How nutritious are plant-based dairy products?

A recent study published in Nutrients evaluates the nutritional profiles of plant-based dairy alternatives and found satisfactory macronutrient composition despite lower protein levels.

Study: A Comprehensive Analysis of the Nutritional Composition of Plant-Based Drinks and Yogurt Alternatives in Europe. Image Credit: Oksana Mizina / Shutterstock.com

Background

The current human food system has many negative impacts on human health, planetary health, and animal well-being. Some of the concerns associated with the food system include the risk of zoonotic diseases, global warming, land use change, loss of biodiversity, and excessive agricultural usage of freshwater.

The development of a sustainable food system by shifting from animal- to plant-based dietary habits has become the primary focus of the international community to reduce the negative impact of a carnivorous diet on the environment.

Plant-based dairy alternatives, including plant-based drinks and yogurt products, are gaining popularity as more sustainable dairy options. Plant-based dairy alternatives are based on various plant ingredients, including legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds. National food-based dietary guidelines have started including unflavored and fortified soy-based dairy alternatives alongside dairy products.

In the current study, scientists compare the nutritional composition of currently available plant-based dairy alternatives with their dairy counterparts throughout Europe.

Study design

The study included three types of plant-based dairy alternatives currently available in Europe, including plant-based drinks, plant-based yogurt alternatives, and Greek-style plant-based yogurt alternatives that have a higher protein content and thicker consistency than conventional yogurt products.

The nutritional composition of branded items was collected from the manufacturers’ websites. Supermarket websites were checked for private retailer labels.

The nutritional database Open Food Facts was used when primary website-derived information was not adequate. The official national food databases were used to assess the nutritional composition of dairy milk and yogurt.

Different sources of plant-based dairy products

A total of 27 brands from 30 European countries, as well as 16 private labels from seven European countries, were included in the analysis. The nutritional analysis was conducted on a total of 249 plant-based drinks, 52 plant-based yogurt alternatives, and eight Greek-style plant-based yogurt alternatives.

Most plant-based dairy alternatives were composed of a single ingredient base, including soy, oat, almond, coconut, or rice. About 13% of plant-based drinks were labeled as “other,” which included both mixed and single ingredient bases. In addition, 38% of plant-based drinks and 25% of plant-based yogurt alternatives were categorized as “organic.”

Macronutrient composition

In terms of energy content, the highest values were obtained from rice, oat, and “other” plant-based drinks. In contrast, almond and coconut plant-based drinks exhibited the lowest energy content.

A significant variation in energy content was observed between plant-based yogurts depending on the ingredient bases. A significantly higher energy content was observed in coconut-based yogurts as compared to soy-based and dairy yogurts. Both Greek-style plant-based, and dairy yogurts had similar energy profiles.

The lowest fat content was observed in rice-based drinks. Soy-based drinks had significantly higher fat content than almond, oat, rice, and dairy drinks.

Similarly, coconut-based yogurt had higher fat content than soy, oat, and dairy yogurts. Both Greek-style plant-based, and dairy yogurts had similar fat content.

All plant-based drinks, except those with coconut, had saturated fat content lower than low-fat dairy milks. A similar trend was observed for plant-based and Greek-style plant-based yogurts.

Only soy-based drinks and yogurts had protein content comparable to dairy products. All Greek-style plant-based yogurts, except for four items with soy, had lower protein content than dairy yogurts.

All plant-based drinks, except rice-based drinks, had lower sugar content than dairy milk. Except for soy-based yogurts, which had lower sugar content, all other plant-based yogurts had comparable sugar content as dairy yogurts. Both Greek-style plant-based and dairy yogurts had similar sugar content.

Regarding fiber content, five plant-based drinks containing soy, almond, pistachio, oat, and oat with hazelnut, as well as two plant-based yogurts consisting of coconut and soy, had satisfactory fiber content, which was equivalent to 16-24% of recommended intakes. All other plant-based dairy alternatives were low in fiber.

Micronutrient composition

Micronutrient fortification was observed in most non-organic plant-based dairy alternatives, with calcium being the most commonly fortified micronutrient. Organic plant-based dairy alternatives lacked micronutrient fortification because of legal restrictions.

Among non-organic plant-based dairy alternatives, 76% were fortified with calcium, 66% with vitamin D, and 60% with vitamin B12. Vitamin B2, iodine, and vitamin A fortification was observed in approximately 50%, 11%, and 6% of plant-based dairy alternatives, respectively. Overall, micronutrient fortification was less commonly observed for plant-based yogurts as compared to that for plant-based drinks.

Study significance

Plant-based dairy alternatives have favorable nutritional profiles despite lower protein content.

Based on the study findings, the scientists recommend including fortified plant-based dairy alternatives in food-based dietary guidelines as more environmentally sustainable food options for a healthy population.  Increased fortification with vital dairy-related micronutrients would also effectively improve the nutritional quality of plant-based dairy alternatives.

Journal reference:
Dr. Sanchari Sinha Dutta

Written by

Dr. Sanchari Sinha Dutta

Dr. Sanchari Sinha Dutta is a science communicator who believes in spreading the power of science in every corner of the world. She has a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degree and a Master's of Science (M.Sc.) in biology and human physiology. Following her Master's degree, Sanchari went on to study a Ph.D. in human physiology. She has authored more than 10 original research articles, all of which have been published in world renowned international journals.

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