More like almond water.
If you read the infamous Mother Jones takedown, “Lay Off the Almond Milk, You Ignorant Hipsters,” you know that store-bought almond milk is mostly water. But according to plaintiffs suing industry giants Blue Diamond and WhiteWave—the makers of Almond Breeze and Silk, respectively—the iniquities don’t stop there. The plaintiffs allege that these brands of almond milk contain only 2 percent almonds, and that the companies have falsely advertised these products for years.
The class-action lawsuit draws on information available for the U.K. versions of Blue Diamond and WhiteWave almond milks; their labels clearly indicate 2 percent almond content. It is entirely possible that the U.S. and U.K. versions have different formulas and that the almond milk on this side of the pond is more or less almond-y. But either way, the companies don’t disclose that information to consumers in the U.S.—and the FDA doesn’t require them to. (After all, percentages could reveal a brand’s secret recipe.)
Should you feel cheated by the paltry proportion of almonds in your non-dairy alternative? Maybe, if your concern is truth in advertising. As FoodNavigator points out, this case bears some resemblance to POM Wonderful’s lawsuit against Coca-Cola, which alleges that the corporate giant misled the public about its Minute Maid pomegranate-blueberry juice. The Minute Maid product contained only 0.3 percent pomegranate juice and 0.2 percent blueberry juice, compared to POM’s 85 percent pomegranate and 15 percent blueberry blend. The Supreme Court ruled in June 2014 that the lawsuit could proceed—even though Coke’s label technically complied with FDA regulations—and POM could seek damages for sales lost to its cheaper, diluted competitor.
While that decision opened the door to lawsuits on FDA-compliant labels, it doesn’t guarantee a victory against Blue Diamond and WhiteWave. Unlike POM vs. Coke, the almond milk case centers on customers feeling duped by the products’ branding. Almond Breeze and Silk promise wholesome, plant-based nutrition, the plaintiffs allege; instead, they give you filtered water with a splash of almonds and thickening agents.
If that bothers you, consider this: Beer, coffee, Diet Coke, dairy milk—most beverages, really—are mostly water. Almond milk is held together by additional emulsifiers and stabilizers—but so are most processed foodstuffs. The relatively meager allotment of almonds in conventional almond milks should not be news to anyone. And if you like the empirically watery taste of almond milk, by all means, drink on.
On the other hand, if you’re ready to swear off almond milk because of its environmental impact, you should still think twice before converting to dairy milk. It’s easy to pick on almond milk, a watered-down version of the nut that has become a scapegoat for the California drought. But almonds, while a significant drain on the state’s water supply, are not even the thirstiest agricultural product out there. Yes, it takes one gallon of water to produce one almond—but it takes 880 gallons of water to produce one gallon of dairy milk. Almonds may drink up 10 percent of California’s water, but more than 30 percent of it goes toward raising livestock.
As Slate’s Eric Holthaus puts it: “Replacing a glass of cow’s milk with almond milk is a net gain for the environment.” And that’s true whether almond milk is 98 percent water or not.