Plant-based milk alternatives and plant-based waters are of variable nutritional value. The present objective was to assess nutrient density of all plant-based beverages in the US Department of Agriculture Branded Food Products Database and determine whether plant-based milk alternatives met the proposed nutrient standards. Plant-based milk alternatives (n = 1042) were identified as almond, soy, coconut, cashew, other tree nut, flax/hemp, pea, and oat, quinoa, and rice products. Plant-based waters (n = 550) were coconut, aloe, tree, fruit, and plain. Machine searches of ingredient lists identified products with added sugars, salt, vitamins, and minerals. Plant-based milk alternatives were tested for compliance with previously developed nutrient standards. The Nutrient Rich Food Index (NRF5.3), two versions of Nutri-Score, and Choices International were the nutrient density metrics. Plant-based milk alternatives had mean energy density of 49 kcal/100 g, were low in protein (~1.1 g/100 g), often contained added sugars and salt, and tended to be fortified with calcium, vitamin A, vitamin D, and vitamin B12. Only 117 milk alternatives (11.2%) met nutrient standards and only 80 (7.7%) met the more stringent "best of class" standards for ≥2.8 g/100 g protein and <3.1 g/100 g added sugars. The latter were mostly soy milks. Nutri-Score grades varied depending on whether the beverages were treated as beverages or as solid foods, as is currently required. The highest NRF5.3 scores were given to soy, almond, and tree nut milk alternatives. Plant-based waters had low energy density (~23 kcal/100 g), contained added sugars (4.6 g/100 g), and some had added vitamin C. Applying nutrient standards to plant-based milk alternatives can aid new product development, promote more transparent labeling, and inform potential regulatory actions. Guidance on minimum protein content, maximum recommended amounts of fat, added sugars, and sodium, and consistent fortification patterns would be of value to regulatory agencies and to the food industry.
Keywords: Choices International; Nestlé nutrient standards; Nutri-Score; Nutrient Rich Food index; branded food products database; ingredients; milk alternatives; plant-based beverages.