Analysis of Milk Alternatives Finds Cow’s Milk Contains Higher Levels of Key Nutrients

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Study notes that consumers should look for plant-based milk alternative products that list calcium and vitamin D as ingredients.

An analysis by the American Society of Nutrition of more than 200 plant-based milk alternatives found that few contained the calcium, vitamin D, and protein found in cow’s milk.

Image Credit: alex9500 | stock.adobe.com

Image Credit: alex9500 | stock.adobe.com

Cow’s milk is a source of calcium and vitamin D, both of which have been identified as nutrients of public health concern for underconsumption. It is also a significant source of protein in the American diet. However, growing numbers of people are drinking milk made from plant-based alternatives, such as oats, soy, or almonds.

To assess the nutritional content of plant-based alternatives compared with cow’s milk, investigators examined more than 200 plant-based milk alternative products being sold in the United States. Importantly, this was many more products than were included in previous studies.

The study included nutrition information from facts labels and ingredient information for 233 plant-based milk alternative products from 23 different manufacturers. For each product, investigators applied a nutrient calculation program to estimate full nutrient information. They then compared the nutritional content of different products within a category—for example, almost milk, oat milk, and soy milk—to each other and to cow’s milk.

According to the study, compared to cow’s milk, just 12% of the milk alternative products contained comparable or greater amounts of all 3 nutrients studied: calcium, vitamin D, and protein.

“We know from our dietary assessments for nutrition studies that consumers are choosing more plant-based milk alternatives,” said Abigail Johnson, PhD, RD, assistant professor and associate director of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health Nutrition Coordinating Center (NCC), in a press release.

The NCC maintains a database of approximately 19,000 foods for assessing dietary intake in human research, and Johnson said their study aimed to increase the number of milk alternatives available in the database.

Approximately two-thirds of the products included in the study were made from almonds, oats, or soy. The study found that 170 of the plant-based milk alternatives were fortified with both calcium and vitamin D and noted that the level of fortification tended to be similar to dairy milk. Specifically, 76% of the oat-based products, 69% of soy-based products, and 66% of almond-based products were fortified with both calcium and vitamin D.

The median protein content was 2 g of protein per 240 ml of liquid, with a large variability ranging from 0 g to 12 g. Only 16% of the milk alternatives in the study 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,” Johnson said in the press release. “Product labeling requirements and dietary guidance to the public are among the approaches that may be helpful in alerting and educating consumers.”

The researchers plan to also explore other nutrients in plant-based milk alternatives. For example, many of these products contain fiber, suggesting that they may help to meet some nutritional needs that cow’s milk does not.

“Our results provide evidence that many plant-based milk alternatives are not nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk,” Johnson said in the press release. “Based on these findings, consumers should look for plant-based milk alternative products that list calcium and vitamin D as ingredients. They may also want to consider adding other sources of calcium and vitamin D to their diets.”

Reference

Nutritional content of most milk alternatives doesn’t measure up to cow’s milk. News release. EurekAlert. July 24, 2023. Accessed July 27, 2023. https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/995517

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