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  • Alternatives to dairy milk are becoming increasingly popular for people with allergies and intolerances or for those who prefer a dairy-free diet.
  • Consumers, however, may not always be aware of the differences in micronutrient content of plant-based milk alternatives when compared to dairy milk.
  • Researchers have therefore analyzed various plant-based milks and found differences in the mineral content not only by type but also by brand.

Plant-based alternatives to milk are popular for health, ethical, and environmental reasons. Many people may also prefer the taste of plant-based milk alternatives over regular cow’s milk.

Plant-based milks include a range of options like soy, coconut, oat, hemp, rice, quinoa, pea, almond, and other varieties of nuts, but the nutrition profiles often vary among certain brands and types.

Dairy milk is a key source of micronutrients such as phosphorus, selenium, and zinc, so it’s important for consumers to understand the differences in the nutritional content of any plant-based milk alternatives they are consuming.

Previous research has analyzed the nutritional value of plant-based milk alternatives in comparison to cow’s milk. And now, researchers from the Institute of Food Safety and Health (IFSH) have analyzed the nutrition content of various plant-based milk beverages and found variations in mineral content across types and brands.

The results showed that pea-based drinks had the most phosphorus, selenium, and zinc, while soy milk had the most magnesium overall.

The researchers presented their research findings at the fall meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in Chicago.

Dr. Sue Reeves, registered nutritionist and Association for Nutrition fellow, not involved in the new research, told Medical News Today that people may choose plant-based milk alternatives for the following reasons.

  • Allergies and intolerances: Some people are lactose intolerant, meaning they do not produce the lactase enzyme needed to break it down.
  • Veganism:People who follow a vegan or plant-based diet do not consume or use any animal products out of concern for animal welfare.
  • Sustainability: Among other ecological effects, cows contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, so people may choose to go dairy-free for environmental reasons.

Researchers from the IFSH, a consortium made up of the Illinois Institute of Technology and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), analyzed a selection of plant-based dairy alternatives including almond, cashew, coconut, hemp, oat, pea, rice, and soy, all marketed under various trade names.

As part of their analysis, they measured the amount of magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, and selenium in a total of 85 samples, using a technique called inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS). This is an extremely sensitive method for determining the exact amount of a specific element, such as a metal, in a given sample.

They selected these specific micronutrients as there is no requirement to list them on the Nutrition Facts label of food products, yet they are known components of dairy milk.

Using statistical analysis, the researchers found that the mineral content varied significantly. There were differences between different types of plant-based milk alternatives (i.e., soy-based versus almond), but also between brands of the same type of product.

Of all the samples analyzed in the research, only pea- and soy-based drinks had higher levels of magnesium, phosphorus, zinc and selenium when compared to cow’s milk. Pea milk had the highest, with about 50% higher levels of phosphorus, zinc, and selenium.

Ben Redan, PhD, research chemist at the FDA and principal investigator on the research, explained to MNT why it’s important to consider the differences between plant-based milk alternatives.

“As plant-based milk alternative products have been increasing in popularity, it is important for consumers to understand how their consumption can affect their overall intake of essential mineral micronutrients,” he said.

“The mineral micronutrients we measured in these products are known to play a role in many functions in the body, including normal immune system function, proper regulation of blood pressure [and] glucose, and bone health.”

– Ben Redan, PhD, FDA research chemist and principal investigator on the study

Lily Chapman, BSc, MSc, performance coach and sport and exercise nutritionist, not involved in the study, agreed, highlighting to MNT how the nutritional composition of different plant-based milk tends to vary.

“To make this more complicated, they are continuously adding to the plant-based milk range in terms of type of milk, fortifications, and various brands available, which can also affect these nutritional compositions,” Chapman said.

Dr. Redan explained that “our comparisons of target mineral micronutrients are based on a market basket of two to three brands across eight types of plant-based milk alternative products (almond, cashew, coconut, hemp, oat, pea, rice, and soy-based beverages).”

He said the study results indicate that “certain plant-based milk alternatives can be a source of mineral micronutrients, but differences across product types should be taken into account when considering their nutritional value.”

“Pea-based milk alternative products contained, on average, higher amounts of a majority of the measured mineral micronutrients versus soy-based milk alternatives. Either soy- or pea-based milk alternatives contained higher amounts of target mineral micronutrients in comparison to the other six types of plant-based milk alternatives we assessed.”

Ben Redan, PhD, FDA research chemist and principal investigator on the study

Dr. Redan noted that his research focused on assessing target mineral micronutrients in plant-based milk products.

“A limitation is that we did not consider how certain components present in some of these products may reduce the ability of the body to absorb these nutrients (i.e., their bioavailability may be affected),” he said. “Another issue is that consumers with a tree nut or soybean allergy should avoid products containing these allergens.”

Despite the strong nutritional profiles of pea and soy milks, these choices may not be suitable for everyone. For instance, pea-based milk may cause digestion upset, while soy milk may not suitable for some allergies.

While the researchers hope the data about essential minerals will help consumers make informed decisions about plant-based milk alternatives, the intent of the study is to inform rather than advise consumers on one type of plant-based milk over another.

“It is certainly worth checking the labels on plant-based milk alternatives since some are sweetened and contain added sugars, and many are low in protein,” Dr. Reeves said. “Furthermore, plant-based milks can be low in calcium, iodine, and vitamin B12, nutrients that are normally found in cow’s milk, so have a look at the label to see if they are fortified.”

In addition, some plant-based alternatives, such as almond milk, may have a negative impact on the environment. To that end, oat milk has been suggested as the most sustainable plant-based milk alternative.

“Overall, each milk has a variety of pros and cons when looking at their different nutritional properties,” Chapman said.

“In my opinion, I’d opt for the milk that you enjoy most (taste-wise), and what fits into your own individual goals and situation. For example, if you are lactose intolerant, dairy is not for you. Allergic to nuts? Almond milk is a no-go. Ethics is another consideration, with estimates that the global impact of animal agriculture represents 14.5 % of human-induced emissions. With this, it has been found that sustainability and animal welfare are strong motives of advocacy.”

As with any dietary choice, the key to overall health and well-being is to maintain a healthy, balanced diet. Some people may choose to alternate between different plant-based milk alternatives, which could add a variety of micronutrients to their diet.

There’s nothing wrong with switching them up. I personally like oat with my coffee, hazelnut with my oats, and soy with my protein shakes!

Lily Chapman, BSc MSc, performance coach and sport and exercise nutritionist