Plant-based milk lags behind on nutrients
In recent years, veganism and vegetarianism have surged in popularity, evolving from fringe movements to mainstream lifestyle choices. This shift is driven by a blend of ethical considerations and growing societal trends. Consumers have become convinced of the potential health benefits of plant-based diets, and there are also concerns about the environmental impact of animal agriculture and ethical reasons for abstaining from animal products
According to a report from The Vegan Society, there’s been a fourfold increase in the number of vegans in the UK from 2014 to 2019. Similarly, the United States witnessed a massive rise in vegan consumers from 1% in 2014 to 6% in 2017
One product that has exploded in popularity over the last several years is plant-based milk alternatives. According to market research firm Mintel, one in three people now consume plant-based milk substitutes, such as soya, oats, and almonds
Now, however, a comprehensive analysis by researchers from the University of Minnesota finds that just 12% of these alternatives could rival the nutritional value of traditional cow’s milk
The study, encompassing 237 plant-based milks from 23 manufacturers, found that most of these products lacked equivalent levels of protein, vitamin D, and calcium – essential nutrients abundantly found in cow’s milk. Of all the alternatives analysed, including almond, cashew, coconut, flax, hazelnut, hemp, oat, pistachio, pea, rice, soy, walnut, and plant blends, just 28 matched or surpassed cow’s milk in terms of calcium, vitamin D, and protein content
Most plant-based milks, such as almond or oat milk, have less calcium, vitamin D, and protein than what is found in cow’s milk, a cornerstone beverage for meeting nutritional needs, according to research from the University of Minnesota.
To make up for it, many plant-based milks are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, but most still lack the same level of protein found in cow’s milk, researchers found. “About half were fortified with vitamin D, two-thirds were fortified with calcium, and nearly 20% had protein levels similar to cow’s milk,” lead study author Abigail Johnson, PhD, RD, says. Johnson is the director of the University of Minnesota Nutrition Coordinating Center, which maintains a database of 19,000 foods for dietary research.
“I’m not seriously concerned about this as it’s easy to get these nutrients from other sources, and cow’s milk certainly isn’t perfect and infallible,” Johnson said. “But if a consumer thinks plant-based milks are a one-to-one substitution for dairy, many of them are not.” Consumers should read product labels and choose those that list calcium and vitamin D as ingredients, as well as consider adding other sources of calcium and vitamin D to their diets, Johnson adds
The research team plans to study plant-based milk alternatives further, such as how the products contain fibre, which cow’s milk does not. Nutrition experts claim that plant-based products have attractive features such as less fat, lower cholesterol, and higher fibre, and also that plant-based milks are more sustainable and cruelty-free when compared to dairy, but it is also essential to ensure that the switch doesn’t compromise the nutritional balance in our diets
‘Most individuals would benefit by increasing intake of dairy in fat-free or low-fat forms, whether from milk (including lactose-free milk), yogurt, and cheese, or from fortified soy beverages or soy yogurt,’ USDA dietary guidelines state. ‘Strategies to increase dairy intake include drinking fat-free or low-fat milk or a fortified soy beverage with meals or incorporating unsweetened fat-free or low-fat yogurt into breakfast or snacks’