Making plant-based ‘milks’ healthier
Although plant-based ‘milks” are positioned as healthier alternatives to cow’s milk, they often fall short of conventional milk when it comes to nutritional quality. The protein level tends to be much lower and of poorer quality, sugar is often added to make them palatable, and the vitamins and minerals that come with cow’s milk, can be limited.
To address this, US researchers have developed a set of nutritional standards to help food manufacturers create plant-based drinks that are nutritionally closer to cow’s milk, to support their positioning as cow’s milk replacements. The researchers hope their recommendations will also be adopted by regulators and standardisation bodies such as CODEX.
The proposed standards set targets for the amount of energy, high-quality protein, saturated fat, added sugar and sodium, as well as calcium, vitamins A, D, B2 and B12, essential nutrients that occur naturally in cow’s milk but are missing from plant-based drinks, unless added.
Nutritional recommendations for plant-based ‘milk’ alternatives:
- Aim for less than 100 calories (418 kilojoules) per 100ml.
- For products designed for children, aim for less than 85 calories (355 kilojoules) per 100ml.
Protein amount and quality
- Aim to provide at least 2.2g of high-quality protein per 100ml, and preferably 2.8g of high-quality protein per 100ml.
- High-quality protein is defined as having a Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score1 (PDCAAS) between 0.95 and 1.0. According to the authors, this can be achieved with soy proteins (PDCAAS 0.91 – 0.95) and using new food technologies to blend together cereal and legume-based proteins (PDCAAS 0.95 – 1.0).
Added sugar content
- Aim for less than 6.2g of added sugar per 100ml, and preferably less than 3.1g per 100ml.
- For products targeting children, aim for less than 5.3g of added sugar per 100ml, and preferably less than 2.7g per 100ml.
Saturated fat amount
- Aim to keep saturated fat below 0.75g per 100ml and in line with the amount of saturated fat in low (1%) fat cow’s milk.
Amount of sodium
- Aim for sodium levels below 120mg per 100ml.
Added vitamins and minerals
- Aim to provide 15% of the daily value for calcium, vitamins A, D, B2 and B12 in a 200ml serve, so levels are comparable to those in cow’s milk.
Some thoughts of our own
The proposed standards provide a much-needed guide for food manufacturers to formulate new products and reformulate existing ones, to improve the nutritional quality of plant-based drinks that are positioned as replacements for cow’s milk.
Although developed with the US in mind, the recommendations can mostly be applied to plant-based ‘milks’ formulated for other markets. Consideration however must be given to the differences in the composition of cow’s milk, population dietary intakes and nutritional needs, as well as in-market regulatory requirements.
Nutritional standards are also needed to improve the nutritional quality of other plant-based product formats such as yoghurt and cheese, as current offerings also fall well short of their cow’s milk equivalents in terms of nutrition.
1 PDCAAS was used as the measure of protein quality to align with US food regulations.
Reference: Drewnowski, A., et al. (2021). Proposed Nutrient Standards for Plant-Based Beverages Intended as Milk Alternatives. Frontiers in Nutrition, 8, 761442. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2021.761442