My sister and I were both diagnosed with Coeliac disease a long time ago. Back then, the only way you could get your hands on gluten-free products was by special order from the chemist and the bread was so dense you would have ended up with a few less toes if you’d have dropped it in the kitchen. Our poor mum’s handbag was always stuffed with gluten-free ingredients, ready to be whipped out in restaurants before embarking on the painstaking task of attempting to explain what ‘gluten-free’ meant to the unfortunate waitress who was put in charge of our table.
I want to start by saying that I think the rise in accessibility and range of health food products is fantastic. It has certainly made my life a hell of a lot easier! Occasionally now when I am out and somewhere doesn’t cater for my coeliac, I’m almost shocked. I’ve become so accustomed to having so many options that when I don’t - Cue ‘I can’t eat here’, closely followed by a major diva moment as I pull my poor boyfriend away from the chicken schnitzel he’s been eyeing up.
People are seeking healthier alternatives and many places are now willing to cater to those who want or need something a little different. Whether your gluten-free, dairy-free, lactose-free, nut-free, vegan… there are usually options available. The food manufacturers have seen the dollar signs and they are running after the free-from shoppers with their new and exciting products. While some of these products are great, the vast majority of free-from and allergy products are really quite shocking.
My issue with the free-from, allergy and health food products is the pesky extra ingredients that seem to sneak in the products when other ingredients are removed. Many health-conscious consumers are far too excited about what key ingredients (gluten, dairy, animal products etc..) aren’t in their products, without paying much attention to what ingredients are actually left in them. And here's where my issue lies. The oh-so-popular almond milk is a classic example of this.
‘But... it's dairy-free? IT’S VEGAN?! How can it not be healthy?!’ I hear you cry. While it might be dairy-free, it also usually happens to be full of hidden sugars, vegetable oils, preservatives, additives... The list goes on. And check this.. some products contain as little as 2% almonds.
What I’m really trying to say is that health-conscious for me isn't what labels can be put on food, it’s about real whole foods and nourishing ingredients. So next time your trawling through the supermarket or you're ordering your coffee at the local cafe, focus on nutrients, not what ‘label’ it falls under.
I really do get how difficult it can be adjusting to your new food options. If you’ve got an allergy, intolerance or even a food preference that's going to require you to be frequently looking for alternatives, do your research. Seek out brands that are creating nutrient-dense options - cause let me tell you, there are so many amazing smaller companies out there creating wonderful products. Get creative. My guess is that you could probably make your own version at home, and probably for half the price. If your ordering out I urge you to ask the questions, what brand do you use? Is this homemade on-site? The more we question food producers and the cafes/restaurants to find out what's really in our food, the more likely we are going to be seeing a change from a nutritional point of view. Not because they are just trying to supply the latest food trend.
We make the change with our consumerism. Be that change! Don’t be afraid to give friendly feedback if you think there’s a better product they could be using. This is also a really great opportunity to start thinking more about where exactly your product is coming from. How far is it actually travelling to get to you? Is there another brand made locally, or at least from within the same country as you that you could be supporting?
What I really hope you take away from this post is that it is important to remember that ingredient exclusion doesn't always equate to being healthier.
... And just a little side note for my Australian friends as I touched on almond milk before (I’m afraid I’m out of touch and have no ideas what brands there are in the UK now...) my favourite crap free nut milk brands are as followed:
Rebel Kitchen Dairy Free Milks - The best ‘milk wannabe’ for all those looking to create that perfect coffee. Added bonus: they are a certified B Corporation (meaning they proudly measure up against the highest standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency. Hence being a little more expensive. But given that each little individual almond takes 2 litres of water to grow, I’d rather support a company whose giving back environmentally... Wouldn’t you?)
Nutty Bruce - My weekly go. Affordable, available in most decent supermarkets and the almond and coconut combination is so damn tasty. Also creamy enough to use in homemade curries and soups.
Inside Out Organic Mylks - Again, a bit more expensive but very nice and creamy. They also put a little bit of vanilla bean in there (yum). The cashew one is my personal fav and they also make lovely chai-spiced flavoured milk and cold brew coffees.
Pure Harvest Organic Unsweetened Almond Milk - The only shelf life brand I would purchase. I would usually go for one of the above choices because I’m not a fan of anything that can sit on a shelf for months unharmed. However, in fridge-less situations, this would be my go-to. Unlike all other shelf life brands I’ve found, they only use three simple ingredients. No unnecessary crap.
Lots of people ask me if I make my own almond milk and the answer is no. While I make 90% of things from scratch, almond milk is one of the very few things that I cheat on and just buy. To be perfectly honest the whole process is a real faff and works out way more expensive. I’m a student and try to prioritise where I would rather put that extra cash in my grocery shop. As there are so many great crap-free brands now available I see no issue in buying to one that has already been whipped up for me.
However, if you do feel like making your own allergy-friendly milk, oat milk is a good option. It’s a hell of a lot cheaper and quicker to make than almond milk and you have a lot less waste at the end of it.
To make it: 1 cup of rolled oats, 3 cups of filtered water, a pinch of salt and a teeny bit of vanilla bean powder/extract. Whizz up your Nutribullet/blender and store in a glass jar/bottle. Will last in the fridge 2-3 days.