Got Nutrition? Why Cow’s Milk Still Dominates Plant-Based Alternatives

Milk Comparison illustration

A study analyzing more than 200 plant-based dairy products found that only 12% matched or exceeded the calcium, vitamin D and protein content of cow’s milk. Most of these alternatives, especially those made from wheat, soy, and almonds, are fortified with calcium and vitamin D. However, only 16% of these plant-based options have the same or higher protein levels than cow’s milk. This study highlights the need for clearer labeling and public guidance on nutritional differences.

An analysis of 200+ plant-based milk alternatives found few contain calcium, vitamin D and cow’s milk protein.

More and more people are turning to plant-based milk alternatives, with oat, soy and almond being popular choices. But there’s a question to consider: do these plant-based products offer the same nutritional benefits as cow’s milk? A recent study shows that, in most cases, they don’t.

Cow’s milk has long been a major source of calcium and vitamin D. These nutrients are flagged by the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans as generally under-consumed, putting public health at risk. Additionally, cow’s milk serves as a significant protein contributor to the American diet.

Findings from the Study

To assess how the nutritional content of plant-based milk alternatives compares to cow’s milk, the scientists examined more than 200 plant-based milk alternative products sold in the US in 2023. This was far more products than included in previous studies. Compared to cow’s milk, only 12% of dairy alternatives contained comparable or greater amounts of all three of the nutrients studied: calcium, vitamin D, and protein.

Abigail Johnson, assistant professor and associate director of the University of Minnesota School Public Health Nutrition Coordination Center, presented the findings at NUTRITION 2023, the American Society for Nutrition’s flagship annual meeting.

“Our results provide evidence that many plant-based milk alternatives are not nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk,” said Johnson. “Based on these findings, consumers should look for alternative plant-based milk products that include calcium and vitamin D as their ingredients. They may also want to consider adding other sources of calcium and vitamin D to their diet.”

Dive Deeper into Data

The University of Minnesota’s Nutrition Coordination Center maintains a database of approximately 19,000 foods to assess dietary intake in human studies. “We know from our dietary assessments for nutrition studies that consumers are choosing more plant-based milk alternatives,” Johnson said. “This project aims to increase the number of dairy alternatives available in the Nutrition Coordination Center’s food database.”

The study included nutritional information from nutrition facts labels and ingredient information for 233 plant-based dairy alternatives from 23 different manufacturers. For each product, the researchers applied a nutritional calculation program to estimate the full nutritional information. They then compared the nutritional content of different products in one category — for example, almond milk, oat milk, and soy milk — with each other and with cow’s milk. Compared to dairy milk, only 28 plant-based alternatives had the same or more calcium, vitamin D and protein.

Key Points of the Analysis

Nearly two-thirds of the products included in the study were made from almonds, oats or soy. The researchers found that 170 of the plant-based milk alternatives were fortified with calcium and vitamin D and the levels of fortification tended to be similar to cow’s milk. Specifically, 76% of the oat-based products, 69% of the soy-based, and 66% of the almond-based alternatives were fortified with calcium and vitamin D. The average protein content is 2.0 grams (g) of protein per 240 milliliters (ml) of fluid, with great variability ranging from 0 to 12 g. Only 38 (16%) of the milk alternatives studied had protein levels greater than or equal to the 8 g per 240 ml found in cow’s milk. Soy and nut-based alternatives are more likely to be higher in protein.

“Our findings highlight the need to ensure that consumers are aware that many of the plant-based dairy alternatives on the market today are not nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk,” said Johnson. “Product labeling requirements and dietary guidelines for the public are some approaches that can help in alerting and educating consumers.”

Future Research Directions

Next, the researchers plan to explore other nutrients in plant-based milk alternatives that make them different from cow’s milk. For example, many of these products contain fiber, indicating that they may help meet some nutritional needs that cow’s milk lacks.

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