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What are plant-based
foods and drinks?

In the last few years, it’s become commonplace to be offered a choice of what goes in your takeaway coffee: milk, or a plant-based alternative.

Plant-based drinks are made from many different ingredients, including soya, oat, coconut, pea, cashew, hazelnuts, hemp or rice, and there are always new products popping up on the shelves – even drinks made with potatoes.

Plant-based alternatives to milk, cheese and yogurt are made to imitate dairy products in taste and texture. While these products do present a good option for those suffering with allergies or intolerances – or those who, for whatever reason, chose not to have dairy – these drinks are very different to dairy products, nutrition-wise.

What do plant-based
foods and drinks contain?

Nothing is added to plain cow’s milk, and the only thing removed is potentially harmful bacteria during pasteurisation. This is a process of heating the milk to 72 degrees centigrade for 15 seconds, which kills off bacteria and prolongs the shelf life.

Cow’s milk contains lactose, but this is a naturally occurring sugar that doesn’t have the negative impact on our health that added sugar does.

Plant-based drinks, on the other hand, are usually highly processed, with their main ingredient (such as oat or soya) often only making up between 2-3% of the total product content. This mix is then processed and diluted with water and other ingredients. Other added ingredients often include sugar and salt – to help to stabilise the drink and give it a better flavour and texture – as well as stabilisers and emulsifiers, such as gellan gum and locust bean gum, which help to mix or thicken up the liquid, but which have no nutritional benefits.

How are they made?

Like most food and drinks, both dairy and plant-based alternatives go through some level of processing.

Milk gets separated into cream and skim milk and blended back together in different ratios, depending on whether it’s going to be sold as whole, semi-skimmed, 1% or skimmed. Then the milk is pasteurised (which entails quickly heating up the milk, then cooling it back down).

To make yogurt, milk is heated up and then combined with live cultures, which grow and thicken the milk. Cheese is made by adding cultures to the milk so that it starts to ferment, before adding rennet to create curds, then processing the curd. The amount of processing each dairy product undergoes differs depending on the final product.

Some dairy products like cheese have cultures and sometimes flavourings added, and they also contain salt, an essential part of the cheesemaking process. While others – such as yogurts – are often sweetened and can have other ingredients, like fruit or cereal, added for taste and texture. If you’re looking to keep it simple and want a product with minimal added ingredients, you can opt for plain dairy products.

On the other hand, plant-based alternatives generally undergo more processing and contain more ingredients compared with dairy.

For plant-based drinks, the main ingredient must first go through several processes. For almond drinks, for example, the almond must be harvested, cleaned, blanched, heated and ground. The drink then goes through numerous stages, including being heated, and sometimes fortified with nutrients.

Dairy-free alternatives to cheese and yogurt are made from plant-drinks or their derivatives, as well as oils and starches or nuts, and also contain thickeners and other additives. Popular yogurt alternatives include almond and soya, which are usually made from plant-based drinks and are thickened by adding starches or gels before adding plant-based cultures to ferment the product. Once the produce has been fermented, it’s sweetened and flavoured and stabilised with thickeners.

Alternatives to cheese (often called blocs, shreds, or dairy flavoured slices) undergo a number of processing steps to achieve their final product. They rely on vegetable oils that stay solid at room temperature, such as coconut oil, or nuts such as cashews, which can be blended into a paste before being formed, or fermented, and flavoured. Before fermentation, the processing can involve many stages, including heating and cooling, pressing, and more.

Are plant-based alternatives
as nutritious as dairy?

Dairy Nutrition

Dairy products contain many nutrients beneficial for our health. Cow’s milk – whole, semi-skimmed and skimmed – is a great source of calcium, high quality protein, and contains phosphorus, potassium, iodine, and vitamins B2 and B12. We need protein to build and maintain our muscles because we can’t make essential amino acids ourselves. Protein is also important for bone health, and growth and development, particularly for children and teenagers, and for healthy ageing once we’re adults.

Calcium is also essential for our bones and teeth at every stage of life, and it also helps our muscles function properly, contributes to normal blood clotting, and helps us release energy from the food we eat.

B2 helps us release energy from food, while iodine helps support normal brain function, potassium keeps our blood pressure within normal limits and B12 helps support our immune systems. Iodine is particularly important for breastfeeding and pregnant women, as it contributes to the normal growth of children. Currently many women in the UK do not consume enough of this vital nutrient, and foods such as dairy are an easy way for us to stay on top of our daily recommended intake.

Since it’s made with milk, it’s no wonder that yogurt is also a good source of protein, calcium, and a source of potassium and B vitamins, just like milk. Fermented foods – like yogurt – may also contain gut-friendly bacteria.

While plant-based yogurt alternatives do contain some friendly gut bacteria, there is little research yet showing whether the health benefits are comparable to dairy yogurt or other traditional fermented foods.

Get the full rundown on dairy nutrition here. 

Plant Based Nutrition

The nutritional content of plant-based drinks and foods are different to cow’s milk and dairy products, and plant-based alternatives do not contain the same levels of vitamins and minerals as dairy products – especially if unfortified.

While alternatives may contain some natural micronutrients, you won’t get the same health benefits from, say, an almond or coconut drink that you would from eating almonds or a coconut itself.

Most milk alternatives don’t have as much protein as milk, and vegan alternatives to cheese do not contain similar levels of protein or calcium to dairy cheeses. In fact, a recent study into 245 different non-dairy cheese alternatives found that most contained less protein content than their dairy counterparts.

Soya drinks are the only alternative to cow’s milk that contain similar amounts of protein. A 200ml portion of semi skimmed milk contains 7.2g of protein, which is 14% of an adult’s recommended daily intake, while the same amount of soya drink contains around 5/6g of protein.

Plant-based alternatives are often fortified with micronutrients that occur naturally in cow’s milk for this reason, and often add nutrients such as calcium and vitamins B2 and B12. However, they’re not all fortified to the same level. This means that most alternatives don’t contain the full range of vitamins and minerals that dairy does, so it is important to check the label. Many experts have called for these products to contain the same variety and levels of nutrients as milk, but they don’t yet know if added vitamins offer the same health benefits as those that occur naturally in cow’s milk.

Even if a plant-based drink or food is fortified with added nutrients, it may still not be comparable to dairy. This is because the added nutrients in alternatives, such as calcium, may not be as easily absorbed by our bodies as those which occur naturally in dairy – this is what’s known as ‘bioavailability’. So even if fortified to the same levels, our body’s ability to use the nutrients could still differ between the two.

Another common issue is that these added nutrients can collect at the base of cartons or packaging, so they’re not equally distributed throughout the product without vigorous shaking.

Should I consume dairy,
or plant-based alternatives?

It’s great that many of us these days have the luxury of choosing how and what we eat, and to try new foods that cater to our changing tastes, beliefs and values. But we can’t forget that our diets, first and foremost should keep us nourished, healthy and active.

There’s no harm in consuming plant-based alternatives if this feels right for you, but they do not compare nutritionally to dairy. Anyone who cuts out dairy altogether must make sure they’re getting lots of protein, iodine, B vitamins and calcium elsewhere, and carefully plan their diet properly to avoid missing out on vital nutrition.


Still unsure about dairy? Find out more about the most common milk myths and have all your questions on dairy products answered.

Last reviewed: 03/2023
Next review due: 03/2025






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