Almonds As the Latest Hipster Food

I’ve been an almond fan from way back — dare I say it, before they were cool. Of all the nuts, almonds are actually my favourite. I eat them on my yoghurt in the mornings in the winter (yes, I also ate yoghurt before it was cool). I like them in a variety of desserts and other dishes. I eat them plain, especially when I’m feeling run-down and I realise that I need a quick hit of protein to keep me going while I’m working — I keep a bag of them in my desk drawer so that they’re always there when I’m getting hyperfocused on work and forgetting to eat.

Almonds, in short, are great, and their prices have been climbing stratospherically. As is their use, for one simple reason: Almond milk.

It’s the new hipster thing, it seems, with people all over the place drinking a food that used to be pretty obscure. When I was vegan, I used almond milk sometimes both because I loathed soymilk and because it’s not particularly healthy, especially for those of us concerned about estrogenically-modified crops and foods high in estrogen. The last thing I need is even bigger tits, if you get my drift. Almond milk was fine when I absolutely needed a milk-like liquid for something. The store had a limited number of brands available and almost no flavours.

Now, when I walk by the aisle with dairy-free alternatives, I see a dizzying array of almond milk products, and they have it in the chilled section, too. It’s treated, flavoured, and slicked up in all kinds of ways for a new generation of consumers, a whole lot of whom are vegans who have apparently just discovered it, and hipsters who think it’s the greatest thing ever. (There’s considerable overlap between these categories.)

So here’s the thing: Almond milk is basically just some ground up almonds, and a whole lot of water. Like, a lot of water — most of the nutritional value of the almonds is actually lost unless you’re chugging multiple containers of almond milk at one sitting. If you want the health benefits of almonds (like the protein), you would be much better served by just eating some almonds. If you need a fluid, well, allow me introduce you to my friend water. Incidentally, you’ll spend far more per almond on almond milk than on just buying almonds — which is why some people make their almond milk at home, but this sidesteps the larger issue, which is that almond milk is, well, not the greatest way to get nutrition.

If you like the flavour, great. If you need to use it in a recipe, great. But don’t sell it as some kind of nutritional breakthrough of critical importance that everybody should be trying, because it’s not. It’s just a nut milk, there are lots of nut milks out there, and nut milks are made by grinding up nuts and heating them with water to create a slurry of, well, nut-flavoured water. Many distributors are forced to fortify their almond milks so they can make claims about their nutritional values, but don’t be fooled: Products promising lots of protein, calcium, and other nutrients can only say so because the manufacturer added them, not because almond milk is an intrinsically good nutritional choice.

And, of course, growing almonds involves a tremendous amount of water, and has been cited as a serious contributory factor to agricultural waste in California, a state where drought is a pressing issue. Some farms are actually destroying their almond orchards because they can’t maintain them — either they can’t get enough water to keep their trees alive, or they can’t afford it, because the new price for their almonds would be so high that no one would be willing to pay. That’s why almonds are getting more expensive, and will continue to do so as California’s agricultural heartland tries to adjust to a newly dried landscape.

If you think this is a minor issue in the big picture, 80% of the global almond supply is produced in California. Which means that what harms the state’s almond crop harms the global supply — and that pressures on the state to divert water to almond farming are huge. While hipsters are guzzling almond milk and patting themselves on the back for being more environmentally aware (by skipping cow milk) and health conscious, almond orchards are stripping watersheds. As the demand for almond milk goes up, so, too, does the temptation to attempt to make a go of it with almonds — and since it takes years for trees to mature, farmers are committing to the crop for the long-term, and they’re committing to all the watering that goes with it, too.

Trend foods come and go, an issue I’ve covered before. But what people embracing these trends need to be thinking about more is their environmental, social, and political impact. For every carton of almond milk that sells, there are repercussions for California’s environment, but also for politics in the Western states, where tensions over water are mounting in response to growing water shortages and concerns over drought conditions. And for every promotion of almond milk as a health food, people are being taught to buy into a myth about a food that’s actually much more complicated.

Hey, if you like almond milk, that’s fantastic. But personally, I’d rather buy some almonds. Or maybe switch to a nut crop that isn’t so water-intensive.

Image: Almond trees in sunset, Xavi, Flickr