Dairy-free milks are skyrocketing in popularity, and the options presented to consumers seem endless. While nut milks do offer an alternative to those avoiding dairy, there are two areas in which customers would benefit by increasing their awareness: packaging and additives.
When shopping for nut (and seed) milks, most customers place more emphasis on type of milk rather than type of packaging. Dairy milk is often sold in “number 2” plastic, also known as high-density polyethylene, while nuts milks are not. Avoiding plastic jugs and opting for the paperboard cartons may seem prudent, but it isn’t always so.
Nut milks, as well as some dairy milks, are traditionally sold in paperboard containers (also known as gable-top containers). They’re not, however, solely constructed out of paper. The outer and innermost layers are lined with a chemical plasticizer (“number 4” plastic) known as low-density polyethylene (LDPE). Without this coating, the paperboard would become soggy and unable to support the liquid.
What’s the issue with this compound? LDPE takes a very long time to biodegrade in the environment. It can be recycled, but the EPA estimates that only about 5.7% of LDPE is actually recycled by consumers. There isn’t a lot of research examining the effects of LDPE on human health, but let’s think about it: we’re drinking liquid that has been inconspicuously exposed to plastic, sometimes for weeks – a plastic that also requires an extremely long time to naturally biodegrade. This is just a hypothesis, but if the plastic leaches into the nut milk and we consume this milk, could routine exposure to non-biodegradable LDPE build up inside our bodies, assuming some of it is incorporated into our tissues? If this is the case, what are the health implications? We’re all familiar with the endocrine disrupting properties of plastics (BPA containing or not); is LDPE any different? Milk for thought.
Look at the ingredient list for most dairy-free milks. Very rarely do we only see the two most important ingredients: water, and the nut (or seed). Instead, we’re given a catalog of additives, including vitamins, sugars, thickeners, preservatives, and flavors. Are they necessary? Why are they added?
Carrageenan, for example, is a polysaccharide extracted from seaweed that is used as a thickener in many nut milks. It isn’t as innocuous as one would think. In one study, researchers found that exposure to carrageenan in concentrations less than those found in the typical diet increased cell death, reduced cell proliferation, and induced cell cycle arrest in human intestinal epithelial cells (1). In another study, intestinal epithelial cells exposed to carrageenan upregulated the inflammatory response (2).
Of course, these two studies don’t rule out the use of carrageenan completely. And going back to LDPE – the “number 4” plastic – it may not be the absolute worst thing ever if our milk comes into contact with a synthetic compound that biodegrades at an extremely slow rate.
But we’ve got to ask ourselves this question: why exactly are these substances in our food supply? Are they added to benefit human health? Probably not. Would our bodies become deficient in a particular substance should they not be included? Again, probably not. Do they increase shelf life? Yes. Do they make shipping and storage easier? Yes. Do they improve flavor and mouthfeel (and sales)? Yes. Do most of the benefits accrue to the companies who produce these beverages? Yes.
If something is added to our food supply, and it’s not there to provide nutritional support, it’s probably not going to be the best thing for our bodies. Now, I am all for looking at things in the context of the bigger picture, but when the bigger picture becomes inundated with products that have absolutely no traditional use, nor research demonstrating their positive effects on human health, I’ve got to ask myself, “Is this okay?”
If you are on the quest towards optimal and adaptive health, and you feel it’s important knowing what substances your body is routinely exposed to, familiarize yourself with all the things that pass through your mouth. And then ask yourself, “Is this okay?”
Not all nut and seed milks present the same problems. The issues stated above refer mostly to the store-bought varieties, and not to those made at home. Unless you’re deliberately adding thickeners, highly refined sweeteners, and unmarked natural flavors into your concoctions, home-made nut milks can be quite nutritious and satisfying.
Acorn milk is truly a wild beverage that can easily be made with very little cost. In order to create the drink, acorns must first be processed (gathered, dried, shelled, leached). On the final day of leaching, decant the final leaching water (this will not be the water used for milk) and transfer the wet acorn mush to a nut milk bag or cheesecloth, allowing the excess water to percolate into a jar or bowl. Once the acorns stop dripping, squeeze the cloth or bag to allow any remaining water to drip. The water you have collected will be used for acorn milk.
On the stove, bring the liquid to a boil. Once cooled, add in a sweetener of your choice (maple syrup or honey works well), and enjoy. Any unused liquid can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days.
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