I am working on an instructional post about how to make your own almond milk. As I was writing, I was reflecting on how it came to be that I now make my own milks at home. I thought it might be useful information to share, so decided to write this post first for some background information.
The information in this post is relevant to any commercially packaged food product- not just non-dairy milks- but milk is as good an example as any. Hopefully the information here will be useful as you navigate your pantry and grocery store shelves with a new perspective.
Non-dairy milks are a wonderful option for those who are avoiding dairy products for health or ethical reasons. There are many commercial non-dairy options now available, such as soy milks, almond milk, hemp milk, rice milk, and coconut milk, just to name a few.
However, just like any other commercial food product, it is important to check the ingredients- especially if you have multiple food allergies. You might think something labeled as "almond milk" is simply milk from almonds, and nothing more. But once you stop and think about it, you will soon realize that is simply not possible. Every commercial product must add compounds for stability during manufacturing, transport, shelf display, and ultimately, to keep it "fresh" once it gets to your kitchen.
Manufacturers may add ingredients to fortify nutrition, or for color, flavor or texture. They may add ingredients to prevent a natural product from separating while it sits on the shelf. Obviously, they add ingredients to preserve the product so that it does not spoil before you buy it. None of this is necessarily a bad thing- you should just be aware that commercial food products add ingredients for many reasons. When you have food sensitivities, it is important to educate yourself about which ingredients might be hidden in foods that you may not have thought to check.
For example, below are the ingredients listed on the Blue Diamond website for their unsweetened almond milk:
Now, those ingredients may or may not work for you. There are other brands, of course- this is just one example. Personally, I am allergic to sunflower, so I cannot use store-bought almond milk (they all have sunflower). That is not to say it won't work for you- shop around, and you may find a brand that meets your needs.
It is important to educate yourself about ingredient names, and what they might be. For example, "natural flavor" can be a lot of things- some of which you might wish or need to avoid. For example, under current FDA labeling laws, monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is derived from soy, qualifies to be labeled as a "natural flavor". Some "natural flavors" may be derived from corn, others may contain gluten.
Also be aware that ingredients and sources may change at any time and without notice, so check food labels every time before you purchase. If you discover that a product that has been working for you is suddenly giving you problems, it might be that the manufacturer has changed the source or supplier of an ingredient. Do not hesitate to contact a manufacturer if you have a question about an ingredient. Finding ingredient information from a manufacturer is becoming much easier as more and more people have discovered they have food sensitivities, and consumer demand for allergy information has increased. In fact, most manufacturers post ingredient information on their websites, and many now include specific information about allergies. If you do not see allergy information in the ingredient section, check the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ). If you still cannot find what you are looking for, give the manufacturer a call or send an email.
By law, manufacturers must disclose on the package label when a product contains any of the the following Top 8 allergens: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans. Note this list does not include corn (a corn allergy can be very difficult to navigate). Labeling regulations have yet to include gluten, although there is proposed legislation regarding gluten labeling. For more information on current food allergy labeling regulations, check the FDA website here. For more information on proposed FDA regulations for labeling gluten, click here.
I've come to believe that the healthiest option is to make everything you possibly can at home. Not only do you know exactly what goes into your food, but I think it also tastes much better when it is fresh, whole, real food with minimal processing. However, I realize that is not always practical or convenient. (trust me, there are many days when I wish I could just order take-out!) Sometimes you just want something you don't have to make yourself. For that instance, we can educate ourselves about ingredients, and choose wisely.
*note: one thing I did not mention here is the actual food packaging. For those with severe allergies, packaging may also be relevant- but that is a topic for another post.
For more on "natural flavors", take a look at this blog post on Healthy Child.org which links to additional information about ingredient derivatives.