Do Synthetic Vitamins Really Belong in Vegan Milk?

There’s nothing quite like a good dose of synthetic vitamins with a refreshing glass of chocolate almond milk. Really, who doesn’t love a daily serving of Vitamin A palmitate with their granola or protein shake? All sarcasm aside, you know a vitamin or supplement is fishy when it’s synthetically derived from commercial oil. And that is exactly the kind of vitamin being pumped into every carton of your favorite vegan milk*, whether you like it or not.

For any vegetarian, vegan or would-be health nut, milk alternatives and other substitutes for animal-derived products hold a huge market for dietary, lifestyle changes. Despite the information and statistics thrown at you as a child about cow’s milk being the miracle beverage for strong bones and healthy teeth, studies in recent years have shown that dairy is just one of the agriculture industry’s dirty little secrets, with cow’s milk contributing largely to global health issues. Not only can cows suffer awfully whilst being exploited for milk; some studies have also indicated that it isn’t even that beneficial to your health and does not hold as much calcium as your mother led you to believe growing up. 

Most dairy farms throughout our great nations fare more to the side of slaughter-houses than sanctuaries and provide little comfort to their cows. It leaves little wonder as to why, with all of the uproar surrounding the brutal, exploitative practices involving cow milk production, milk alternatives are ushered onto the market to the tune of $1.3 billion in profits each year. The hefty volume of dollars and cents produced from these alternatives comes directly at the expense of milk consumption, which continues to drop each year, perhaps in part due to negative exposure of the industry. But if you thought a glass of coconut or vanilla soy milk was the newly-come cruelty-free messiah of the dairy world, you’d be sorely mistaken.

Palmitate — an alien moniker for many of us — is a scientific term for the esters (chemical compounds) of palmitic acid; it is one of the most common fatty acids found in plants but just so happens to be a major component of, you guessed it, palm oil. Palmitate (especially Vitamin A) is a favored ingredient in many beauty products for its anti-aging effects but can also be found in many household & food items, including milk alternatives. The same can be said for several other palm-oil derivatives, which are most commonly found in topical beauty products and frozen-food products. Though you would have to consume a ridiculous amount of Vitamin A palmitate each day to experience toxic damage, there are still certain side-effects of the synthetic vitamin that may leave you feeling slightly green around the gills: negative skin reactions, poor liver health, cancer and organ-system toxicity, to name a few. But, despite this, it continues to be used in high volumes due to its effectiveness in beauty products, its presence in supplements for certain deficiencies, and its supposed necessary place in milk products to help non-dairy consumers receive the right amount of Vitamin A in their daily diet. And that’s exactly how these companies get away with it.

The National Institutes of Health — a branch of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services — mentions that Vitamin A in both its natural and synthetic form (which they call “provitamin” A) is necessary for our body to function, such as aspects of our vision and cell growth.  Governments in various countries (like the US) may be slow to denounce the presence of such vitamins in our “milk” products, considering most government programs seek to encourage and promote the consumption of what many of us assume are healthy products — whether real dairy or not. This entitles milk alternatives to yet another argument that vitamins — even the synthetic ones — are necessary. The additives in food alternatives is an additional bonus for several other brands and companies seeking to appeal to a vegan crowd, or those lactose intolerant. Earlier in 2015, Starbucks debuted coconut milk on their menu as an alternative to regular dairy milks. Though their coconut milk is certified vegan — something many a Starbucks consumer has happily bought into — independent investigations into this new milk on the popular chain’s menu clearly suggest that it isn’t even real coconut milk. It contains various ingredients such as carrageenan, gellan gum and Vitamin A palmitate. Considering real coconut milk is simply coconut milk and water, the ingredients in Starbucks’ milk alternative seem relatively sketchy. 

Milk alternatives defend their use of synthetic Vitamin A based on the necessity that our bodies require such vitamins in order to function. However, the amount of Vitamin A in one serving of almond milk, for instance, doesn't even equal half of your required daily intake of the vitamin. In fact, one cup of almond milk may account for only up to 20% of your daily required intake of Vitamin A, whilst one sweet potato can provide your body with enough Vitamin A to actually reach over your required daily intake. While such a high level of Vitamin A from vegetables (rather than supplements) isn't harmful, it does show that any milk alternative's argument for the supposed "necessary" presence of synthetic Vitamin A in their beverages is powerless when pitted against natural, pure sources, such as sweet potatoes, carrots, lettuce and more.” I like a good iced-coffee just as much as the next girl, but if getting my required dose of Vitamin A means having to drink a synthetic version, perhaps I’ll just drink a carrot juice instead. Or, make my own palm-oil free milk at home.

Vitamin A | Percentage of Daily Value Per Serving

* 1 Serving = 1 Cup

Removing palm oil derivatives like synthetic Vitamin A palmitate would be the easiest solution, yet doesn’t appear to be an option. When asked why the presence of this synthetic ingredient is “necessary,” both WhiteWave Foods, Earth’s Own and several other “milk” companies skirted around the issue — or simply didn’t respond at all — by explaining why our bodies require Vitamin A. Luckily for me, I take my [real] vitamins and didn’t need the health lesson, but it did lead me to inquire as to why a vegan milk company would be using any palm oil ingredient to begin. A representative from WhiteWave Foods offered that it now sources 100% of all palm oil ingredients used in products according to rules outlined by the RSPO; apparently the company “exceeded its goal to source Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) by 2015, which was established when the company became a RSPO member in 2010.” That’s great! But CSPO happens to be a serious half-truth when it means only the Mass Balance system. The WhiteWave Foods representative admitted to the company’s use of mass balancing, which entails the mixing of traceable palm oil with ordinary conflict palm oil. If I were to hand you a vegan a slice of pizza with 50% animal by-product toppings and 50% vegan toppings, what am I really giving out?

The most impressive aspect of the Vitamin A Palmitate debate may be the notion that conflict palm-oil derivatives in a vegan product are contradictory to the entire premise of a vegan product. Considering there is little to no transparency regarding the sourcing of the palmitate for these milk products, and much of the world’s palm production violates human and animal rights, it begs to question whether our popular, beloved milk alternatives are as vegan as we’d like them to be. But milk alternatives aren’t just for ignorant hipsters and devoted vegans; in 2014, it was reported that almond milk makes up two-thirds of the plant-based milk market, with sales of milk alternatives expected to reach around $1.7 billion by 2016. All of this, despite cows milk still trumping the overall market at 90%. The much-loved almond milk products we see encroaching on shelf-spaces throughout North American supermarkets in recent years indicate that vegans and non-vegans alike are reaching for nutty milk alternatives and by-passing cows milk. With certain measures and definitions laid out by the likes of the RSPO dictating a company’s palm-oil status, the use of conflict ingredients like palmitate is easily convoluted; a company could follow any one of the RSPO’s four measures of sourcing palm oil and still call themselves eco-friendly, despite the mass manipulation of terms like CSPO. One cannot forget the palm-oil derivatives lurking in every carton of delicious chocolate almond milk, regardless of the milk company’s palm-oil status. The presence of Vitamin A palmitate should be alarming not just for vegans but for any consumer considering whether we need the something so artificial coursing through our bodies as it does in every bottle of non-dairy “milk.” Do we really need these synthetic vitamins, or have we simply bought too far into a milky alternative lifestyle? 

* Note: Vitamin A Palmitate appears in cows milk, as well, in anything but whole milk. Skim milk, low-fat milk, non-fat milk,  and low-fat half and half all likely have synthetic Vitamin A derived from palm-oil.