A new study shows that plant-based drinks are expensive and provide only a small part of the nutritional benefits of cow’s milk.
The study, published in Frontiers in Nutrition, this month, evaluated the nutritional profiles of a group of plant-based beverages, such as soy, oat, coconut, almond or rice drinks, and compared them to standard cow’s milk.
Researchers collected 103 plant products from supermarkets in Palmerston North, New Zealand.
The beverage was found to contain significantly less of the nutrients that were measured, such as calcium and protein, and was significantly more expensive than cow’s milk.
The study was carried out by scientists from the Riddet Institute, of Massey University, in Palmerston North.
The Riddet Institute is a Center of Research Excellence, hosted by Massey University, that focuses on basic and advanced nutritional research.
Plant-based drinks are often marketed as alternatives to ruminant milk such as cow’s milk, and consumers can easily believe they are nutritionally interchangeable, said one of the study’s authors, Reddit Institute professor of nutritional sciences, Warren McNab.
He said the new research showed they were not the same, and in fact it was “nutritiously dangerous” for consumers with high nutritional requirements such as pregnant women and young children to replace cow’s milk with plant-based products.
“Milk as food provides 49% of the world’s calcium. It is one of the most important things about milk.”
The independent study first surveyed the prices and nutritional labels of the products and then analyzed the nutritional content in an accredited external laboratory.
Selected almond, coconut, oats, rice and soy products have been tested for their macronutrient and mineral content.
One researcher noticed that when you store you get a really thick layer of semi-solid material on the bottom and then a watery layer on top. Wonder what happened to the nutrient distribution with sedimentation.”
Further tests were done before and after the products were shaken, and it was found that many nutrients such as protein and calcium remained sediment in plant drinks if the product was not shaken before eating it.
This was not the case for cow’s milk.
The protein content of cow’s milk was in the range of 3.3-3.9 grams per 100 grams, and McNabb said only soy drinks had a similar content to cow’s milk, with all other plant-based drinks containing less than 1.1 grams of protein per 100 ml on average.
Most of the vegetable products were ultra-processed and fortified with calcium and minerals with additives such as sugar, hydrogenated fats and oils, hydrogenated proteins, flavors and thickeners.
Oat and almond drinks contained the equivalent of ½ cup of oats or six almonds in 250 grams of product.
Plant-based drinks have often been promoted as having no added sugar, but McNab said milk also has no added sugar.
“Lactose (which is in milk) is poorly converted into glucose in the body which means the milk is very low in what we usually call sugar.”
He said plant-based drinks contain vegan equivalents of sugar, which is converted into glucose in the body.
That’s why plant-based drinks often have natural sweetness and don’t need added sugar. But it can’t be considered low in sugar.”
McNabb said the argument that alternatives are more environmentally sustainable has also not built up when viewed in light of the amount of product that must be consumed to achieve the same nutritional benefits as conventional milk.
With some plant-based drinks, you may need 18 servings to get the same amount of protein, for example, as one serving of milk.
This comes at a much higher cost to the environment and wallet.
But it wasn’t all bad for the alternatives. McNabb said plant-based drinks provide some nutrients that milk doesn’t, such as fiber.
Our final conclusion was that plant-based drinks and cow’s milk were not nutritionally similar in any way.
“They are completely different foods. If you want to use alternatives, do so, but don’t consume them thinking they are similar food alternatives to cow’s milk.”
This was the first study to analyze the actual content of plant-based milk available in New Zealand.