Why Alpro (and Provamel) are not a healthy choice
Last week Iris hospitals organized the “week of dietetics”. The goal of the campaign was to raise awareness for healthy eating among patients and to help them make better food choices.
The first thing that caught my eye was the line-up of Alpro products on the information table: different sorts of vegetable drinks (from what I could see only the sweetened, non-organic versions), yogurts and desserts, as well as Alpro flyers. It was more than obvious that Alpro was proud sponsor of the event (as later confirmed by the hospital dietitian I talked to). The dieticians had prepared samples of soy yogurt with granola and some home-made raw muesli bars for patients to taste, alongside the vegetable milks. There was also information on the food pyramid.
When I asked one of the (very friendly) dietitians why they promote Alpro, when the product basically consists of water, sugar and additives, the answer was that within a generally balanced food pyramid these products can be part of a healthy diet when consumed in moderation, and are especially useful for people with lactose intolerance (she didn’t mention cholesterol, but I assume that she also likes that the vegetable drinks are cholesterol-free).
I didn’t get into a discussion with her, since there were patients around, but I want to tell YOU in detail why I was really shocked by all of this:
- Lobbying: Private company money should be kept out of public health institutions. That’s true for both the pharma and the food industry.
- Processing: One of the pillars of my work is Real Food, meaning the consumption of fresh, natural, unprocessed (or only processed in a non-industrial way) food that has not been sprayed with pesticides or pumped up with medication. I believe this is where 80% of the action is when it comes to good nutrition and health. Alpro drinks are far from falling into the Real Food category. They only contain between 2% (most products) and 8% (the organic soy version) of the base ingredient, the rest is water, sugar, cheap vegetable oils and additives. They are all sterilized, do not require refrigeration and can be kept for many months. Processed foods (in addition to stress) are the real culprit for high cholesterol.
- Sugar content: Most Alpro products contain added sugar (except for the ones labeled “unsweetened”). One single glass of such a drink (200ml) gives you between 5 and 7g ADDED sugar. Even if that sounds relatively little, it is unnecessary and only adds to the toxic burden your body has to deal with every day. In addition to that, there is the “natural” sugar contained in both – sweetened and unsweetened drinks – especially in those made from grains (rice, oats…). Just like fruit juice, vegetable drinks come without the fiber, so the natural sugar they contain is immediately absorbed and likely to make your blood sugar sky-rocket. This sets you up for blood sugar imbalances, hormonal dysregulation and inflammation.
- Additives: Whether sweetened or unsweetened, from grains or from nuts, all Alpro drinks (except for the organic soy drink version) contain lots of additives, like thickeners, emulsifiers, aromas, stabilizers, synthetic vitamins and minerals (which might not even be bioavailable: for example they contain vitamin D2, when you really need vitamin D3) and also sunflower oil. All of these ingredients are unnecessary and pro-inflammatory. I can only urge you to please read the labels!
- Ethics: Alpro (and also Provamel) is owned by Danone. Danone bought WhiteWaves, a division of Dean Foods (a big player in the factory-dairy industry) in 2016. By buying Alpro or Provamel you thus indirectly support the very industries whose practices probably made you want to switch to veggie drinks in the first place. The monopolization of our food system comes with some very real dangers. Most of our food system is in the hand of only 10 companies. That is not a good thing. You can read more here.
- Base ingredients: Some of the ingredients used as a basis for the Alpro vegetable drinks have their own “issues”. As already mentioned, rice drinks are high glycemic. However, the worst offender is soy Since soy is the one most promoted as a milk alternative (incl. for babies) and since many consumers think they are doing something good for their health and the planet by choosing soy, here’s why soy is NOT a health food, nor a food I would call sustainable:
- Soy is very high in so-called “anti-nutrients”, such as phytic acid or oxalic acid, which can combine with important minerals (such as calcium, magnesium, copper, iron and zinc) and block their absorption in the intestinal tract. This may lead to mineral deficiencies, bone loss, growth issues in kids, and also promote inflammatory processes.
- Soy is also high in enzyme inhibitors. Enzymes are needed to properly break down proteins, carbohydrates and fats, so that the body can absorb them. If those enzymes are inhibited, the food cannot be digested and nutrients cannot be absorbed easily and/or completely.
- Besides gluten and dairy, soy is one of the most reactive foods when it comes to food allergies and intolerances.
- Soy is rich in omega 6 fatty acids. While this sounds healthy, it may further contribute to the already existing imbalance between omega 3 and omega 6. Read more here.
- Soy contains phyto-estrogens, substances that act like estrogens in the body and as such can disrupt the endocrine system in both males and females.
- Those very phyto-estrogens are also “goitrogenic”, meaning they reduce the production of thyroid hormones and as such negatively affect the whole metabolism, incl. energy, weight and digestion, if eaten regularly and/or in big quantities.
- Soy interferes with vitamin D metabolism and increases the need for vitamin D.
- Soy is a highly subsidized product which is produced, processed and sold by big industries. Marketing it as a “health food” has created an adequate demand for the enormous quantities produced. Most of those products are highly processed though.
- The high heat processing to make soy protein denatures fragile proteins and creates some toxic byproducts (nitrosamines, lysinoalanine, MSG).
- Soy production requires large amounts of water and pesticides (if not organic). Most of the soy produced world-wide is GMO (most of that is used to fatten factory-farmed animals though).
In Asia people traditionally use fermented (!) soy such as miso, tempeh, traditionally produced tofu or soy sauce in small quantities as condiments to meat or fish dishes. The fermentation breaks down the antinutrients, enzyme inhibitors and goitrogens to a large extent. They usually do not eat large quantities of unfermented, industrially produced soy yogurt, soy milk, soy “meat” etc.
So what to do if you are indeed lactose or casein intolerant?
- Avoid dairy products: If you are lactose intolerant, there is no other solution than going dairy-free (at least temporarily). Taking lactase or switching to lactose-free milk might alleviate symptoms, but not really address the root issue, which is often linked to poor food quality and inflammation in the gut (lactose-free milk is itself a poor quality, pro-inflammatory food product).
- Heal your gut: Lactose intolerance is often (not always) a sign of some sort of gut issue, usually leaky gut. Switching to lactose-free milk or vegetable drinks might temporarily alleviate symptoms, but doesn’t get to the root of the problem. To the contrary, highly processed, pro-inflammatory substances like sugar, soy, additives or cheap vegetable oils (soy, canola, rapeseed, peanut, corn, sunflower…) might make the problem worse in the long run. While in the process of healing your gut, you might substitute milk with coconut cream (the one used for cooking, thinned with water) or unsweetened, additive-free, ideally home-made milk from nuts and seeds. Coconut oil or ghee also lend themselves for blending into hot drinks, giving you a similar creamy effect as milk.
- Increase food quality: Once your gut is healed, chances are you can tolerate some dairy again. However, this will most likely only be the case for those products made from unheated and/or fermented milk from pastured animals. Raw milk still contains all digestive enzymes, incl. lactase. The casein it contains is not denatured by heat, and might even come in the better tolerated A2 form (if from traditional cow breeds)