Nutritional content, protein quantity, protein quality and carbon footprint of plant-based drinks and semi-skimmed milk in the Netherlands and Europe

Public Health Nutr. 2022 Feb 23;25(5):1-35. doi: 10.1017/S1368980022000453. Online ahead of print.


Objective: To compare the nutritional composition of bovine milk and several plant-based drinks with a focus on protein and essential amino acid content and to determine the ratio of essential amino acids to greenhouse gas emission.

Design: Nutritional information on the label was extracted for semi-skimmed milk, soy, oat, almond, coconut and rice drink from the Innova database between January 2017 and March 2020 for the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Italy, and Sweden. Protein and amino acids were measured and carbon footprint was calculated for a selection of Dutch products. Protein quality was determined by calculating the contribution to the WHO essential amino acids requirements.

Setting: The bovine milk and plant-based drinks market in Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Italy, and Sweden.

Participating products: Semi-skimmed bovine milk and soy-, oat-, almond-, coconut- and rice drink.

Results: Nutritional label information was collected for 399 products. Milk naturally contains many micronutrients, e.g. vitamin B2, B12, and calcium. Approximately 50% of the regular plant-based drinks was fortified with calcium, whereas the organic plant-based drinks were mostly unfortified. Protein quantity and quality were highest in milk. Soy drink had the best protein quality to carbon footprint ratio and milk came second.

Conclusions: The nutrition - climate change balance presented in this study, is in line with previous literature, which shows that semi-skimmed bovine milk and fortified soy drink deserve a place in a sustainable diet.

Keywords: Bovine milk; carbon footprint; essential amino acids; nutritional value; plant-based drinks; protein; sustainable diet.