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Plant-based drinks don’t measure up to milk’s nutrition or value

Plant-based drinks don’t measure up to milk’s nutrition or value: New research published in peer-reviewed journal Foods has found milk to be the most affordable way to address nutritional gaps in the Australian diet.

The research, co-funded by Dairy Australia, has fed into the development of a Nutrient Rich Food Index (NRF-ai), which ranks foods based on nutritional composition.

All varieties of milk, including flavoured milk, scored better nutritionally on the Index than fortified and unfortified oat beverages.

With many Australians not consuming adequate levels of important nutrients, such as calcium and zinc, the Index has the potential to help Australians make better informed choices for good health.

  • More nutrition for consumer dollar

The Index scores common Australian foods according to their nutrient density and can be used to compare the nutritional value of foods that might be considered substitutes in pursuit of a diet that’s healthier, more affordable, or better for the environment.

Milk, including regular and reduced fat, was found to offer the greatest nutritional value per dollar spent when compared to both fortified and unfortified plant-based beverages.

This makes milk the affordable choice when addressing gaps in essential nutrients often missing in the diets of Australian adults, including calcium, magnesium, vitamin B6, zinc and vitamin A.

  • Dairy a healthier choice

Consumer surveys have suggested that many people opt for plant-based beverages because they believe them to be healthier than dairy2.

The Index, and the peer-reviewed research on which it is based, directly challenge this notion.

Melissa Cameron, Human Health and Nutrition Policy Manager at Dairy Australia, says, “This research shows that consumer food choices matter and that swapping milk for plant-based beverages could leave Australians missing out nutrients that are important for good health and wellbeing.

“All foods vary in their nutrient composition, and nutritional trade-offs need to be considered if consumers are wanting to choose certain foods, or change their diets for whatever reason, whether this be for financial, environmental or health reasons.

“This research provides a nutrient profiling tool specific to Australian’s dietary and nutrition needs, and my hope is that it provides greater guidance for health practitioners and consumers to ensure they know the foods and nutrients essential for good health.”

  • Wholistic approach to sustainability

Dietitian and nutrition scientist, Dr Joanna McMillan, also cautions consumers against swapping certain foods for others which they believe to be more environmentally sustainable without taking a wholistic view.

“Every food has a different nutrient composition and, as this new Index demonstrates, swapping foods can have unintended nutritional consequences and further reduce the intake of under-consumed nutrients.

“More Australians are choosing plant-based diets in an effort to eat more sustainably. However, if milk – and cheese and yoghurt – eating occasions are replaced by less nutrient dense options such as oat beverages and other plant-based products, these nutrients must be made up for elsewhere in the diet. Evidence suggests that doesn’t happen.

“Analysing the environmental impact of individual foods only tells part of the story – sustainability needs to be considered in the context of complete dietary patterns, with sustainable food systems built that are affordable, culturally relevant and designed with the local context in mind.”


Research was co-funded by Dairy Australia and CSIRO. Dairy Australia had no influence over the study design, data collection, interpretation of results, manuscript review, or publishing decisions.

1 Ridoutt, B. (2021). An Alternative Nutrient Rich Food Index (NRF-ai) Incorporating Prevalence of Inadequate and Excessive Nutrient Intake. Foods, 10, 3156. https://doi.org/10.3390/foods10123156

2 Lewers Research. Dairy Australia Trust Tracker 2020. Base: Reasons among those who buy alternative ‘milks’ n=535. Attitudes whole of market n=1260. Weighting: Nationally representative and market weight.

3 Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2015). Australian Health Survey: Usual Nutrient Intakes, 2011-2012.

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