Conference Coverage

Plant-based milks lack naturally occurring nutrients


From American Society for Nutrition 2023

Most plant-based milks, such as almond or oat milk, have less calcium, vitamin D, and protein than what is found in cow’s milk, a cornerstone beverage for meeting nutritional needs, according to research from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

To make up for it, many plant-based milks are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, but most still lack the same level of protein found in cow’s milk, researchers found. The analysis included more than 200 plant-based milk alternatives, including those made from almonds, cashews, coconuts, flax, hazelnuts, hemp, oats, pistachios, rice, soy, and walnuts. The findings, which have not been published, were presented at the American Society for Nutrition’s annual conference in Boston.

“About half were fortified with vitamin D, two-thirds were fortified with calcium, and nearly 20% had protein levels similar to cow’s milk,” said lead study author Abigail Johnson, PhD, RD.

Dr. Johnson is the director of the University of Minnesota Nutrition Coordinating Center, which maintains a database of 19,000 foods for dietary research.

“I’m not seriously concerned about this, as it’s easy to get these nutrients from other sources, and cow’s milk certainly isn’t perfect and infallible,” Dr. Johnson said. “But if a consumer thinks plant-based milks are a one-to-one substitution for dairy, many of them are not.”

Consumers should read product labels and choose those that list calcium and vitamin D as ingredients, as well as consider adding other sources of calcium and vitamin D to their diets, Dr. Johnson said in a statement.

The research team plans to study plant-based milk alternatives further, such as how the products contain fiber, which cow’s milk does not. Nutrition experts explained that plant-based products have attractive features such as less fat, lower cholesterol, and higher fiber, in addition to being produced using more environmentally friendly methods, compared with cow’s milk.

Current U.S. dietary guidelines state that most plant-based milks don’t contribute to meeting recommended amounts of dairy nutrients, because their nutritional content is not similar to dairy milk or to fortified soy beverages. As many as 9 in 10 people in the U.S. don’t meet the current recommendations for dairy intake, the USDA says. An estimated 65% of U.S. children drink milk daily, and just 20% of adults drink dairy milk. Many dairy products contain high levels of added sugar, saturated fat, and sodium, the guidelines warn.

“Most individuals would benefit by increasing intake of dairy in fat-free or low-fat forms, whether from milk (including lactose-free milk), yogurt, and cheese, or from fortified soy beverages or soy yogurt,” the guidelines state. “Strategies to increase dairy intake include drinking fat-free or low-fat milk or a fortified soy beverage with meals or incorporating unsweetened fat-free or low-fat yogurt into breakfast or snacks.”

A version of this article first appeared on

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