated, pour into the baking tray. Sprinkle the toppings on (if using) and bake in the oven for 20 – 25 minutes until the top is dry.

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Best stored in the fridge if you don’t demolish the whole lot in one sitting.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Have you ever made nut milk (or seed, oat or rice milk)? Which is your favourite? Which is your least favourite? If you’ve never made it before, is there something putting you off? Do you have any other alternatives to suggest? What about aquafaba – have you ever experimented with that? Are you just a little bit tempted to make these chocolate brownies?! Anything else you’d like to add? Please tell me your thoughts and leave a comment below!

Experimenting with Seed Milks

Seed milk. If the name ‘nut milk’ sounds bad, seed milk sounds far worse. But don’t let the feeble name put you off… they are surprisingly tasty!

Nut milks are a great substitute for cow’s milk in smoothies (and whatever else your heart desires), and I often make cashew nut milk as a base for my smoothies (see recipe here). But nuts can be expensive, and seeds are often cheaper. Plus pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds are delicious, which got me thinking…

I decided to experiment with making some different seed milks. So far I’ve made sesame, pumpkin and sunflower seed milk.

Recipe: How to Make Seed Milks

To make these, the procedure is the same. Soak one cup of seeds in water for a few hours, or preferably overnight. Drain and put in a blender with 3 cups of chilled water. Blend until smooth.

Next you need to strain. I used one of my produce bags made with a fine netting type material. You could also use muslin, or improvise with some other material. A fine sieve should work. I’m sure old tights would work too – but do make sure they’re clean first!

Drain the liquid into a bowl. Once the pulp is dry (squeeze any excess moisture out) pour the liquid into a glass bottle or jar and store in the fridge. It will keep for up to 5 days.

Sesame Seed Milk

This milk has quite a distinctive and strong flavour. If you love tahini and sesame then you’ll love it; if not you may find it a bit strong. I used it to make my cacao banana smoothie and even with all the rich chocolatey-ness I could still slightly detect the sesame flavour.

I also tried this with (plunger) coffee and was really impressed with the result. It didn’t curdle (hurrah!) and I thought the flavours really complemented each other.

Pumpkin Seed Milk

I love pumpkin seeds and I loved this. The flavour is quite subtle and nutty. It has a slight green tinge, which amuses me slightly too.

PumpkinseedmilkSunflower Seed Milk

Sunflower seeds are the hands-down cheapest option I’ve tried so far. The milk tasted great, but had the unfortunate side-effect of separating into a milky layer at the bottom and a strange red liquid layer on top. It is easy to shake and mix the two layers together again, but none of the other seed or nut milks I’ve made have done this before.

I tried this in coffee and it worked really well too; it didn’t separate or do anything strange.

Other seed milks

I tried these three because that’s what I had in my cupboard. Also, they are all fairly cheap seeds. There’s plenty of others out there though. I want to make hemp and flax seed milk at some point too; both of these seeds are really good for you and have a great nutty taste that I think will work really well. Plus I love experimenting in the kitchen!

How to Make Cashew Nut Milk (A Recipe)

Cashew nut milk is a non-dairy alternative to cow’s (or other animal) milks. Of course it’s not a milk as such, but a blend of cashew nuts and water that has a similar consistency to milk and can be used as a dairy milk replacement in some instances.

It’s got a completely different molecular make-up to dairy milk and won’t respond in the same way to heating, but it’s a great replacement for cold milk.  As I’ve said before though, I’m not a vegan, so what am I doing making cashew nut milk anyway?

Well, I’m passionate about real food. And when that comes to dairy milk, this means non-homogenised, full fat milk with A2 proteins that comes from grass-fed cows, preferably organic or biodynamic. (If you’ve no idea what I’m talking about you should probably read this post, which explains the terms and also the health implications in a little more detail).

This milk can be hard to find – in Australia you won’t find it in your local supermarket – and is much more expensive than the mass-produced stuff. Consequently, I buy less than I used to.  Coupled with the fact that I’m quite curious about food anyway, this means I have become more open to alternatives.

Before I stopped buying plastic I used to keep a carton of UHT milk in the cupboard for emergencies. However those cartons contain plastic and aren’t recyclable, so I don’t buy them any more. Now I keep a jar of cashew nuts in the cupboard instead.

Raw cashew nuts are minimally processed and highly nutritious. They contain 80% unsaturated fat which is predominantly oleic acid and also linoleic acid, an omega-6. Cashews also contain a number of vitamins and minerals including iron, phosphorus and calcium. (Have a look here for complete nutritional information).

My main uses for cashew milk are as an ingredient in smoothies, a dairy replacement for muesli and in some dessert recipes, and as an emergency in case we ever run out of cow’s milk, or it sneakily goes off. (Because it only ever goes off when ALL the shops are shut.) You can add cashew milk to tea and coffee (and it won’t curdle), but I prefer dairy milk for that.

How to make cashew nut milk

This recipe makes 750ml milk. You will need a jug-style blender for best results.

Ingredients:
1 cup raw cashew nut pieces (125g), soaked in water for a few hours or overnight
3 cups water (750ml)

Method:

Drain and rinse the soaked cashews.

Put cashews in blender with 1 cup water.

Blend until smooth. Add remaining 2 cups water to the jug and blend briefly to combine. And that’s it! No need to strain.

You can use immediately or store in a jar in the fridge, it will keep for up to 5 days.

Tips:

  • The higher the quality of your blender, the better the results.
  • The longer you blend the milk, the smoother it will be, but the heat from the friction of the blades will gradually cause the milk to warm up. If the nuts are heated too much they may go rancid.
  • Use chilled water if possible, and chill the soaking cashews to help prevent the milk warming too much whilst blending.
  • My blender is made of glass and I find it also helps to chill the jug in the fridge before using.
  • I have tried making this is a food processor and it works okay if you have nothing else, but you will get a much smoother result with a jug blender.
  • If you store your milk in the fridge, remember to shake before using.

If you need more convincing, I’ll be posting some recipes that use cashew milk on the blog in the coming weeks so stay tuned!