Report Lists Benefits of Plant-based Milk Products

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Researchers say mineral content can differ between various types of plant-based milk products. AsiaVision/Getty Images
  • A new analysis is detailing the mineral content of plant-based milk alternatives.
  • Among other findings, researchers say pea-based drinks have the most phosphorus, zinc, and selenium.
  • They also note that soy-based products have the highest amounts of magnesium.
  • Experts say consumers should take these ingredients as well as any family allergies when purchasing plant-based milk products.

Do you really know what’s in your plant-based milk alternative?

Even if you check the nutrition label, you may not have all the necessary information to make the healthiest choice for you and your family.

That’s according to a new nutritional analysis on the mineral content in single-base ingredient plant-based milk products such as almond, cashew, coconut, hemp, oat, pea, rice, or soy.

The report was presented today at the American Chemical Society’s annual meeting. It hasn’t been peer-reviewed or published yet.

The central issue that researchers focused on in the study is that essential minerals and components of dairy milk such as magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, and selenium are not required on the nutrition facts label in plant-based milk alternatives.

The analysis included 85 milk alternative samples. Mineral content varied significantly across different plant-based milk product types and between brands.

The key findings reported by the researchers included:

  • pea-based drinks had the most phosphorus, zinc, and selenium
  • soy drinks had the highest amounts of magnesium
  • only pea-based and soy-based drinks had higher levels of the four essential minerals than cow’s milk
  • pea-based drinks contain about 50% higher levels of phosphorus, zinc, and selenium

Benjamin Redan, PhD, a research chemist in the Food and Drug Administration and principal investigator on the project, said these plant-based milk alternatives could be important sources of micronutrients if you’re trying to reach the recommended dietary allowances for them.

The researchers said they hope their data helps consumers make informed dietary decisions about non-dairy plant-based drink products.

“Just as there is wide variability in nutrient content in many food sources, it appears the same may be true for non-dairy plant-based milk,” says Lon Ben-Asher, MS, RD, LD/N, a nutritionist at Pritikin Longevity Center in Florida. “It is reasonable to believe that plant-based milk such as legumes, pea, and soy have more mineral content than others due to its vast array of nutritional value.”

But believing is different from knowing for certain.

“Where and how these products are sourced are key to identifying discrepancies in nutrients and breakdown based on mineral soil content,” Ben-Asher told Healthline.

“Ultimately, there should be standardization in labeling regulations that every manufacturer must abide by to reduce inequities and having all products on the same level playing field, this allows consumers to make the right decision for themselves and feel confident in their choice,” he said.

Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, a plant-based dietitian in Stamford, Connecticut, and owner of “Plant Based with Amy,” told Healthline she’s not surprised plant-based milk has more nutrients than we previously thought since the ingredients that these milk products are made from — such as soy — boast a wide array of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients.

Amy Bragagnini, MS, RD, CSO, an oncology nutrition specialist at Trinity Health Lacks Cancer Center in Michigan and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told Healthline that the topic of switching from dairy to milk alternatives comes up often in her line of work.

She said clients tell her they choose milk alternatives for a number of reasons, including their concern for the environment, issues with lactose intolerance, or their preference for the taste/flavor of non-milk alternatives.

Making the right choice is ultimately about individual nutrition needs.

So, in addition to the above recommendations, Bragagnini says to consider the following key differences when shopping for plant-based milk.

Soy milk

Soy milk contains all the essential amino acids, which is similar to dairy milk. It is also cholesterol-free and low in saturated fat.

Soy is also a common allergen and is not tolerated by everyone equally.

Almond milk

Almond milk is lower in calories than dairy milk, which may be preferred in adults trying to lose weight.

However, this is not a good alternative if there are nut allergies present.

Cashew milk

Cashew milk has a creamy taste, which may be preferred over almond milk.

It is also high in vitamin E, lower in calories, and fits well into a vegan diet. But, cashew milk has a low protein content, so it may not be helpful to meet one’s overall protein needs.

Rice milk

Rice milk is a good option if there are allergies to dairy, nuts, or soy products.

However, rice milk contains a higher carbohydrate and calorie content, so may not be appropriate for someone following a calorie-controlled diet.

Gorin says when it comes to choosing the right plant-based milk for you and your family, she suggests looking at the nutrition facts panel and the ingredient list.

“For an everyday milk, you’ll want to choose one that does not contain any added sugar,” she says.

Bragagnini offers the same suggestion: “When choosing one of these products, try to opt for the non-sweetened version, as it is important to lower intake of products with a lot of added sugar.”

Ben-Asher agrees, adding it’s also important to choose the option low in sodium and low in unhealthy fats.

“I also like opting for one that is a good source of protein, meaning it contains at least 5 grams of protein per serving,” says Gorin.

Ben-Asher offers the following recommendations for choosing the healthiest plant-based milk:

  • 1:1 of Sodium (mg): Kcal/serving – meaning sodium is less than or equal to Kcal
  • No added sugars/sweeteners within the first 3 to 5 ingredients
  • No added sources of saturated fats/dietary cholesterol (ie., no tropical oils, especially such as palm, palm kernel, or coconut oil; look for products that don’t contain sunflower/safflower oils, corn oil, vegetable oils)

“Milk alternatives may not be appropriate for children during the first two years of their lives,” says Bragagnini.

“At this young age, children require adequate calories, iron, and protein,” she notes.

In such cases, breast milk or formula are generally recommended over any milk alternative.

“If a child struggles with intolerance to lactose from milk, it is reasonable to experiment with the various alternatives but important to realize the difference between them,” Bragagnini said.

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