Alternative Milk Products - What's In Them?

Updated: Feb 25


Your Naturopath has told you or your loved one that they are intolerant to dairy. Goodbye, milk!


But don’t despair! Things have changed a lot since the days when milk replacements were limited to soy or rice milk. There are so many more options now!


We’re going to explore some brands of almond milk, cashew, and other nut milks, along with oat, rice, pea, and coconut. This means reading ingredients and looking out for items that might be problems for intolerances.


I thought this was going to be a brief topic, but it became a rather deeper dive into the additives found in many popular alternative milks.




Almond Milk


If you like some milk in your cereal, tea, or coffee, there are some nice alternatives - though they all have a slightly distinctive flavor that is different from cow milk. Nut milks are the most common, with almond milk in the lead. My husband is dairy intolerant, and likes to use almond milk in his cereal and coffee.


Three of the most common brands of almond milk are Blue Diamond Almond Breeze, Silk, and Califia Farms which are all in the refrigerated section. Elmhurst is a brand that offers shelf stable almond and other plant-based milks as well.

We will look at the simplest, unsweetened versions of each of these, and compare what’s in them.


The website for the Original Unsweetened Almond Breeze helpfully lists all of the ingredients, and where those are derived from. The ingredients are: Almond milk (Filtered Water, Almonds), Calcium Carbonate, Sea Salt, Potassium Citrate, Sunflower Lecithin, Gellan Gum, Natural Flavors, Vitamin A Palmitate, Vitamin D2, D-Alpha-Tocopherol (Natural Vitamin E). Since they tell us where these things come from, we can get a fairly good idea if there are things we should avoid. The ones that jumped out to me are:

  • Filtered water - sounds odd, but filters are often made using coconut husks, which bothers most fruit intolerant people.

  • Potassium Citrate - is derived from citric acid which bothers fruit intolerant people.

  • Gellan Gum - derived from fermented starch. The starch could be grain or potato.

  • Natural Flavors - is too vague to know if it's something to worry about. Often this means something derived from fruit.

  • Vitamin A Palmitate - while Palm is considered to be fruit, Vitamin A Palmitate tends to bother people who are intolerant to potatoes. It is almost always seen in low-fat dairy products.

Conclusion: this may contain potato, grain, and fruit.


Silk Unsweet Almond Milk similarly lists its ingredients, but does not tell us what items are derived from. The ingredients are: Almondmilk (Filtered Water, Almonds), Vitamin and Mineral Blend (Calcium Carbonate, Vitamin E Acetate, Vitamin A Palmitate, Vitamin D2), Sea Salt, Locust Bean Gum, Gellan Gum, Ascorbic Acid (to protect freshness), Natural Flavor.

Again, the ones that jump out are:

  • Filtered water

  • Vitamin A Palmitate

  • Gellan Gum

  • Natural Flavor

  • Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C) - this is made from plants such as citrus fruit, tomatoes, potatoes, and leafy vegetables. We don’t know what theirs is from, so we should assume it’s either fruit or potato.

This looks suspicious but is alright:

  • Locust Bean Gum - this is an emulsifier and thickener made from the seeds of carob trees.

Conclusion: Silk likely has grain, potato, and fruit


Califia Farms Unsweetened Almond Milk is another one where the website gives us the ingredients but does not tell us what the ingredients are derived from. The ingredients are: Almondmilk (Water, Almonds), Calcium Carbonate, Sunflower Lecithin, Sea Salt, Potassium Citrate, Natural Flavors, Locust Bean Gum, Gellan Gum.

The same potentially concerning ones can be seen here as well:

  • Potassium Citrate

  • Natural Flavors

  • Gellan Gum

Conclusion: of the three refrigerated options, this has the fewest things that might violate your intolerance. However, it still might have fruit, grain, or potato.


Elmhurst claims that their shelf-stable almond milk doesn’t need to be refrigerated until opened. It is vegan and doesn’t have the emulsifiers and thickeners that other brands use. And, indeed, the ingredients are: Filtered Water, Almonds.

Conclusion: The filtered water might be a problem for fruit intolerant people. Otherwise this is a good option.


Final thoughts on almond milk are that Elmhurst is clearly the best brand if you want a product with few ingredients that you know most people can enjoy. If you need to be sure there’s no fruit, make your own following instructions like these on one of my favorite vegan cooking blogs: Minimalist Baker!




Cashew Milk


Cashews can be tricky because they are considered to be a nut but also a fruit. They grow from what is called the cashew apple, which is the fruit of the tree. For the purposes of the intolerances, cashews and cashew milk is considered to be fruit. This may not be a problem for you, unless you are cooking for a fruit-intolerant person, or if you avoid the combination of fruit with sugar and are using your milk with something that has cane sugar in it.


There are several brands out there that make cashew milk. A few we will look at are Forager Project, Elmhurst, Silk, and Pacific. Like the almond milk brands, we will look at the ingredients of their unsweetened milk.


Forager Project is organic, vegan, and based out of California. The ingredients of their organic unsweetened cashew milk are: Cashewmilk (Filtered Water, Cashews*), Coconut Cream*, Tapioca Starch*, Gluten-free Oats*, Sunflower Oil*, Sea Salt.

*Organic

This is a fairly straightforward ingredient list. A few things to note for our purposes are:

  • Tapioca Starch - this is something that tends to bother potato intolerant people.

  • Gluten-free Oats - this would be a problem for those avoiding grains.

  • Coconut Cream - This falls into the fruit category for most people, though cashew does anyway.

  • Filtered water - again, something that can bother fruit or specifically coconut intolerant people.

Conclusion: The tapioca starch and oats together are potato with grain, which may be the combination of foods you’re trying to avoid.


Elmhurst brand’s unsweetened cashew milk is just as simple as their almond milk.

Ingredients: Filtered Water, Cashews.

Conclusion: You can’t get more simple than that, and if fruit isn’t a problem for you this might be a great option.


Silk unsweetened cashew milk is vegan and Non-GMO Project Verified. The ingredients are: Cashewmilk (Filtered Water, Cashews), Contains 2% or Less of: Almond, Vitamin and Mineral Blend (Calcium Carbonate, Vitamin E Acetate, Vitamin A Palmitate, Vitamin D2), Salt, Locust Bean Gum, Sunflower Lecithin, Natural Flavor, Gellan Gum, Ascorbic Acid (to protect freshness).

Though we don’t know the sources of the additives, the ones that jump out are mostly the same as we saw with almond milk brands:

  • Filtered water

  • Vitamin A Palmitate - this tends to bother potato intolerant people.

  • Salt - Since we don’t know whether it is iodized or mined, we should assume both. Iodized salt bothers potato people, and mined salt is also an intolerance category.

  • Natural Flavor - not knowing what that means, we generally assume this will bother fruit intolerant people (which cashew does anyway).

  • Gellan Gum - derived from fermented starch. The starch could be grain or potato.

  • Ascorbic Acid - this is made from plants such as citrus fruit, tomatoes, potatoes, and leafy vegetables. We don’t know what theirs is from, so we should assume it’s either fruit or potato.

Conclusion: This might contain potato, grain, fruit, and mined salt.


Pacific - This is a brand that, like Elmhurst, is shelf stable and doesn’t need to be refrigerated until after opening. The unsweetened original cashew milk is organic and made with Fair Trade certified cashews. The ingredients are: Water, Cashew Butter (Fair Trade Certified (™) Cashews*, Sunflower Oil*)*, Contains less than 1% of: Gellan Gum, Guar Gum*, Sea Salt, Sodium Citrate, Tricalcium Phosphate, Xanthan Gum.

Things to note:

  • Gellan Gum

  • Sodium Citrate - is salt from citric acid. Citric acid might be dervied from fruit, corn, or (most likely) a process of fermenting molasses and a type of mold called Aspergillus niger. This means that it might be fruit, sugar, or grain.

  • Xanthan Gum - this is used as a thickening agent and emulsifier. It’s made from fermenting carbohydrates (sugar), the source of which could be cane sugar, lactose (dairy), corn or wheat.

Conclusion: This vegan cashew milk might have dairy, fruit, sugar, potato, corn, or wheat. Depending on your intolerances, you may want to avoid this one.


Final thought of Cashew Milk is that Elmhurst again is probably the most healthful brand, unless you make your own. Here is a simple recipe to make your own!


Other Nut Milks


Brief mention of other kinds of nut milks that are now available.


Along with almond and cashew milk, Elmhurst offers shelf stable Walnut, and Hazelnut milks. All of their unsweetened products are made from just the nuts and filtered water.


A brand called Milkadamia has various flavors of Macadamia nut milk. The ingredients of their unsweetened milk are: Macadamia Milk (Filtered Water, Macadamias), Calcium Phosphate, Natural Flavors, Pea Protein, Sunflower Lecithin, Locust Bean Gum, Sea Salt, Gellan Gum, Vitamin D2.

The only potential problematic ingredients here are the

  • Natural Flavors

  • Gellan Gum

Conclusion: This might have fruit, grain, or potato.




Oat Milk


Oat milk has joined rice milk as another grain-based milk that is gluten free

These are good alternatives for those who can’t tolerate nuts. An additional positive aspect of oats is that they have a soothing effect on the nervous system. Oat milk, however, does taste like oats, which might be a positive or negative when you are considering your preferred flavor profile.

A few brands we will look at are Elmhurst, Califia, Oatley, Rice Dream


Elmhurst - One of the few alternative milks this company doesn’t have is rice milk. But, true to form, their oat milk has simple ingredients: Filtered Water, Whole Grain Oats, Salt.

Items to note:

  • Filtered water - could be filtered with coconut.

  • Salt - because this doesn’t specify the source, we have to assume it is either iodized or mined salt. This could bother potato intolerant people or those who can’t digest mined salt.

Conclusion: This might have fruit, potato or mined salt.


Califia - Their oat milk ingredients are: Oatmilk (Water, Oats), Sunflower Oil, Dipotassium Phosphate, Calcium Carbonate, Tricalcium Phosphate, Sea Salt.

Things to note:

  • Dipotassium Phosphate - is “generally considered safe”, and is added to both food and antifreeze, and fertilizer… It may cause problems for the kidneys, thyroid, heart or lungs. But, it helps emulsify and regulate acidity so that oat milk can better blend with coffee…

Conclusion: For the purposes of dietary intolerances this might be ok, but if clean eating and health is the goal, you may not want this product.


Oatley - This company makes shelf stable oatmilks and chilled versions. The plain, unsweetened original flavor has the following ingredients: Oat base (water, oats). Contains 2% or less of: low erucic acid rapeseed oil, dipotassium phosphate, calcium carbonate, tricalcium phosphate, sea salt, dicalcium phosphate, riboflavin, vitamin A, vitamin D2, vitamin B12.

Conclusion: This one also uses dipotassum phosphate, but otherwise isn’t too bad.


Final thoughts of oat milk is that again Elmhurst brand is the most healthful, unless you make your own. To make some at home, here is a good recipe!




Rice Milk


A classic dairy alternative that is grain-based and gluten-free. Rice milk has a thin viscosity to it, more like fat free milk than a rich whole milk. The flavor is very mild. There don’t seem to be many competing brands making this.


Rice Dream - Gluten free, vegan, Non-GMO Project, and Certified Organic. The classic unsweetened rice milk contains: Water, Organic brown rice (partially milled), expeller pressed sunflower oil and/or organic safflower oil and/or organic canola oil, sea salt.

Conclusion: None of these ingredients are problematic for the intolerances, with the exception of grain.


Final thought of rice milk is that this is a simple, good product so long as you are not grain intolerant.


Pea Milk


Yes, you heard that right. Milk from peas! Whatever will they think of next?

The two main brands making pea milk are Ripple and Sproud.


Ripple - Shelf stable and refrigerated options, the unsweetened original is vegan and Non-Gmo. The ingredients are: Water, Pea protein blend (water, pea protein), Sunflower oil, Contains less than 1% of Vitamin A Palmitate, Vitamin D2, Vitamin B12, DHA Algal Oil, Tricalcium phosphate, Dipotassium phosphate, Sunflower lecithin, Sea Salt, Mixed Tocopherols (to preserve freshness), Natural Flavor, Guar Gum, Gellan Gum.

Items that stand out:

  • Vitamin A Palmitate - bothers potato intolerant people.

  • DHA Algal Oil - my concern was that this would be from fish, but it is from algae and should be fine.

  • Dipotassium Phosphate - Not a good health choice for reasons explained above.

  • Natural Flavor - We must assume this is from fruit.

  • Gellan Gum - again, from grain or potato.

Conclusion: Might contain fruit, potato, grain.


Sprout - This plant based milk is also made from peas.

Ingredients: Water, Protein from pea (1,9%), Non-Gmo Canola Oil, Acidity Regulator (Dipotassium Phosphate), Calcium Carbonate, Gluten Free Oat Oil, Natural aroma, Salt, Vitamin A, Vitamin B2, Vitamin B12, Vitamin D.

  • Natural aroma - I have no idea what this means or what it’s from.

  • Salt - likely iodized (potato) or mined salt.

  • Dipotassium Phosphate

Conclusion: this contains potato or mined salt, and probably fruit. Dipotassium phosphate is something you may want to avoid anyway.


Final thoughts about pea milk are that I am not impressed. Protein from peas apparently needs lots of additives, emulsifiers in order to approximate the qualities one looks for in milk. Maybe if it were mixed with something that had some natural fats in it, like nuts.




Coconut Milk


Coconut is the last alternative milk we will look at, and is one that has grown in popularity in recent years. Partially due to diets like Keto, which laud its healthy fats. This has always been a staple in many Asian dishes, and finding coconut milk used to be regulated to cans in the Asian section of the grocery store.


Now, there are shelf stable and refrigerated options. One thing to note is that coconut is considered to be a fruit for the purposes of the dietary intolerances. If you have a combination to avoid that includes fruit, or are cooking for someone who is sensitive to fruit, this might not be a good option.


We will look at a couple of the brands out there, including refrigerated and canned ones. Silk, O Organics, Califia, and Native Forest.


Silk - The refrigerated unsweetened coconut milk is vegan and Non-GMO Project Verified. The ingredients are: Coconutmilk (Filtered Water, Coconut Cream), Vitamin and Mineral Blend (Calcium Carbonate, Vitamin E Acetate, Vitamin A Palmitate, Vitamin D2, Vitamin B12), Dipotassium Phosphate, Sea Salt, Sunflower Lecithin, Locust Bean Gum, Gellan Gum, Ascorbic Acid (to protect freshness), Natural Flavor.

Potentially problematic ingredients are:

  • Vitamin A Palmitate

  • Dipotassium Phosphate

  • Gellan Gum

  • Ascorbic Acid

  • Natural Flavor

Conclusion: These are all ingredients we’ve encountered before. This product likely has potato and grain along with fruit.


O Organics - The refrigerated product contains: Organic Coconutmilk (Filtererd Water, Organic Coconut Cream), Contains 2% or Less of: Sea Salt, Organic Natural Flavors, Sunflower Lecithin, Organic Locust Bean Gum, Gellan Gum.

This product may have potato or grain along with fruit.

However, the canned O Organics Coconut Milk only has: Organic Coconut, Purified Water, Organic Guar Gum.

This should be fine for anyone who isn’t fruit intolerant.


Califia - Unlike some of their other products, the coconut milk doesn’t have too many questionable ingredients.

Ingredients: Coconut Milk (Water, Coconut Cream), Coconut Water, Calcium Carbonate, Sunflower Lecithin, Sea Salt, Locust Bean Gum, Gellan Gum, Potassium Citrate.

The gellan gum might have either potato or grain.


Native Forest - This company offers two types of canned coconut milk: Classic or Simple. The Classic contains: Organic Coconut Milk (Filtered Water, Organic Coconut, Organic Guar Gum).

The Simple canned coconut milk is even better, with only: Organic Coconut Milk (Organic Coconut, Filtered Water).

Either option would be fine for anyone who isn’t sensitive to fruit.


Final thoughts about coconut milk are that canned coconut milk is simpler than the refrigerated products, which means fewer additives that might bother someone with additional intolerances.


Summary


There are a lot of plant based milk options available in stores now. However, most of them use emulsifiers and other stabilizing additives to make them better suited to being on grocery store shelves. These aren’t inherently bad, but many of them are derived from potato, grain, or other things that may not compatible with your intolerances, or those of family members. Because of that, I recommend the most simple ones.


Of all the products we looked at today, the simplest nut and oat milks came from Elmhurst. If you have the time, making your own is also an excellent choice.

The canned coconut milk from Native Forest was also a good product, so long as you can digest fruit. Rice Dream’s classic unsweetened rice milk is fairly simple as well, if grain or rice specifically is alright for you.


If there is a product we’ve discussed here and you want to know definitively if it is ok for you, it can be checked by our licensed Naturopathic doctors. Contact the clinic to find out more about this.

Thank you for joining me on this lengthy alternative milk journey. Until next time!


Cheers!