by Vanessa Clarkson, RD RNutr
Soya and other plant-based drinks made from nuts, seeds and grains have been used for centuries in many traditional cultures, but relatively recent commercialisation over the past 50 years has seen their consumption grow exponentially.(1,2)
This growth comes in response to increased consumer demand for alternatives to cow's milk, whether it be clinically indicated such as with lactose intolerance, because of lifestyle choices concerned with reducing the consumption of or eliminating altogether animal origin foods (veganism) or to simply introduce more variety into the diet. There is also increasing consumer and scientific interest in the positive role that plant-based diets can play in improving health outcomes and reducing the environmental footprint of the food supply.
This is an indepth review of the scientific evidence focusing on the contribution made by soya and other plant-based drinks to a varied healthy diet.
|A plant-based dietary pattern does not necessarily exclude all animal origin foods, rather emphasis is placed on the ascendancy of plant foods such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds in the overall diet...…if just 10% of society ate according to a plant-based dietary pattern akin to a Mediterranean-style diet, then savings over 20 years could amount to £5.21 billion.|
- Soya and other plant-based drinks provide many of the nutrients found in cow's milk and can thus contribute positively to overall nutritional intakes.
- In the main, plant-based drinks have energy levels that are comparable to semi-skimmed milk, with low levels of total fats that are predominantly unsaturated.
- With the notable exception of soya, plant-based drinks are typically lower in protein than cow's milk, however this is not an issue for the general adult population in the UK or Ireland, with current protein intakes in excess of requirements.
- Plain soya and other plant-based drinks are readily available as unsweetened or sweetened. Plain sweetened variants provide on average 2.8g sugars per 100ml (range 1.2g-3.8g). Flavoured soya and other plant-based drinks have sugar levels comparable to flavoured cow's milk.
- With the exception of organic variants, the majority of plant-based drinks are fortified with calcium to a level comparable to that found in cow's milk and with a similar bioavailability. Moreover, many are fortified with vitamin D, which further supports calcium absorption. Likewise, with the exception of organic variants, most soya and other plant-based drinks are fortified with vitamin B12.
- Those who completely replace cow's milk with plant-based drinks that are not fortified with iodine should ensure adequate iodine is consumed from other food sources or take a supplement.
- Plant-based diets support better population health outcomes for cardiovascular health, body weight and blood glucose control. Furthermore, all the nutrients needed for optimal bone health are also readily available in plant foods.
- Plant foods in general, make more efficient use of the earth's resources - a key point which should not be overlooked in light of global population growth and climate change.