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Most plant-based milks have less protein and calcium than cow's milk

Most plant-based milks have lower amounts of protein than cow’s milk, with nearly a third also lacking calcium and vitamin D compared with the dairy option.

Plant-based milks have previously been shown to be low in four key minerals: phosphorus, magnesium, zinc and selenium.

Now, Abigail Johnson at the University of Minnesota and her colleagues have analysed the nutritional labels of 237 milk alternative products made from almonds, oats, rice and soya beans that are currently available in the US or were until recently.

Read more:

Milk alternatives: Which are good for both you and the planet?

They then compared these milks’ protein, calcium and vitamin D levels to those of cow’s milk, using information from a nutritional database. The findings were presented at Nutrition 2023, the annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition, in Boston, Massachusetts.

The researchers found that just 19 per cent of the plant-based milks matched or exceeded cow’s milk when it came to protein, which is important for muscle growth, energy and digestion.

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On average, the plant-based milks had just 2 grams of protein per 240 millilitres, with a lot of variation between products, while cow’s milk has 8 grams per 240 millilitres, regardless of whether it is skimmed, semi-skimmed or full fat. The plant-based products that matched or exceeded the protein content of cow’s milk tended to be soya-based, says Johnson.

“It’s important to be aware that swapping [cow’s milk] for plant-based milk may not be a one-to-one substitution, even though that might be how you’re using it,” says Johnson. Still, most people get plenty of protein from other sources, such as meat, beans and legumes, she says.

Sixty-nine per cent of the plant-based milks were fortified with calcium and vitamin D, meaning these had nutrients added to them at levels that don’t occur naturally. In these products, the calcium and vitamin D levels matched those in cow’s milk. However, levels were lower in the unfortified alternatives. Both calcium and vitamin D help to strengthen bones, while vitamin D also boosts the immune system.

The findings are important because these nutrients are already underconsumed, says a spokesperson for the US Food and Drug Administration.

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