Go Ahead, Drink That Almond Milk—It’s Not as Bad for the Environment as Milk

What to eat. What not to eat.
July 23 2014 11:11 AM

Almond Milk Is Not the Problem

It’s fine if you don’t like it. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad for the environment.

Almond Milk.
Most of the concern about almonds’ effect on the environment has to do with the amount of water they require.

Illustration by James Emmerman. Images by Shutterstock.

When deciding what to put in their stomachs, well-meaning people regularly conflate “healthy for me” with “healthy for the environment.” It’s an unintended side effect, perhaps, of rising awareness that many foods that are bad for us—fast-food burgers, for instance—are also bad for the planet. Unfortunately, there’s no one-to-one relationship between nutritiousness and eco-friendliness. As accomplished environmental journalist Tom Philpott has shown, nutritional powerhouses like quinoa and goji berries aren’t nearly as sustainable as marketers want you to think.

It can be hard for consumers to cut through the marketing hype and their own self-involvement, which is why well-versed journalists like Philpott are so valuable. So when Philpott published an article in Mother Jones last week called “Lay Off the Almond Milk, You Ignorant Hipsters,” I expected a solid argument based on scientific evidence. Instead, I got a fact-salted but illogical ramble that’s more about Philpott’s personal preferences than about almond milk’s environmental cred. Like the tiny bottle of coconut water I bought on impulse last week after Zumba class, his piece hints at environmental righteousness, but upon deeper investigation is really about one person’s interest in his own gut and taste buds.

Philpott’s rant wouldn’t bother me if he’d just stuck to the reasons for his personal aversion. But instead he starts his piece by suggesting that it’s “deeply weird” to make almond milk, because almonds, a “precious foodstuff” with an “intense ecological footprint,” should be eaten raw, not “drowned in water.”

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Let’s break this notion down to its component parts. Is almond milk weird? Maybe, although it should be said that it’s been around since the Middle Ages, so the weirdness is nothing new.

Do almonds have an intense ecological footprint? Most of the concern about almonds’ effect on the environment has to do with the amount of water they require. According to Mother Jones, it takes 1.1 gallons of water to grow a single almond. That’s quite a bit, but not as much as it takes to grow a tomato (3.3 gallons) or a single walnut (4.9 gallons). Like many food crops, almonds make particularly heavy ecological demands on one particular part of the country: drought-stricken California. As Eric Holthaus recently discussed in Slate, 99 percent of U.S. almonds—and almost 80 percent of the world’s almonds—are grown in California, where they absorb an astounding 10 percent of the state’s total water supply each year. But as Holthaus points out, meat and dairy—the dairy you might be drinking if you weren’t consuming almond milk—require “an order of magnitude more water” to produce than almonds.

Even if we accept Philpott’s premise that almonds are a “precious foodstuff,” is drowning them in water to create almond milk really a bad thing from an environmental perspective? Just as making meat a garnish, not the centerpiece of your meal, thins the environmental impact of eating beef, so consuming almonds sparingly—by diluting them into milk, for instance—reduces their ecological impact. Recipes for homemade almond milk often call for 1/4 to 1/3 cup of almonds—about the same as a serving of whole almonds—per cup of water. If you’re mainly pouring almond milk over cereal or adding it to your coffee, you’re probably consuming even less than a serving of almonds. Put another way, the amount of almonds used for a quart-sized box of almond milk is likely 1 cup or less.

In his rant against almond milk, Philpott refers to its liquidy nature as “water-intensive.” This is, frankly, misleading. “Water-intensive” is a term that’s meaningful in reference to how much water it takes to cultivate a crop, not to how much water has been added to a product in processing. The water that goes into growing an almond, tomato, or walnut is effectively wasted, as far as the consumer is concerned—you don’t benefit from 4.9 gallons’ worth of hydration every time you eat a walnut. The water in almond milk, on the other hand, is not wasted—you’re drinking it. In Philpott’s nonsensical usage, beer, lemonade, and my homemade soup are also “water-intensive.”

Philpott must know this, because at the end of the piece he backs off the claim that almond milk is bad for the planet. His real issues? First, the drink is expensive compared to raw almonds. (Show me a processed organic product that isn’t a whole lot more expensive than its raw counterpart by weight). Second, he prefers the stuff he puts on his cereal, organic kefir, a fermented dairy product. Why? Not because dairy is good for the planet. In fact, producing cow’s milk is far more resource-intensive and carbon-polluting than growing nuts or vegetables, by just about every measure—Philpott notes earlier that it’s “a pretty nasty business.” Not because kefir is inexpensive, either—his preferred beverage costs around $5 a bottle. Nope. The author likes it because it has “protein, calcium, and beneficial microbes” and “[a]dded bonus … it’s lactose-free.” Lay off the almond milk, you ignorant hipsters, because Tom Philpott thinks kefir is healthier.

It’s understandable that navel-gazing would play a part in a person’s diet. I often make food choices for pleasure, and I try to give thought to my health and the health of my child when deciding which groceries to buy. (For the record, I don’t put almond milk on my cereal—it is, indeed, a little watery for my taste.) Yet my appetites, and the healthfulness of my day-to-day food choices, are an entirely separate issue than the question of how the growing and packaging of my food affects the health of the soil, water, air, and people involved in that process. I have my ideas about what will sustain my health, but why should you care? And why should you care which drink best suits Philpott’s proclivities? The way he drops a few scoops of environmental consideration into an essay about his food preferences reminds me a lot of his description of almond milk as “filtered water clouded by a handful of ground almonds.” It’s hard to see the point.

Maria Dolan is a freelance writer in Seattle. Follow her on Twitter.

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