Plant-Based Milk Replacements: A Nutritional Comparison with Dairy

Key Takeaways:

  • Many plant-based milk alternatives lack essential nutrients such as calcium, vitamin D, and protein typically found in cow’s milk, as per a study by the University of Minnesota.
  • As plant-based milk consumption increases, there’s a need for consumer awareness about potential nutritional deficiencies in these alternatives compared to traditional dairy milk.
  • Fortification of plant-based milks was found in about 170 variants with levels usually aligning with those in dairy milk. This included oat-based, soy-based, and almond-based products.
  • Protein content was significantly varied among the plant-based milks studied, with only 16% having equal to or more protein than cow’s milk. Milks derived from soybeans or peas were more likely to contain more protein.
  • Plant-based milks derived from almonds, oats, or soy were found to have similar or higher levels of calcium, vitamin D, and protein as compared to cow’s milk.

People often select plant-based alternatives such as soy, almond or oat milk in their quest for a healthier, more sustainable diet. However, these substitutes may not always provide the same nutritional value as traditional cow’s milk.

Findings from a comprehensive study involving over 200 plant-based milk variants reveal that many are lacking in essential nutrients such as calcium, vitamin D and protein, prominently present in cow’s milk.

Understanding the Nutritional Disparity

Out of all the plant-based milks examined, merely 12% exhibited equal or greater quantities of these three nutrients, according to a study carried out by the University of Minnesota.

“Numerous plant-based milk substitutes are not nutritionally on par with cow’s milk,” explained Abigail Johnson, the associate director of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health Nutrition Coordinating Center. “Consumers should therefore opt for alternatives that include calcium and vitamin D in their ingredient list, or supplement their diets with other sources for these nutrients.”

The American Dietary Guidelines (2020-2025) identified both calcium and vitamin D as nutrients prone to underconsumption, making them a public health concern.

A Growing Demand for Plant-Based Milk

Consumers’ preference for plant-based milk substitutes is increasing, as discerned from various nutritional studies, Johnson noted. This led to the notion of enhancing the variety of milk alternatives in the Nutrition Coordinating Center’s extensive database of nearly 19,000 foods.

Learnings from the Study

A total of 233 plant-based milk variants from 23 manufacturers was scrutinised in the research. The team engaged a nutrient calculation program to estimate complete nutrient data and subsequently compared the nutritional content of the studied products with that of cow’s milk.

Only 28 plant-based milks were found to possess similar or higher levels of calcium, vitamin D, and protein as cow’s milk. A significant share of these (roughly two-thirds) were derived from almonds, oats, or soy.

Nutrient Fortification in Plant-Based Milks

About 170 studied plant-based milk variants were fortified with both calcium and vitamin D, with fortification levels generally aligning with those in dairy milk. This included 76% of oat-based products, 69% of soy-based milks, and 66% of almond-based variants.

The median protein content was noted at 2 grams per 240 milliliters, though amounts varied greatly from 0 to 12 grams. A scant 16% had a protein content equal to or greater than the 8 grams per 240 milliliters found in cow’s milk. Milks derived from soybeans or peas demonstrated a higher probability of containing more protein.

Mitigating Nutrient Deficiencies in Plant-Based Milks

“Our findings indicate the necessity for consumer awareness about nutritional imbalances in many marketed plant-based milk substitutes as compared to cow’s milk,” Johnson said.

The Plant-Based Foods Association did not comment on this study.

Future research is anticipated to encompass other nutrients found in dairy and plant-based milks, such as fiber. The detailed findings were presented at a meeting of the American Society for Nutrition, and are expected to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

For More Information

For additional information on the nutrient calcium, visit the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s webpage.

Note: While presented at a medical conference, the findings have not yet undergone peer evaluation mandated for publication in a medical journal.

Emma Caplan

Hola from sunny Costa Rica! I’m Emma Caplan, a California native turned Costa Rican resident. With over a decade of writing experience under my belt, I’ve crafted stories, articles, and narratives on a multitude of subjects. But at heart, health and lifestyle topics resonate the most with me.Not just a writer by profession, I'm an athlete by passion. CrossFit challenges and exhilarates me, shaping both my physical stamina and my perspective on life. I love intertwining my firsthand experiences from the box with my pieces, giving readers a unique blend of authenticity and expertise.Married and fully immersed in the pura vida lifestyle, I've found the perfect balance between my personal and professional life in this tropical paradise. Whether you're here for tips, insights, or stories, I’m committed to delivering content that informs, inspires, and perhaps even pushes you to try that one workout you've been hesitating to start.Join me in my journey as I explore the nexus between physical wellbeing and the art of writing. Let's sweat, learn, and grow together!
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