Looking past the label: the nutritionists’ guide to plant-based milk

Plant-based milks have grown in popularity in recent years, driven by a combination of health, environmental and practical concerns. Nutritionists on the Eco-Business podcast, produced in association with Kerry, weigh the pros and cons of non-dairy milk.

Walk into any cafe today, and the barista might ask you if you want oat or soy milk with your latte instead of the usual cow’s milk. Beyond the difference in taste, however, plant-based milks also differ from dairy in terms of nutritional value and carbon footprint.

Research indicates that a majority of Asians are lactose intolerant, so plant-based alternatives are a viable substitute to dairy in the region. But do they provide the same nutritional value as regular dairy milk, and what should consumers look out for on the label?

Kerry - alternative milk speakers

Dr Kalpana Bhaskaran, president of the Singapore Nutrition and Dietetics Association and head of the Glycemic Index Research Unit at Temasek Polytechnic (left) and Patti O’Keefe, registered nutritionist with the Association of Nutrition and Sustainability Lead of Applied Health and Nutrition at Kerry.

Joining the Eco-Business Podcast to chew over the merits of plant-based milk are two nutrition experts. The first is Dr. Kalpana Bhaskaran, president of the Singapore Nutrition and Dietetics Association, and the head of the Glycemic Index Research unit at Temasek Polytechnic. Bhaskaran is also deputy director of industry and partnerships at Temasek Polytechnic and was one of the expert advisors for the establishment of Singapore’s Nutri-Grade system, a mandatory set of measures for labelling and advertising pre-packaged beverages which came into effect in December 2022.

Also offering insights on the podcast is Patti O’Keeffe, registered nutritionist with the Association of Nutrition and Sustainability Lead for Applied Health and Nutrition at taste and nutrition firm Kerry, the sponsor of this podcast.

Tune in as we discuss:

  • The different types and nutritional content of plant-based milks
  • How to incorporate nutrients missing from plant-based milk into consumer diets, especially those of children
  • How consumers can make more informed decisions when buying alternative milk
  • The carbon footprint of dairy and crop-based milk production.

Edited transcript:

What are the differences between different sources of plant-based milk?

Dr Kalpana: Consumers can usually see the difference in their colour, appearance, flavours and textures. There are also nutritional differences. For instance, compared to almond milk, oat milk has a special type of fibre called beta-glucan. It also has no gluten, so it can be consumed by people who want gluten-free milk.

In the case of almond milk, it is rich in vitamin E, whereas rice milk is generally lower in fat and calories. Comparing rice milk with coconut milk, the latter is high in saturated fat and contains lauric acid. It also has a rich and creamy texture and a sweet, nutty flavour. A new product on the market is hemp milk, which is a good source of omega three as well as omega six fatty acids.

Each milk has its own unique composition and consumers can choose to focus on the macronutrients as well as the micronutrients.

How are plant-based milks different from dairy? What’s the main difference in nutritional value between both of these?

Patti: I’ll start with the nutritional value of dairy, which includes a unique blend of nutrients that is high in calcium, phosphorus, iodine, vitamin B2 and vitamin B12. Dairy is also a high quality source of protein because it contains all of the essential amino acids in an easily digestible format.

However, dairy has been given some bad press over the years, probably due to its high levels of saturated fat. Many of us know that we are advised to limit our saturated fat intake, mainly as it’s linked to conditions such as cardiovascular disease.

Dr. Kalpana has mentioned a lot of differences between plant-based milks themselves, but there are also some key differences between plant-based and dairy milk. First is the protein content. Soy milk actually has a high protein content, but if we were to look at something like oat, coconut or rice milk, the protein content is lower in those milks.

Nutrients such as B12 and iodine are also at negligible levels or at non-existent levels in plant-based milks, but these are elements that we need to function healthily in our day-to-day lives. So when consumers buy plant-based milks, it is important that they take a look at that back-of-pack information and see if some of these nutrients have been fortified back in, particularly in terms of the calcium content, B12, iodine, B2 and ingredients like that. Dairy is also a key source of iodine in our diets, due to how it’s been supplemented into the cattle feed. If we were to move away from dairy, there’s actually a big challenge around getting our recommended iodine intake.

One other thing for consumers to be aware of is that milk as an ingredient is pretty tightly regulated. If you see the word milk, in terms of dairy, as an ingredient, formulation, or being sold on the market, then it has to meet certain criteria around its protein content and its milk solids. You can be sure that it’s going to have a certain nutritional quality.

However, these plant-based milks are not as widely regulated. It can be confusing to consumers who assume that they all are equal, and that they’re equal to dairy. But that is actually not the case. We do need to help educate consumers on where those pitfalls around nutrition are and to ensure that they’re choosing a plant-based milk that is fortified with some of those key nutrients.

I always go with the tenets of nutrition: practice balance, moderation and variety. This should be taken into account when choosing milk for children.

Dr. Kalpana Bhaskaran, president of the Singapore Nutrition and Dietetics Association

We’re going to come to that question about what consumers should be looking for on the labels of these plant-based milks in a bit. But before that, there’s a specific group of people we usually recommend milk for: children. How do plant-based milks affect the nutritional intake of children? Are there any benefits to kids drinking plant-based milk instead of dairy?

Dr Kalpana: There are both benefits and maybe potential drawbacks to children drinking plant-based milk. This decision to drink dairy, or plant-based milk depends on the child’s individual needs as well as preferences.

Let’s say we choose plant-based milk as an alternative to dairy for children who are lactose intolerant or have milk allergies. We also need to consider the nutritional shortfall in some plant-based milks. As Patti mentioned, protein is an essential nutrient in dairy. For a child to get an adequate amount of protein, you can opt for soy milk, which has almost equal content as dairy. Having said that, the bioavailability of the protein in soy milk is still not comparable to dairy. But with complementation, I think that can be taken care of.

Plant-based milk can also offer certain nutritional benefits that dairy milk may not. For example, for a child who is more than two years old, you can choose plant-based milk options if you want to go for lower saturated fat and calories. But most of the time, we say that you shouldn’t restrict too much fat for growing children. Fat is an essential nutrient.

Almond milk, meanwhile, provides a good source of vitamin E. So that is something parents can look into when they want sources of vitamin E.

And when you compare the calcium content between dairy and plant-based milk, another factor to consider other than bioavailability is that some of the calcium in plant-based milk is bound to phytates. The phytates in plant-based milk actually are anti-nutrient factors, which might prevent absorption. But phytates may also contain antioxidants, so that can also be looked at in a positive light. And during the processing of plant-based milk, the phytate content actually is removed or decreased.

When it comes to oat milk, the beta-glucan has a cholesterol lowering effect and even a hypoglycemic effect. In the case of rice, it has phytosterols [which help manage cholesterol], while quinoa is a rich source of manganese and phosphorus isoflavones. Phytosterols present in soy are also beneficial for children.

Having said all that, some benefits are seen in plant-based milk, but I always go again with the tenets of nutrition: practice balance, moderation and variety. This should be taken into account when choosing the right type of milk for the children.

What exactly should parents and consumers look out for on the labels of plant-based milks? Is there anything they should avoid or that could negate the benefits I think of plant-based milk?

Patti: I’d actually just like to weigh in just for a moment on the previous question. I agree with everything you just said, Dr. Kalpana. Another key piece for our audience to be aware of is around calcium and bone density. We reach our peak bone density between the age of 25 and 30. So for children in particular, getting enough calcium is really, really important for later years in life to avoid osteoporosis and brittle bones. Everything that Dr Kalpana just mentioned about the bioavailability of calcium in milk as a whole is very important for children. This is just another reinforcement that cow’s milk is very important for children.

Regarding labels on plant-based milks and what to look out for or what to avoid, the first thing to look out for is what we’ve mentioned already is the piece around the fortification. So consumers should look at the back of the pack and check that those essential micronutrients and vitamins are being added back into the plant-based milks, which are inherently missing some of those nutrients, or are very low in them.

For example, calcium would be very important, B12 would be very important. B2 is another one that’s often added back in. So that’d be something that I would definitely advise a consumer to look out for because it’s not standard for all plant-based milks to have these nutrients added back into them.

But not everybody looks at the back of the pack or understands how those nutrients or vitamins are actually labeled. So some companies are using front-of-pack nutrition models to help guide consumers to healthier options.

In Europe, we have the Nutri-Score, which is a graded, front-of-pack, nutritional profile model. It goes from A to E, and makes it easy for a consumer to instantly understand whether this product is healthier or less healthy. And I know you have a version of this in Singapore called the Nutri-Grade, that Dr. Kalpana was an expert advisor to. So it’s fantastic to have these front-of-pack models to really guide consumers.

Of course, these profiling models can’t take into account every single nutrient. They mostly look at the macronutrients and therefore a higher saturated fat content could skew that product towards a more negative score.

But the scoring methodology takes us into account to help guide it to a more positive score. So, definitely for a consumer, if there is a front of pack model that is guiding the consumer – that is a great way to start and a really easy way to understand it.

We do have to consider that they’re not all the same. Different plant-based milks have slightly different environmental impacts.

Patti O’Keefe, Sustainability Lead for Applied Health and Nutrition at Kerry

Research has shown that a majority of Asians are lactose intolerant. Do you see this as a push factor that is turning consumers towards plant-based milk? Also, how does Singapore’s Nutri-Grade help consumers when they’re looking at whether or not they should be buying more of this plant-based milk?

Dr Kalpana: Compared to the other parts of the world, most Asians are lactose intolerant because of a genetic mutation, which happened thousands of years ago. But there are different grades of lactose intolerance. For some people, if they take 50 milligrams of dairy milk, nothing happens. But a full cup of milk could cause digestive disturbances.

This high prevalence, of course, is a push factor that is turning Singaporeans towards plant-based milk. I also feel one of the reasons why it is becoming more popular is because of the environmental impact of dairy farming and animal welfare concerns. Consumers are turning towards plant-based milk as a more sustainable and ethical option.

Plant-based options are of course lactose-free, but as Patty mentioned, we always advise consumers to look at front-of-label packaging. That’s where in Singapore we have come up with the Nutri-Grade labeling system, which ranges from A to D.

We came up with this system by looking at two major nutrients: saturated fat and sugar. High consumption of both these ingredients are strongly linked to chronic diseases, which is the reason why these two nutrients were picked.

Drinks labeled A and B have lower amounts of saturated fat as well as added sugar. So when you look at plant-based milk, which is naturally processed without any added sugars, they will fall within the A and B categories. But given the saturated fat in dairy milk, which is whole milk, it will fall under the D category. And low fat milk may fall, depending on type and how much fat is in it, under the B or C category.

But for consumers, my suggestion is to look at the ingredient list. Some ingredients which are added during the manufacturing process of plant-based milk may contain allergens or ingredients that consumers are sensitive to, such as nuts or gluten. Please check out the allergens.

Also look into fortification. Some brands may contain added calcium or very low amounts of calcium. They may also add vitamin D or vitamin B12 to plant-based milk. So you might get more value for money by purchasing certain brands or types of plant-based milk.

A topic that we’ve hinted at but haven’t addressed directly so far is the carbon footprint of plant-based milk and how that compares to having to milk cows and as a result farm animals. What are the environmental trade-offs between plant-based milk and dairy? Do they actually have a lower carbon footprint?

Patti: While we’ve talked about the nutritional benefits of dairy, it unfortunately has a significantly higher environmental footprint than plant-based milk. It won’t be news to any of the listeners of this podcast that animal-derived products have a higher environmental impact than plant-based foods and beverages. We have to feed and water those animals for a long period of time before we can consume anything that we get from them and when it comes to the cow itself, they emit methane as they are burping – it’s a natural process. There’s also a big issue around land conversion when it comes to dairy. Maybe forests are being cleared just to grow crops to feed cattle, and fertilisers are being used to grow those crops. All of that has an environmental footprint and in the end, it does create a much higher footprint than plant-based milks.

There are methods being introduced to reduce the impact of dairy, such as improving farming methods or adding an enzyme to the cattle feed that will help to reduce the burping of methane. They are also improving the carbon footprint around fertiliser use, but all in all, plant-based milks definitely have a lower environmental impact.

But we do have to consider that they’re not all the same. Different plant-based milks have slightly different environmental impacts.

We could take soy milk, for example. Soy is an efficient crop to grow. It’s leguminous, so that means it can take nitrogen, which is quite a potent greenhouse gas, out of the atmosphere. But then we also have really big issues with deforestation. Across the globe, there are issues with forests being cleared just to produce soy.

Almonds are another example. They require a lot of fresh water to grow and that’s not ideal in water-stressed areas. Rice probably is another one that produces methane, another very potent greenhouse gas. So it’s not the most environmentally-friendly, but if we were to be really broad-brushed about it, dairy does have a higher environmental footprint.

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