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The Junk in Your ...... Milk... Say What??

Demystifying the alternative, non-dairy milk ingredient list

One of the biggest problems of buying milk substitutes off the supermarket shelf is the added stuff in the ingredients. There are loads of extras that are confusing and often hard to pronounce. Plant-based milks are considered an ultra-processed food because of the chemical processes and additives used to produce them. Food manufacturers have been marketing these tasty non-dairy 'milks' as a replacement for cow's milk and companies have been fortifying them with all kinds of food-grade supplements and preservatives. Yes these chemicals make them 'shelf-stable' for an insanely long lifespan and could benefit our health (debatable), but what are they and what do they do exactly?

I pulled the below compounds straight from the ingredient list of a household brand of almond milk so we could examine it further. You can also scroll through the image gallery to see the ingredient list of more than 15 different brands, and you'll quickly learn that the below are common in almost all of them.

Hang on tight; it's a bumpy ride...

Calcium carbonate - Is added to food to reduce the acidity and to improve the thickness. Interestingly enough, the body can only absorb calcium carbonate if there's sufficient acid. According to Dr. Berg, one study shows a significant increased risk of cardiovascular calcification in individuals taking a calcium carbonate supplement. He also suggests that unabsorbed calcium will deposit in the body, particularly the joints which can lead to arthritis, and be a contributor to kidney stones. Read more here. Let's not forget that calcium needs to be combined with other vitamins and minerals like vitamin K, D magnesium and phosphorus.

Potassium citrate - Is added as an emulsifier, flavor enhancer, and pH adjuster. "The pungent flavor associated with citrus fruits marks potassium citrate’s enhancement when added to carbonated beverages or powders," according to Bell Chem. (Not sure why we want almond milk to taste citrusy? Me neither.) As a medicine, potassium citrate is used to treat high acidity in the body and my also be used to treat gout and kidney stones. There are a number of warnings and potential interactions to be aware of when taken at higher doses according to Cleveland Clinic. Here's another great article with research cited that covers a wide variety of uses, benefits, and consequences.

Sunflower lecithin - Is added as an emulsifier to keep food from separating. It may also aid in the absorption of fat soluble vitamins and contains other nutrients like Omega 3 fatty acids and Omega 6 fatty acids. You can learn more about its many benefits on Dr. Axe's website. I have not discovered many negative consequences of consuming SL, but there are some rumblings of it potentially increasing mucus production.

Gellan gum - Is a plant-derived gelatin used to bind, stabilize and texturize processed food. According to Healthline, "It grows naturally on water lilies but can be artificially produced by fermenting sugar with a specific strain of bacteria." Although it is made from glucose, it doesn't appear to be harmful. "Even when ingested in large amounts, though, gellan never proved to be toxic or dangerous," says MedicineNet.

Vitamin A palmitate - Also known as retinyl palmitate, is the most common form of vitamin A taken for dietary supplementation. Taken "in too-high doses have been linked to birth defects, including malformations of the eyes, lungs, skull, and heart. It is not recommended for pregnant women. Regular high doses of vitamin A can cause depression, dry skin, and painful muscles and joints," says Healthline. I think what's interesting about this particular additive is that I haven't found a reasonable use for it in almond milk other than the food manufacturers wanting to further substantiate the claim of a 'healthy milk/dairy alternative'. One thing to note, Vitamin A palmitate is often used in cosmetics and skincare products and is NOT allowed in products wanting to earn the Environmental Working Group's seal of approval. For further reading, take a look at this article on LiveStrong.

D-alpha-tocopherol - Essentially this is a form of vitamin E. It is added to foods containing fats to help preserve the color and flavor, and reduce oxidative stress that would increase the risk of spoilage. On the NIH website, they recommend 15mg a day for an adult and provide a whole list of foods that contain naturally occuring vitamin E. Almonds are #3 on the list. The tocopherols added by the food industry are likely derived from sunflower seeds or soybeans. Dr. Berg suggests we don't need more tocopherols, but rather need tocotrienols because most people get plenty of the first from their regular diet.

I'm including the link to another video as well. Although Natural Health Resources is communicating "the synthetic form alpha-tocopherol is a known carcinogen", it is misleading because the words on the screen aren't reflecting the synthetic labeling. The carcinogenic form is dL-a-tocopherol, a petrochemically-derived synthetic version. This is an important distinction because the dL-version is prominently used in supplements and prescription medications, so you likely have had some exposure to this version. She includes links to the various research papers that substantiate her concern and they all are referencing the synthetic form dL-a-tocopherol and not a-tocopherol which is naturally occurring in many foods.

Natural flavors - You can pretty much find this on EVERY ingredient list in the supermarket, in fact in a Healthline article, they found that it is the 4th most common ingredient. So here's the breakdown. There is no real regulation on this mysterious ingredient. The original source for the compounds must be plant- or animal-derived, but that's as far as it goes. You can create loads of compounds and chemicals from these sources and the extraction and processing to get these flavors doesn't have to be disclosed. "Food manufacturers aren’t required to disclose whether these additives come from natural or synthetic sources. As long as the original flavoring source comes from plant or animal material, it’s classified as a natural flavor." Here's a nice video that gives a great overview and reviews many of the foods we eat daily. (Skip to time stamp 4:20 if you just want to know what natural flavors are.)


I don't know about you, but this is a lot to absorb (no pun intended) and I'm not convinced it's truly in our best interest. Eating a whole foods diet, you should be able to obtain enough calcium, vitamin A, potassium and vitamin E from all natural sources like leafy greens, sesame seeds, eggs, meat, nuts, and a variety a fruits. If you choose to supplement, choose a high-quality multi-vitamin from a trusted brand like Ancient Nutrition or Smarty Pants.

My recommendation is get a high-quality blender and make your own nut milks. It's easy, they last for 5-7 days refrigerated, and contain only whole ingredients. You can find my recipe for Almond Milk in our member portal. If you choose to buy off the shelf, I would recommend the following brands:

  • Willa's Oat Milk - sadly their barista and chocolate flavored milks contain some added junk, but their unsweetened original flavor is simply lovely. Organic oats, filtered water, organic vanilla extract & sea salt.

  • Elmhurst - They have a whole line of nut milks that are very clean: filtered water & the nut of your choice. We carry the almond and cashew milks in our store.

  • Mooala - If you get their Simple versions, they are the cleanest. (filtered water, almonds or oats and sea salt) They do offer other flavors, but they contain calcium carbonate and gellan gum.

  • OatMalk - 3 ingredients: Filtered water, oats, and pink Himalayan salt.

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