Fermented plant drinks stir up health benefits in dairy alternative market

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In a recent review published in Foods, researchers discuss the production and health benefits of plant-based fermented beverages, which can improve the functional and bioactive profile, nutritional composition, and sensory properties of dairy alternatives.

Study: Plant-based fermented beverages: nutritional composition, sensory properties, and health benefits. Image Credit: Tatjana Baibakova / Shutterstock.comStudy: Plant-based fermented beverages: nutritional composition, sensory properties, and health benefits. Image Credit: Tatjana Baibakova / Shutterstock.com

Increasingly popular dairy substitutes

Plant-based dairy alternatives can be made from seeds, pseudo-cereal, cereal, nuts, and legumes. Beverages made from coconuts, peanuts, corn, rice, and soy have been primarily studied, with soy most often noted.

Soy-based beverages are among the most consumed, with soy and other legume-based beverages having similar protein content to cow milk. However, peanuts, peas, hazelnuts, almonds, coconuts, oats, and pistachios each lend distinctive characteristics to different dairy alternative products.

These beverages have emerged as popular alternatives to dairy milk, particularly for people who are allergic to milk, cannot tolerate lactose, or suffer from hypercholesterolemia. In addition to these health concerns, many have embraced dairy alternatives due to dietary preferences and environmental, ethical, and economic concerns related to animal-derived food products.

Dairy alternatives are produced using water extraction to break down and homogenize plant material. Often, the resulting fluids resemble bovine milk in color because of the particles of plant matter in these oil-in-water emulsions.

In place of milk proteins and phospholipids that act as emulsifiers in dairy milk, plant-based beverages use polysaccharides, proteins, phospholipids, and biosurfactants that can either be naturally occurring or added during the production process.

Dairy alternatives are often low in saturated fats and rich in fiber; however, these beverages have lower levels of vitamins, potassium, magnesium, and zinc as compared to dairy products. Furthermore, dairy alternatives are lower in protein, with some plant compounds like flavonoids and alkaloids potentially leading to an astringent and bitter taste. While dairy alternatives may not contain comparable nutrient levels of calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D, they can be fortified to increase their bioavailability.

Fermenting plant-based beverages

Fermenting plant-based beverages can improve their nutritional composition, thereby enhancing their health benefits. These processes also allow companies to experiment with different sensory characteristics, including textures, flavors, aromas, and tastes.

The fermentation of plant-based beverages can involve alcoholic, lactic acid, or acetic acid-based processes. The microorganisms used during the fermentation of these products can vary. While Streptococcus and Lactobacillus are used for lactic acid fermentation, alcoholic fermentation involves yeast that converts carbohydrates to alcohol and subsequently releases carbon dioxide.

Microorganisms and enzymes break down proteins, carbohydrates, and other complex macromolecules into simpler forms, making them easier to digest and absorb. These biological molecules also remove antinutritional components like condensed tannins, saponins, and phytic acids, thus increasing the bioavailability of various minerals.

The increased bioavailability of these nutrients following fermentation may be attributed to the modification of the bioactive profile of plant-based beverages. For example, in soy-based products, polyphenol- and peptide levels and antioxidant activity increase following fermentation.

Fermentation also increases flavor compound production, thus raising the levels of volatile metabolites and organic acid. Adding fermented fruit pulps to the final product can increase natural sweetness, thereby improving taste and aroma, which makes these beverages more appealing.

Health benefits of fermented beverages

The health effects and benefits of fermented plant-based beverages have been explored through animal models. For example, fermented soy-based beverages have been shown to increase the total antioxidant capacity in the blood serum of rats and reduce oxidative stress. These products may also have anti-aging, anti-hypertension, anti-obesity, and antidiabetic properties and lower serum glucose and total cholesterol levels.

Nevertheless, clinical trials have not established the potential benefits of fermented plant-based beverages for human consumers.

Conclusions

Plant-based beverages are increasingly popular among individuals who cannot consume dairy products for health reasons or seek more sustainable, ethical, and environmentally friendly substitutes.

Fermenting dairy alternatives can improve their nutritional composition, bioavailability, and palatability and reduce their antinutritive properties. This is particularly important, as many plant-based beverages are lower in important micro- and macronutrients than cow and other dairy milk.

Further research is needed to isolate the bioactive compounds that are responsible for their observed health effects. Human clinical trials are also required to determine whether these benefits can be experienced by human consumers. Overall, development processes must explore safe, commercially feasible, and sustainable production methods.

Journal reference:
  • Hidalgo-Fuentes, B., de Jesús-José, E., de J. Cabrera-Hidalgo, A., et al. (2024). Plant-based fermented beverages: nutritional composition, sensory properties, and health benefits. Foods. doi:10.3390/foods13060844
Priyanjana Pramanik

Written by

Priyanjana Pramanik

Priyanjana Pramanik is a writer based in Kolkata, India, with an academic background in Wildlife Biology and economics. She has experience in teaching, science writing, and mangrove ecology. Priyanjana holds Masters in Wildlife Biology and Conservation (National Centre of Biological Sciences, 2022) and Economics (Tufts University, 2018). In between master's degrees, she was a researcher in the field of public health policy, focusing on improving maternal and child health outcomes in South Asia. She is passionate about science communication and enabling biodiversity to thrive alongside people. The fieldwork for her second master's was in the mangrove forests of Eastern India, where she studied the complex relationships between humans, mangrove fauna, and seedling growth.

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