The University of Minnesota’s Nutrition Coordinating Center maintains a database of approximately 19,000 foods for assessing dietary intake in human research. “We know from our dietary assessments for nutrition studies that consumers are choosing more plant-based milk alternatives,” said Johnson. “This project aimed to increase the number of these milk alternatives available in the Nutrition Coordinating Center’s database of foods.”
The study included nutrition information from nutrition facts labels and ingredient information for 233 plant-based milk alternative products from 23 different manufacturers. For each product, the researchers applied a nutrient calculation program to estimate full nutrient information. They then compared the nutritional content of different products within a category – for example, almond milk, oat milk, and soy milk – to each other and to cow’s milk. Compared to dairy milk, just 28 of the plant-based alternatives had similar or more calcium, vitamin D and protein.
Almost two-thirds of the products included in the study were made from almonds, oats, or soy. The researchers found that 170 of the plant-based milk alternatives were fortified with both calcium and vitamin D and that the level of fortification tended to be similar to dairy milk. Specifically, 76% of the oat-based products, 69% of soy-based, and 66% of almondbased alternatives were fortified with both calcium and vitamin D. The median protein content was 2.0 g of protein per 240 ml of liquid, with a large variability that ranged from 0 to 12 g. Only 38 (16%) of the milk alternatives studied had a protein level greater than or equal to the 8 g per 240 ml found in cow’s milk. Soy- and pea-based alternatives were more likely to have higher protein.
“Our findings point to a need to ensure that consumers are aware that many plant-based milk alternative products in the marketplace today are not nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk,” said Johnson. “Product labelling requirements and dietary guidance to the public are among the approaches that may be helpful in alerting and educating consumers.”
Next, the researchers plan to explore other nutrients in plant-based milk alternatives that make them different from cow’s milk. For example, many of these products contain fibre, suggesting that they may help meet some nutritional needs that cow’s milk doesn’t.