New guidelines released by the Food and Drug Administration may help consumers better understand nutritional difference between plant-based and dairy milks, according to a food science expert at Virginia Tech.
Some people believe plant-based and dairy milks are nutritionally similar, but that is not the case, said Melissa Wright, director of the Food Producer Technical Assistant Network.
“It’s important for consumers to educate themselves about what food labels tell us about what we are putting into our bodies. The largest nutritional differences are with protein and carbohydrates,” says Wright. “While plant-based beverages might contain as much protein as dairy milk, the key piece of information that consumers don’t always know is that not all protein is equal when it comes to human digestion.”
Wright said that all sources of protein have a PDCAAS, or protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score. This method evaluates the quality of a protein based on the amino acid requirements for humans and their ability to digest it.
“The major components making up carbohydrates in plant-based milks are fiber and sugar. Dairy milks have no fiber, so all of the carbohydrates come from sugars,” said Wright. “The key takeaway here is that almost 100 percent of the sugar in plant-based beverages are added sugars.
“The recent FDA decision to add to the nutrition facts panel makes a distinction between natural sugars (like the lactose in milk) and added sugars (like the cane sugar added to sweetened plant-based milks). Milk sugar (lactose) provides a nutritional benefit to humans that cane sugar does not.”
Most of the plant-based milk options – oat, almond, rice, coconut, hemp, cashew, hazelnut, soy, pea, flaxseed and sesame – have similar nutrition profiles.
“Coconut can have more fat than others, soy has more protein than the rest, sodium content is very consistent among all, oat and hazelnut can have more sugars, oat can have more calories than some,” Wright said.
“When you look at the list of sources, it’s important to remember that there are many potential allergens represented, including tree nuts, soy and sesame,” said Wright. “Many consumers leave dairy milk because of lactose intolerance, but may find that they are sensitive to the proteins in plant-based products as well. Reading and understanding labels is important for that reason.”
Legislation would permit whole milk in American public school cafeterias again