Demand For Almond Milk Is Soaring, But Is It Bad For The Planet?

A segment for KCET's award-winning TV show "SoCal Connected" was based on this story. Watch it here now.

Over the past two years, almond milk has overtaken soy milk to become America's most popular plant-based milk alternative. Refrigerated almond milk today accounts for 4.1% of total milk sales in the United States, and according to Chicago-based market research firm Mintel, non-plant-based milk sales reached a staggering $2 billion in 2013. Much of this growth was led by almond milk, which has become a favorite treat among the Whole Foods and CSA set.

Almond milk is made by blending soaked almonds with water and flavoring agents (in the case of most commercial brands, a fair amount of sugar is also involved). The resulting blend is then strained to create a milk-like drink; American consumers have responded positively to both almond milk's taste, which can be more "milk-like" than soy milk, and perceived health benefits. However, the popularity of almond milk has also sparked controversy among consumers.

In a Mother Jones article provocatively titled "Lay Off the Almond Milk, You Ignorant Hipsters," Tom Philpott of North Carolina's Maverick Farms argues that almond milk is less healthy than cow's milk and bad for the environment to boot. Specifically, he says that commercially-made almond milk contains fewer nutrients than the actual nuts themselves, and that the water-intensive nature of almond production makes it a poor substitute for milk. Approximately 80% of the world's almond supply is grown in California, which is currently undergoing a drought--and almonds use up approximately 10% of the state's water supply.

Almonds are a high-cash and water-intensive crop. Drought conditions in recent years in California have sent prices rising, and almond farmers are increasingly diverting water from other crops to raise more profitable nuts. Almond trees typically take three to four years after planting to have their crop harvested.

Bob Curtis, the associate director of agricultural affairs at the Almond Board of Calfornia, told KCET that almonds are the second biggest crop in California, and that 70% of the state's almond crop is destined for export; U.S. demand only accounts for 30% of the state's almond crop. As a result of the drought situation, he says, many almond farms use microirrigation techniques he compares to the grip sprinklers commonly used on many lawns.

"Most growers cobble water resources together to supply almond trees with enough water," he added. "For those unfortunate people who don't have enough options available, our research indicates they can prorate water they normally supply for the tree over the whole season, which people have done successfully this year."

Jay Lund, an expert on California's water supply who teaches at UC Davis, told the San Francisco Chronicle that although nut trees are more profitable for growers, they also put them at higher risk of economic damage from drought. But in the meantime, demand for almond milk is soaring.

Growers can't and shouldn't be blamed for wanting to grow almonds instead of less water-intensive crops: They are in a tough economic situation due to an increasing trend towards drought in the Central Valley, and there's insatiable demand for almonds both Stateside and abroad. No matter what crops the farms of the Central Valley plant, there still won't be enough water to go around.

For customers, however, the equation is different. Almond milk is enjoying a bit of a cultural moment, and will likely remain a pantry favorite even after eaters move on to the next kale. While commercially purchased almond milk is convenient, it contains less nutrients than the homemade version and -- however similar the taste is -- an entirely different nutritional profile than cow's milk. It might not be as bad for the environment as you think, but it's not an all-purpose dairy replacement either.

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