Understanding The Label On Plant-Based Milks
Reading the Label
Do you check the label for ingredients and non-food additives when you shop? If you do you may be a little confused at times.
1. Why are there so many ingredients?
Good question! As with many packaged and processed foods, there may be multiple additives in the one product. It's all about $$, flavour, and texture. Manufacturers add sugars, thickeners, water etc to save money, enhance flavour, and a create thicker, creamier products (especially if the water content is high).
2. What are all of these ingredients and are they safe to eat?
Here are some common things listed in the ingredients of commercial nut milks:
Gums - There are a multitude of gums often used to thicken and stabilise the consistency plant-based milks. These can be problematic for people with general digestive concerns, especially SIBO, IBS, or inflammatory bowel disorders. If you are trying to reducing inflammation in the gut you may want to reconsider ingestion of certain gums. See below for more information on individual gums and stabiliser additives.
Emulsifiers - These help stabilise processed foods particularly when oil and water is combined in a product. E.g. soy or sunflower lecithin. See below for more info on added emulsifiers.
Acidity regulators - There are many, many acidity regulators and mineral salts used in foods. these control the acidity of a product.
Refined sugars - Refined carbohydrates are sweetening. For those wanting to reducing sugar intake avoid added sugars. Watch out for some of these: cane sugar, evaporated cane juice, glucose, raw sugar, agave and brown rice syrup (healthier choices than cane sugar when consumed moderately in a healthy diet).
Vegetable oils - e.g. Sunflower oil canola oil. These are plant oils that contain high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids. While we need omega-6 fatty acids the western diet is commonly omega-6 dense which leads to excess inflammation and negative health outcomes.
Maltodextrin - a high GI (glycemic index) sugar made from corn, rice, potato starch or wheat, added as a thickener. For some this may not be a big deal, but if you are avoiding refined sugar, have diabetes, have a sensitive gut, or are allergic or reactive to the above plants then steer away from this additive.
3. What do all the numbers mean?
All food additives are allocated a number and there are hundreds of them. Some are harmful, some are not, some we are unsure about, while the health effects of others will depend on the amount consumed and each individual's reactivity.
Some common plant-based milk additives and their numbers include:
E322 - Lecithin
Derived from soy, egg, or sunflower. Used as an emulsifier lecithin is widely used as an additive. The challenge with these can be the triggering of digestive upset or allergy depending on where the original product is growth and made, and the protein content. This varies from product to product. Soy and egg are both common allergens that cause irritation of the digestive tract in many individuals but again each product may trigger a different response (depending on how reactive a person is). If you are unsure about your reactivity seek professional guidance to help you with the detective work.
E406 - Agar, aka agar-agar
Derived from red algae. A non-digestible carbohydrate used as a thickener and stabiliser. Agar appears to be safe to consume and is used widely in many cultures and foods.
E407 - Carrageenan
Derived from red algae *note that both carrageenan and agar are derived from red algae, a very large group of seaweeds. They are each taken from different species depending on the composition of that particular seaweed.
An indigestible polysaccharide used as a thickener and stabiliser in foods and as a gelling agent and anti-oxidant in cosmetics and personal care products, and its use is controversial. Carrageenan-containing seaweed has a long history of use (including as a nutritive drink during the potato famine) but is now commonly refined and added to processed foods. Firstly, know that there are two main types of carrageenan: food grade and non-food grade. Non-food grade carrageenan also known as poligeenan is listed as a carcinogen (cancer causing) and has been linked to intestinal ulcers and cancer in the colon in animals. Poligeenan is NOT the same as the 407 additive found in plant-based milks or cosmetic products.
Food grade carrageenan has not been linked to cancer but it has been shown to cause intestinal damage and diarrhoea in some animal studies. It should be noted that experimental doses of carrageenan to animals was much higher than the amount a human would typically consume in the diet.
E410 - Locust bean gum or carob bean gum
Made from carob tree seeds. Similar to guar gum, the locust bean gum may have some cholesterol-lowering effects however may cause gastrointestinal upset such as excess gas. If you are trying to heal your gut because of general gastrointestinal sensitivity, you have IBS, SIBO, or a condition worsened by digestive issues stay away from this gum or seek guidance in removing it and re-introducing it to the diet to assess tolerance.
E412 - Guar gum.
Made from the guar bean. Guar gum is a soluble fibre that has been shown to have potential beneficial health impacts such as cholesterol and blood glucose lowering effects. It may however cause excess gas and abdominal discomfort in some people. The recommendations on consuming guar hum are the same as with locust bean gum, above.
E415 - Xanthan gum
A polysaccharide made by bacterial fermentation. Commonly use as a thickener and gelling agent (often used in gluten free baking for this reason). Although it is not a very food-like substance there it little convincing evidence that it is harmful at the amounts ingested in nut milks. Studies showed cholesterol reduction and increased stool output in some people. However because it may also cause excess gas, abdominal discomfort, and a laxative effect.
There has been evidence (here and here) to show that xanthan gum may be associated with colitis in infants. This information is specifically linked to a product called SimplyThick given to infants in a hospital setting.
E418 - Gellan gum
A polysaccharide made by bacterial fermentation. The health impacts of this gum are less well known. It is a bulking agent similar to xanthan gum. This study showed a structural change in intestinal villi in rats fed gellan gum. To be on the safe side, those with digestive concerns may want to avoid this one until more information is available.
The bottom line on gums, thickeners and emulsifiers.
Many insoluble and indigestible polysaccharides or carbohydrates cause changes in the gut microbiome due to the fermentation of these sugars by gut bacteria. Whether this leads to excess gas, bloating, and abdominal discomfort, diarrhoea, or benefits such as reduce cholesterol, better blood sugar regulation, or increased short chain fatty acid (SCFA) production is highly dependant on the individual. As mentioned previously if you already have digestive concerns, an inflammatory condition, IBS, or SIBO you may want to avoid or seek professional guidance on how to navigate these additives.
What To Buy
Look for a short ingredients list. Most good-quality nut-milks have 3-5 ingredients only. It will likely start with water and should immediately be followed by the main plant-based ingredient e.g. almonds, or oats etc. NOT sugar.
Choose the unsweetened version. If you need it to be sweeter add your own raw honey to your baking, drink, or add fresh fruit if you're making a smoothie.
If it is accessible to you, choose organic.
Make Your Own Nut-milk
Home-made versions of plant-based milks is a great option if you are wanting to:
Reduce your intake of additives
Reduce waste from production and packaging
Home-made nut milk is super quick, easy and cheap to make - click here for my version with a bit extra.