Milk in EU schools: Do fortified plant drinks have place on the menu?

By Teodora Lyubomirova

- Last updated on GMT

GerryImages/Johnny Greig
GerryImages/Johnny Greig

Related tags Nutrition Milk dairy-free vegan Amino acid Fortified food European union Eu European commission

The debate over the nutritional value of conventional milk and plant-based alternatives has been given fresh impetus

A proposal to include calcium-fortified plant-based milks on EU school menus has stirred the debate on the health benefits of regular milk and plant alternatives.

Non-profit organization proVeg International is advocating the inclusion of fortified plant drinks EU school menus, arguing that the move would promote choice, protect the planet, and address animal welfare concerns. The NGO is behind a petition​, which has been backed by key players from the dairy alternatives sector, urging the European Commission (EC) to act on the matter.

The EC is currently reviewing the European school fruit, vegetables and milk scheme, which aims to promote the benefits of healthy eating to children and encourage them to increase their consumption of fruit, vegetables and milk.

“Globally, about 68% of people are lactose intolerant,”​ proVeg stated. “Whilst the school milk scheme already provides lactose-free cow’s milk, it is important to provide a greater choice at lunchtime for those who are lactose intolerant and want to drink plant milk. Additionally, cow’s milk allergy is the most common form of food allergy in children. Plant-based milks offer a nutritious alternative for people with these health issues.”

Industry voices

The European Dairy Association (EDA) has expressed its concern over the nutritional benefits of plant-based milks.

A spokesperson for the European Dairy Association told DairyReporter: “If the EU school milk scheme subsidy were to include these drinks, consumers can believe that milk and plant-based beverages (PBBs) are nutritionally equivalent - which they, in the reality, are not.

“Milk and PBBs differ at the so-called food matrix level. The milk matrix is a naturally nutrient-rich package - for example, calcium in milk is an integral part of the milk matrix and it actively interacts with other milk nutrients to create unique biological interactions inside the body. PBBs do not contain natural calcium; it is added artificially.”

The body also highlighted the higher content of free sugars in some of the dairy-free alternatives, but proVeg responded to this by pointing to the availability of unsweetened varieties. "While some plant-based milks contain a similar or higher amount of sugar than cow’s milk - either naturally occurring or added during production - many plant-based milks are available in unsweetened or minimally sweetened varieties,"​ a proVeg spokesperson said. "Unsweetened soy, pea and almond milks for instance contain only a very small amount of naturally occurring sugar (0-0.9 g per 100 g), while most sweetened almond, pea and soy milks contain half the amount of sugar that is in dairy milk (about 2 g added sucrose vs. 4 g lactose in dairy milk). This means there are plentiful plant-based milk options which contain less sugar than cow’s milk and have a similar or lower glycaemic index.

EDA highlighted that animal-sourced proteins have a higher biological value than plant-sourced proteins, stating: “Plant proteins…often do not contain the right proportions or sometimes even lack certain essential amino acids needed by humans. The correct combination and often larger amounts of different plant protein sources are thus needed to fulfil daily needs.”

Defending the nutrition values of dairy-free alternatives, proVeg countered: "Most plant-based milks are rich in unsaturated fatty acids, which are preferable for heart health. Soya contains low levels of saturated fatty acids and high amounts of unsaturated fatty acids. Walnut milk, in particular, contains high amounts of mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids and, like hemp, pea, and flax milk, it is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. Also, plant-based milks can be rich in nutrients. In particular, soya milk naturally contains the same amount of protein as cow’s milk, with about 3 g per 100 ml. Due to the fact that many manufacturers fortify soya milk with calcium and other vitamins, such as B12, B2 and D, nutrition experts state that it can be used as a nutritionally adequate alternative to cow’s milk (Mäkinen O. E., Wanhalinna V., Zannini E. et al. (2016): Foods for Special Dietary Needs: Non-dairy Plant-based Milk Substitutes and Fermented Dairy-type Products. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 56, p.339–349).

The importance of the correct nutrient intake was echoed by the British Nutrition Foundation’s nutrition manger, Dr Annette Creedon, who told this publication: “The nutrient content of plant-based beverages varies depending on their source and whether they have been fortified. Plant-based beverages do not naturally contain the same balance of protein, vitamins and minerals as cow’s milk, so it is important to consider plant-based beverages that have been fortified. In the UK, most non-organic plant-based beverages are fortified with calcium and vitamins B12 and B2 so that they have levels which are similar to dairy products - although not all plant-based beverages are fortified with iodine, which is important for cognitive function and healthy growth and development in children.”

Taking a balanced view, Dr Creedon said it was key that religious, cultural and personal preferences were considered alongside dietary needs when it came to school food provision, adding: “As milk and dairy foods are important sources of protein, calcium, B vitamins and iodine for children, it is important for children who can’t, or choose not to consume dairy foods, that alternatives are fortified with calcium and ideally, with other vitamins and minerals.

“There has been increasing interest in plant-based diets for animal welfare, ethical and environmental or sustainability reasons. By changing the types of foods we eat and how often we eat them, it is possible to ease the pressures on the global food system. It is generally agreed that meat and dairy products are associated with more greenhouse gas emissions than other foods…However, this does not mean that we need to remove meat, dairy, or other animal foods from our diets completely, but we need to look at ways we could eat a wider variety of foods that provide protein.”

Last edited on July 27 2022 at 09:11 BST to include proVeg's response.

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