The study, carried out by researchers from the Department of Food Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is claimed to be the first ever to have formally compared dairy with plant-based yogurt alternatives based on the products’ nutritional profile. The researchers have also differentiated between full-fat, low-fat and non-fat dairy yogurts in order to obtain greater insight into how plant-based alternatives fare against conventional yogurt. “This profiling provides a holistic approach, taking into consideration multiple nutrients both that are desirable and those that should be limited,” the authors explained in the paper.
The researchers generated a database of 622 flavored and unflavored yogurts, of which 462 were dairy and 160 – plant-based.
When comparing macronutrients, plant-based alternatives were found to contain significantly less sugar than dairy yogurts – on average, plant-based varieties contained 6g per 100g of product, while dairy yogurts had 9.5g of sugar per 100g.
Meanwhile, almond-based yogurts were superior in terms of fiber content compared to dairy yogurts and boasted the highest amount of fiber among the plant-based yogurts. Almond-based yogurt alternatives also had similar protein content to full-fat dairy yogurts, although all other plant-based alternatives lagged behind dairy on protein content.
Coconut-based yogurts contained the least amount of protein but the highest concentration of saturated fat, while almond, cashew and oat-based yogurts were on a par with low- and non-fat dairy yogurts in terms of saturated fat content.
Comparing micronutrients, the study found that coconut yogurt alternatives contained the highest amount of calcium among all plant-based yogurts but still came behind conventional dairy. Coconut alternatives also contained higher levels of sodium than almond, cashew and oat varieties, and there was a higher level of iron in coconut-, almond- and cashew-based alternatives compared to dairy. However, all dairy yogurts contained more potassium and calcium than the plant-based alternatives in the sample.
While the study found almond-based alternatives to have a higher overall nutrient density compared to all other yogurt types, the authors highlighted that plant-based proteins were still inferior to dairy due to the lack of essential amino acids. “To address this limitation, one strategy is to create hybrid or blended products that combine dairy and plant protein,” the authors suggested. “Moreover, there are additional benefits of developing hybrid products, including the positive impact of providing a desirable sensory appeal. Hybrid products may reduce the barriers for reluctant consumers to adopt a more sustainable diet.”
Developing novel hybrid products could also help plant-based manufacturers to formulate more nutritionally similar products to traditional dairy, according to the paper. “Despite the growing popularity of plant-based dairy alternatives, the plant-based yogurt category contains variable nutritional compositions in comparison to dairy yogurt,” the paper reads. “There is an opportunity for the plant-based industry to formulate yogurts that are more nutritionally similar to dairy yogurts.
“We observed that these nutritional differences in plant-based yogurts are partly due to the use of a variety of ingredients, which help to deliver desirable sensory and textural properties.”
The argument that dairy hybrids and blended products could offer the best of both worlds isn’t new - and consumer research that back this up also exists. According to market research carried out by Mintel in 2020 (Dairy and Non-Dairy Drinks, Milk and Cream: Inc Impact of COVID-19 – UK – May 2020), 75% of British consumers who used plant-based alternatives also used conventional milk, while 55% of 16-24 year-olds and 63% of all plant-based drink users in the UK have said they would be interested in trying dairy milk blended with a plant-based alternative.
A comparison of the nutritional profile and nutrient density of commercially available plant-based and dairy yogurts in the United States
Nolden, Alissa, et al
Published: Frontiers in Nutrition, 25 May 2023