Milk by Valio and Pirkka. In Citymarket, Jyväskylä. Photo: Tiia Monto

Science and technology

The growing popularity of plant-based milk alternatives like oat, soy, and almond milk has sparked interest among health-conscious consumers seeking dairy-free options. However, a recent comprehensive study raises questions about whether these alternatives can match the nutritional benefits of traditional cow's milk.

Cow's milk is known for being a rich source of calcium, vitamin D, and protein, all of which are crucial nutrients for maintaining a healthy diet.

In light of the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which highlight calcium and vitamin D as nutrients of public health concern for underconsumption, researchers decided to examine over 200 plant-based milk alternative products available in the U.S. in 2023 to compare their nutritional content to that of cow's milk.

The study, presented by Abigail Johnson, assistant professor and associate director of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health Nutrition Coordinating Center at NUTRITION 2023, found that only 12% of the plant-based milk alternative products offered comparable or higher amounts of all three essential nutrients: calcium, vitamin D, and protein.

The majority of the products analyzed were made from almonds, oats, or soy, and while 170 of them were fortified with both calcium and vitamin D, only 28 of them showed similar or greater levels of these nutrients compared to cow's milk. The median protein content was 2.0 grams per 240 milliliters of liquid, but only 16% of the milk alternatives had protein levels equal to or greater than cow's milk, which contains 8 grams per 240 ml.

The study's findings highlight the need for consumer awareness about the potential nutritional disparities between plant-based milk alternatives and cow's milk. Product labeling requirements and clear dietary guidance to the public could play a role in educating consumers on the differences and making informed choices.

While plant-based milk alternatives offer unique benefits such as fiber content, researchers aim to further explore other nutrients in these products that set them apart from cow's milk. Understanding the distinct nutritional profiles of these alternatives will help consumers make better-informed decisions about incorporating them into their diets.

As the trend towards plant-based diets continues, it's crucial for consumers to be well-informed about the nutritional aspects of the products they choose, ensuring that they meet their dietary needs and preferences effectively.