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Almond yogurt is the most nutrient-dense dairy alternative, according to a new study. Image credit: Stocksy/Getty Images.
  • Plant-based alternatives to dairy products are becoming more readily available to consumers.
  • A​ recent study found that plant-based yogurts may have certain advantages over dairy yogurts, including higher fiber content and less sugar. However, plant-based yogurts had lower amounts of nutrients like protein and calcium.
  • The study indicated that almond-based yogurts had the highest nutrient density based on the Nutrient Rich Foods Index.

Plant-based alternatives to many animal products are growing in popularity, and researchers are still working to understand the nutritional value of plant-based options and how they compare to their animal-based counterparts.

A​ study published in Frontiers in Nutrition examined the nutritional value of several different types of plant-based and dairy yogurt products available in the United States.

The authors found that almond yogurts had the highest nutrient density out of all the examined products based on the index scoring system they used.

The nutritional value of yogurts — both plant-based and dairy options — varies greatly. For this study, researchers wanted to look at key macro- and micronutrients of several plant-based and dairy yogurt options to compare nutritional values.

Study author Prof. Alissa A. Nolden explained to Medical News Today:

“The goals of the research were to identify whether plant-based yogurts that were already on the market in the U.S. are nutritionally equivalent to traditional dairy yogurts as oftentimes, consumers are substituting animal products for alternative options. There should be a greater focus on ensuring the nutritional profile are similar or better to ensure consumers do not become deficient or overconsume different nutrients.”

First, researchers collected data on yogurt products using a source called the Mintel Global New Products Database. Based on specific inclusion and exclusion criteria, researchers included 1,074 dairy-based yogurts and 150 plant-based yogurts in their nutritional analysis.

Researchers used a guidance system called the Nutrient Rich Foods (NRF) index. This index gives foods specific scores based on beneficial nutrients and nutrients people should seek to limit.

Beneficial nutrients include protein, fiber, calcium, and vitamin D. Nutrients to limit include saturated fat, total sugar, and sodium. A higher score indicates higher nutrient density compared to the number of calories.

Researchers found that plant-based yogurt options typically had more fiber, less total sugar, and lower amounts of sodium when compared to dairy yogurts. However, dairy yogurt options typically had more protein, calcium, and potassium than plant-based yogurt options.

Of all the yogurt types studied, almond-yogurt products scored the highest, indicating the highest nutrient density.

Both dairy and plant-based options contained additives of various gums and starches.

Researchers note that plant-based options may need to be fortified to improve nutritional value and fill in key nutrients that plant-based products may lack.

They note that minimizing certain components of dairy-based yogurts, such as saturated fat, while still considering the valuable nutritional benefits like those derived from protein could be considered in product development.

Yogurt is a popular food choice that may offer several health benefits and provide critical nutrients. Some yogurts can provide for protein needs. Yogurts can also contain certain probiotics that may affect the immune response and the balance of healthy microorganisms in the body.

Yogurt can come from dairy sources, but plant-based options are also available. As the authors of the current study note, plant-based yogurt options may be more environmentally sustainable.

As plant-based yogurt products become more available, it is essential to consider their nutritional value and how it compares to dairy options.

Plant-based yogurts may offer similar health benefits, including containing certain probiotics. Registered dietitian, and dietitian director at ModifyHealth, Christine Lothen-Kline, not involved in the study, explained to MNT:

“​The many plant-based alternatives to dairy products have become so prevalent in grocery stores in recent years [and] have been a game changer for vegetarians, particularly vegans, and people with a milk allergy. […] The good news is that most plant-based yogurts also contain a variety of live, active cultures that are beneficial for gut health […] Overall, dairy-free yogurts are also more environmentally friendly in comparison to dairy-based yogurts.”

The researchers who conducted the current study were limited by the scoring system they used and government changes which eliminated certain products from the examination.

They did not have certain nutritional information for some products due to changes the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made to the required information on nutrition labels.

Thus, the study sheds light on some dairy and plant-based yogurt types but other types may vary in nutritional value.

Prof. Nolden noted that “[f]uture studies should examine the full nutrient composition of plant-based ingredients which often need the addition of sugar, salt, and fat to provide the sensory experience typically expected from animal products.”

“Consumers need to be aware that when looking for sustainable plant-based alternatives that the nutritional composition may be different and need to adjust their diet accordingly,” she added.

Similar to other food choices, consumers need to consider individual nutritional needs when choosing yogurt products that work for them.

Lothen-Kline offered the following advice for consumers to keep in mind as they consider the nutritional value of certain yogurt types:

“A good way to determine which options would be best for you is to ask which specific nutrients are most important for you in a yogurt. I would encourage everyone to look for a yogurt that is low in added sugar. If you are a vegan, then a plant-based yogurt fortified with 20% of the recommended daily value for calcium and vitamin D would be important to look for on the label. For someone who is looking for more protein, then a plant-based yogurt made from soy or pea protein milk would make more sense than one made from oats or almonds.”

She added that, “[i]f you are not sure which option is best for you, [you should] consult a registered dietitian or other health care provider for guidance.”