Newswise — New guidelines released by the Food and Drug Administration can help consumers better understand nutritional difference between plant-based and dairy milks, according to a food science expert.

Some people believe plant-based and dairy milks are nutritionally similar, but that is not thecase, says Melissa Wright, director of the Food Producer Technical Assistant Network at Virginia Tech.

“It’s important for consumers to educate themselves about what food labels tell us about what we are putting into our bodies. The largest nutritional differences are with protein and carbohydrates,” says Wright. “While plant-based beverages might contain as much protein as dairy milk, the key piece of information that consumers don’t always know is that not all protein is equal when it comes to human digestion.”

Wright explains that all sources of protein have a PDCAAS, or protein digestibility-correctedamino acid score. This method evaluates the quality of a protein based on the amino acid requirements for humans and their ability to digest it.

“The major components making up carbohydrates in plant-based milks are fiber and sugar. Dairy milks have no fiber, so all of the carbohydrates come from sugars. The key takeaway here is that almost 100 percent of the sugar in plant-based beverages are added sugars,” says Wright.

“The recent FDA decision to add to the nutrition facts panel makes a distinction between natural sugars (like the lactose in milk) and added sugars (like the cane sugar added to sweetened plant-based milks). Milk sugar (lactose) provides a nutritional benefit to humans that cane sugar does not,” says Wright.

Wright explains that most of the plant-based milk options -- oat, almond, rice, coconut, hemp, cashew, hazelnut, soy, pea, flaxseed, and sesame -- have similar nutrition profiles. “Coconut can have more fat than others, soy has more protein than the rest, sodium content is very consistent among all, oat and hazelnut can have more sugars, oat can have more calories than some.”

“When you look at the list of sources, it’s important to remember that there are many potential allergens represented, including tree nuts, soy and sesame,” says Wright. “Many consumers leave dairy milk because of lactose intolerance, but may find that they are sensitive to the proteins in plant-based products as well. Reading and understanding labels is important for that reason.”

About Wright

Melissa Wright is director of the Food Producer Technical Assistant Network at Virginia Tech, which supports the food entrepreneur by assisting with starting a food business, nutrition label content, food safety analysis, and pertinent food regulations. The program’s goal is to help Virginia’s food-processing industry produce high-quality, safe, and innovative food products. As part of the Virginia Cooperative Extension network in the Department of Food Science and Technology under the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the program provides affordable and valuable assistance to help food entrepreneurs and businesses bring their products to market of food products produced in Virginia and beyond.