Many plant-based milk alternatives are not nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk, study finds

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More people are swapping traditional cow’s milk for plant-based alternatives made from oats, soy, or almonds, primarily due to health, environmental, and ethical considerations.

But do these plant-based alternatives offer the same nutritional value as cow’s milk? According to a new study, most of them don’t.

Cow’s milk is a significant source of calcium and vitamin D, nutrients that the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans identify as being underconsumed and a public health concern.

Cow’s milk is also a primary source of protein in the American diet.

Plant-Based Milk vs Cow’s Milk

Researchers assessed over 200 plant-based milk alternatives sold in the U.S. in 2023 to compare their nutritional content with that of cow’s milk.

They found that only 12% of these products contained comparable or higher amounts of calcium, vitamin D, and protein – the three nutrients studied.

Abigail Johnson, an assistant professor and associate director at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health Nutrition Coordinating Center, shared these findings at NUTRITION 2023, the annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition.

An Insight into Plant-Based Milk

According to Johnson, consumers should seek plant-based milk products fortified with calcium and vitamin D, and consider adding other sources of these nutrients to their diets.

This is because most plant-based milk alternatives are not nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk.

The study examined 233 plant-based milk alternative products from 23 different manufacturers, using nutrition facts labels and ingredient information.

The researchers applied a nutrient calculation program to estimate full nutrient information, comparing the nutritional content of different products within a category (like almond milk, oat milk, and soy milk) to each other and to cow’s milk.

Fortification of Plant-Based Milk

The study found that two-thirds of the products examined were made from almonds, oats, or soy, and 170 of them were fortified with both calcium and vitamin D at levels similar to cow’s milk.

However, the median protein content in these products was lower than in cow’s milk.

Johnson suggests that product labeling requirements and dietary guidance can play an essential role in educating consumers about the nutritional disparities between cow’s milk and plant-based alternatives.

Future Research

The researchers plan to further study other nutrients in plant-based milk alternatives that differ from those in cow’s milk.

For example, many of these products contain fiber, suggesting they may meet certain nutritional needs that cow’s milk does not.

If you care about nutrition, please read studies about how the Mediterranean diet could protect your brain health, and the best time to take vitamins to prevent heart disease.

For more information about health, please see recent studies about plant nutrients that could help reduce high blood pressure, and these antioxidants could help reduce dementia risk.

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