Plant-based milk products: what you need to know before making the switch

Over the last decade, the number of people drinking cow’s milk has dropped – with people swapping dairy for plant-based alternatives, such as oat and almond milk. With new types of plant-based milks seemingly emerging every week, this trend is unlikely to stop any time soon. There are a number of reasons why people are making the switch from dairy to plant-based alternatives. For one, many people aren’t able to consume dairy. Not only are around 5% of UK adults lactose intolerant, dairy is also the most common allergen in early childhood. Another major reason that people are switching to plant-based dairy alternatives is because of animal welfare and environmental concerns. Studies show that dairy milk produces more environmental emissions and requires more land and water usage than plant-based dairy alternatives. But despite being marketed as alternatives to dairy, plant-based products may not be exactly the same as dairy. So if you’re thinking of making the switch, here are a few things to be aware of.

Pay attention to nutrients

Cow’s milk is a rich source of many important nutrients, such as protein, calcium, iodine and vitamin B12. But many plant-based dairy alternatives don’t naturally contain the same amount of these nutrients and micronutrients as dairy milk – if any at all. On average, most plant-based alternatives contain almost no protein – while one glass of cow’s milk containing around eight grams of protein. Soya milk is the exception, containing a similar amount of protein per glass as dairy. Protein is essential for healthy growth and development. While everyone needs protein, some groups may need more than others. For example, older adults need it to maintain muscle strength with ageing and children require it for growth. On average, most UK adults get around 15% of their protein intake from dairy products. But if plant-based dairy alternatives are used as like-for-like replacements, this number could be less than 1.8%. So if you do make the switch to plant-based dairy products, soya milk may be your best bet for getting protein. If you use other types of plant-based milk alternatives, it will be important to include other high-protein foods in your diet, such as tofu or eggs, to make sure you’re getting enough. Most plant-based dairy alternatives also don’t naturally contain the same vitamins and minerals that dairy does. As such, many need to have these added during the manufacturing process, which is called “fortification”. It’s worth noting, however, that any plant-based dairy alternatives labelled “organic” will not contain any fortified vitamins and minerals as this would go against regulations. Calcium is a very important micronutrient found in milk. It’s needed for good bone health, particularly in children and adolescents. But my own research has shown that only 57% of milk alternatives, 63% of yogurt alternatives and 28% of cheese alternatives are fortified with calcium. So to ensure you’re getting enough in your diet, check the label and look for products that have been fortified with calcium. Or, focus on eating foods that contain calcium – such as fortified breads and cereals or tinned sardines or salmon. Iodine is another important nutrient, especially for pregnant women and young children as it’s important for brain development. It also helps make thyroid hormones, which are important for both growth and metabolism. Despite milk and dairy products being the main source of dietary iodine, only a small handful of plant-based dairy products are fortified with iodine. Again, it’s important to read the product’s label to see if it’s been fortified with iodine or not. Otherwise, focus on eating foods that contain iodine, such as fish, shellfish or seaweed – or if this is not possible by taking a supplement. Also look out for vitamin B12 in any plant-based dairy alternatives you may buy. This vitamin is essential for the brain, nerves and blood cells. While some plant-based dairy alternatives contain vitamin B12, most don’t, so you’ll need to focus on getting vitamin B12 from other food sources. Meat typically contains the highest levels of vitamin B12, but if you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet you may need to consume yeast extract, fortified breakfast cereals or supplements to make sure you’re getting enough.

Other considerations

Plant-based dairy alternatives aren’t cheap – costing almost three times the price of cow’s milk and other dairy products (such as yoghurt). For a family of two adults and one child, the cost of consuming dairy products is around £310.89 a year – while plant-based alternatives may cost closer to £856.70 a year. Purchasing own-brand products which are fortified may be a cheaper way to avoid dairy while sticking to a budget. But of course, there are many reasons why a person may need to switch to plant-based dairy alternatives – whether that’s due to allergies or environmental concerns. If you’re worried about you or your child getting enough vitamins and minerals in your diet after making the switch to plant-based alternatives, it’s worth consulting with a registered dietitian or doctor. Plant-based milks are generally not recommended for children under two years. After that, fortified soya milk is likely the best alternative as it will contain important vitamins and minerals, as well as high amounts of protein. If you prefer other plant-based milk alternatives, look for one that’s fortified. Avoid rice drinks if you have children under the age of five as they may contain high levels of arsenic. But thanks to increasing interest in plant-based diets, there’s now a wealth of choice when it comes to plant-based dairy alternatives – just make sure you read the label before buying one. Dr Miriam Clegg is Associate Professor in Human Nutrition, University of Reading. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

IFNH Lunchtime seminar 10th June: The role of dietary isothiocyanates in human health and flavour perception

We are pleased to announce our next Lunchtime Seminar showcasing 'The role of dietary isothiocyanates in human health and flavour perception' presented by Dr Luke Bell, Lecturer in Temperate Horticulture, School of Agriculture, Policy & Development. The seminar will take place Friday 10th June at 13.00 – 14.00.  Abstract: Isothiocyanates are produced by the cabbage family of plants and are common in our diets. Recent research has shown that these compounds may have significant benefits for human health and help prevent and treat some chronic diseases. Isothiocyanates can be very bitter or pungent, and many people don't like to eat vegetables like broccoli, which are rich in these health-beneficial compounds. My research has studied salad rocket and how plant and human genetics interact to produce perceptions of flavour. Our bitter taste receptor genotype strongly influences our ability to perceive aromas (not just tastes) found in rocket leaves, and metabolic genotypes may determine the level of health benefit a person receives by consuming these vegetables.

New research funding to boost healthy UK diets

Researchers at the University of Reading will benefit from a share of £14m of grant funding to improve the healthiness of UK diets. Two projects led by Reading will look at increasing fibre in white bread and understanding the benefits of pulse-enhanced foods, thanks to funding from the UKRI’s Transforming UK Food Systems Strategic Priorities Fund Programme.
In addition, researchers at the University of Reading will be co-investigators on two other projects funded by UKRI:
  • Dr Yiorgos Gadanakis was the Reading lead CoI on an application led by Exeter entitled "Transformational blueprint for a blue economy on UK terrestrial farms: integrating sustainable shrimp production in a changing agricultural landscape”
  • Drs David Rose (Agriculture, Policy & Development) and Mike Goodman (Geography and Environmental Sciences) are Co-Is on a project led by the Royal Agricultural University, “Is cultured meat a threat or opportunity for UK farmers?”
Increasing UK Dietary Fibre - The Case for the Great White British Loaf This project will work with the food industry to transform the fibre content of white bread using wheat grown in the UK. This interdisciplinary project brings together a team of researchers based at the University of Reading, the University of Leeds and Rothamsted Research. Although fibre-enhanced “white” breads are currently available in the UK, most are actually made from wholemeal flours of wheat varieties which cannot be grown here due to the climate. They therefore have higher cost and lower consumer acceptability than conventional white bread. This project will use newly developed types of wheat with high fibre in white flour, which can be grown in the UK, to develop new products to increase UK fibre consumption. This is important because 90% of the UK population do not consume enough fibre (an average of 18g/day compared to a recommended intake of 30g/day). The team aim to see high fibre white bread products being taste tested in store during the third year of the project. The white flour also has the potential to be used in other bakery related products such as croissants, naan breads and pizzas, which will be explored by industry stakeholders during the project. Utilising a combined behavioural, food technology and predictive modelling approach, informed by close collaboration with industry, the project will identify what transformation in the UK wheat agri-food chain is needed to deliver high fibre white loaf bread to consumers. The project has been developed in collaboration with a supermarket chain, their associated millers and bakers and a range of industry partners involved in wheat production. Dr Marcus Tindall, Associate Professor of Mathematical Biology at the University of Reading and principle investigator on the project said: “We are very grateful to UKRI for the award of this funding. It provides a real opportunity to increase the daily fibre intake of people across the UK, given the wide consumption of white bread. Our team are excited to be working closely with industry to develop the optimal high fibre white loaf, whilst utilising predictive mathematical modelling to inform the transformations needed within the UK wheat chain to deliver high fibre white bread to consumers." Raising the Pulse The Raising the Pulse (RtP) project is based on the concept that considerable health and environmental benefit would result if we could make it easier for the UK population to eat more UK grown pulses. The pulse best suited to UK growing conditions, the faba bean, is naturally high in fibre, micronutrients and protein, and has among the lowest environmental impact of all crops, as it can 'fix' nitrogen from the atmosphere with no need to use polluting nitrate fertilizers. However, it has been challenging for people to increase their consumption of faba beans, but incorporation of these pulses into familiar looking and tasting, favourably priced and convenient staple foods, such as bread will significantly improve their intake. The Raising the Pulse project addresses the low pulse consumption by bringing together a consortium of experts in environment, agriculture, food, nutrition, health, mathematical modelling and consumer behaviour, who will work with industry, government and civil society to develop feasible routes to market for UK produced foods with added faba beans. Professor Julie Lovegrove, Hugh Sinclair Chair in Human Nutrition at the University of Reading and principle investigator of the Raising the Pulse project said: “The humble faba bean shows great promise to improve the UK diets, being naturally high in nutrients including fibre and micronutrients; as well as being an environmentally beneficial crop due to its nitrogen fixing capabilities. “We are delighted to receive funding from the UKRI for our project Raising the Pulse which aims to overcome the challenges associated with growing and incorporating nutrient-rich faba beans into the UK diet as a food ingredient that can be added to bread and other consumer-friendly products. We will also determine consumer acceptance of these foods and their impact on the environment and human health.” Crucial food research funding for health and natural environment UKRI has injected £14 million funding into crucial research that puts improved health outcomes for people and the natural environment at its core. The funding, which has been awarded to 11 research projects, is the latest investment made by UK Research and Innovation as part of its Transforming UK Food Systems Strategic Priorities Fund (SPF) Programme. To date, the SPF Programme has awarded a total £29 million funding to four large consortia projects, as well as a Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT). Professor Melanie Welham, Executive Chair of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Executive Sponsor of the Transforming UK Food Systems SPF Programme, said: “We have awarded funding to 11 excellent interdisciplinary projects focussing on food systems research. “These projects cover areas such as the healthy consumption of under-utilised food stuffs, novel production systems and assessing whether cultured meat is a threat or an opportunity for UK farmers. “There are also projects seeking to improve health through reformulation or strategic menu design in catered environments. “We are at a very exciting point in the SPF Programme and the portfolio of awards demonstrates the breadth of potential impact these projects can have on UK food systems transformation.” Human and environmental health centre stage Professor Guy Poppy, Programme Director of the Transforming the UK Food Systems SPF Programme, said: “The food system affects all of us every day and plays an essential role in both human health and the health of the planet. “The 11 new projects joining our consortia and CDT means we now have a network of more than 37 UK research organisations across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. “That network is also supported by approximately 200 additional stakeholder organisations, including the private sector colleagues and other government departments and agencies. “The range of projects engaged in the SPF Programme will help to address the complex challenges we face around dietary choice and methods of farming and will help to ensure there is sustainable and healthy food for everyone in the UK. “The excellent research and researchers will also help to establish solutions and frameworks that can be tried and tested across the global food system, with the UK leading the way towards healthier and more sustainable food for all”.