One third of all adults on the island of Ireland consume plant-based dairy alternatives, of which 10% have said they always choose the non-dairy option, new research by safefood has shown.
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One third of adults consume dairy alternatives – all-island research
Image source: safefood

The number of non-dairy alternatives available in supermarkets has been on the rise in the republic and Northern Ireland, with 71% of these consumers switching to plant-based products at least weekly, research shows.

A total of 20% of the 2,000 participants surveyed as part of safefood’s research said they choose dairy alternatives because they think they are “healthier” or “better” for them.

A recently published report by safefood, an all-island body promoting food safety and nutrition, presents findings from an online audit of over 200 plant-based alternatives to milk, yoghurt and cheese available in supermarkets between May 4 and June 1, 2021.

While safefood’s research has shown that all dairy alternatives have less protein and there is less calcium in non-dairy cheese, 18% and 14% of non-dairy consumers choose plant-based options because they prefer variety, or due to a dairy intolerance respectively.

Plant-based vs dairy

Of all non-dairy options, milk and milk-drink alternatives are most popular as they are being consumed by 84% of all plant-based dairy buyers, followed by yoghurt and cheese alternatives at 36% and 29% respectively, according to safefood.

Over half (51%) of all alternative dairy consumers who responded to the survey agree that plant-based options are better for the environment compared to dairy products.

The online audit identified 201 products, including 105 milk; 58 yoghurt; and 38 cheese alternatives. Analysed products, among others, were described as “oat drink” and “coconut oil alternative to mature cheddar”.

The supermarkets included in the audit were Tesco, SuperValu and Aldi in Ireland; and Tesco, Sainsbury’s and ASDA in Northern Ireland, according to safefood.

Non-dairy milk alternatives include cereal-based products such as oats or rice; legume-based products such as beans or peas; and seed or nut-based products using coconut or almonds.

One third of adults consume dairy alternatives – all-island research 1
Image source: safefood

Cheese alternatives are made using vegetable proteins such as peanut or soybean protein, while non-dairy yoghurt is generally made by fermentation of liquid evaporated from plant materials such as oilseeds or cereals, safefood said.

Protein and calcium

Safefood’s research has shown that dairy alternatives don’t have the same protein content as dairy products, and that non-dairy cheese options contain less calcium.

“Dairy is important because it provides calcium and protein, and other nutrients which are needed for good health, strong bones and teeth. Adults should have three servings each day of milk, yoghurt or cheese, while children should have five servings.

“To make sure an alternative to a dairy product is a healthy equivalent, it’s important to check its nutrition label to [ensure] it’s a good source of protein, is unsweetened and is fortified with calcium,” safefood said.

The average calcium content of surveyed products was 130 milligrams (mg) per 100g in milk alternatives; 183mg per 100g in cheese alternatives; and 125mg per 100g in yoghurt alternatives.

On average, the protein content was 1.1g per 100g in milk alternatives; 1.1mg per 100g in cheese alternatives; and 2.9mg per 100g in yoghurt alternatives. Dairy milk normally has 3-3.5g of protein per 100ml, according to safefood.

Both milk and yoghurt alternatives had more sugar than their dairy equivalents, however plant-based cheese had less sugar. All dairy alternatives surveyed contained several ingredients and were processed in nature, research shows.

ICMSA reaction

Commenting on research by safefood, the president of the Irish Creamery and Milk Suppliers’ Association (ICMSA), Pat McCormack said there are more flexitarians – people who switch between a plant-based and dairy-based diet – than ever before.

“I know several people who have become flexitarian, but after a period of time [have] come back to a permanently dairy-based diet. It is good to see people try things and equally it is very heartening for us in the dairy sector to see people come back.

“People are entitled to make decisions, try alternative products and consume what they wish, but at the same time our reputation as a dairy nation is unmatched globally and we see significant growth,” he said.

One third of adults consume dairy alternatives – all-island research 2 President of the ICMSA, Pat McCormack

Speaking to Agriland, the ICMSA president highlighted the importance of milk as a great source of calcium and necessary vitamins needed for strong bones. He added that the consequences of consuming dairy alternatives may not be known for a long period of time.

McCormack supposes there is a lot of “hidden truth” about dairy alternatives, referring to the amount of water needed to produce many non-dairy products.

The quality rating of domestic dairy products has remained above 99 percent for six consecutive years, experts said at a webinar.

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