Plant-based yogurts — made from almond, cashew, coconut, oat, soy and other nondairy milks — are knocking traditional cow’s milk yogurts out of shopping carts and off our spoons. Sales rose 20 percent in 2020, nearly seven times faster than dairy yogurt, according to the Plant Based Foods Association. “I don’t think as a dietitian I could have predicted the growth of plant-based yogurts,” says Libby Mills, a Philadelphia registered dietitian-nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). “It’s exciting to have so much variety…. But you do need to be choosy when you’re looking for specific nutrients.”
Alternative yogurts don’t have the same nutritional profile as dairy, says Wesley McWhorter, assistant professor of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences and director of Culinary Nutrition at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and also an AND spokesperson. Fat, sugar and levels of nutrients important for older adults like muscle-nurturing protein and bone-friendly calcium can vary wildly between types and between different brands of the same type, too. For example, “dairy alternatives can have a good amount of protein, but others are essentially water with thickener and a few nuts,” he notes. “Just make sure you look at the label.”
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Whether you’re searching for an alternative yogurt because you’re lactose intolerant, dairy-sensitive, vegan, cutting back on animal products or just curious, here’s how they compare to the traditional stuff. Comparisons are based on a single-serving container or the product’s suggested serving size, which ranged from half to three-quarters of a cup.
Plant-based yogurts come close to (and very occasionally exceed) levels found naturally in cow’s milk yogurt — but only if they’re calcium-fortified. Those that we checked that lacked added calcium had little to none.
The comparison: Cow’s milk yogurt has 15 to 20 percent of the daily value (DV) for calcium. Unfortified plant-based yogurts had 0 to 2 percent of the DV. Fortified types had 10 to 15 percent, with one as high as 20 percent.
Bottom line: Choosing a fortified plant-based yogurt to help meet your daily calcium needs could be a good idea, Mills says. That’s because calcium is best absorbed with food, in small to moderate amounts.
Plant-based yogurts enriched with extra protein from soy, peas or even fava beans — sometimes called “Greek style” or “protein yogurt” — deliver a protein punch on par with regular dairy yogurt, and some came close to the higher levels in Greek dairy yogurt. Among alternative yogurts we checked that did not have added protein, soy milk and almond milk types had the most — generally 6 to 7 grams, while oat, coconut and cashew varieties had less.
The comparison: Regular dairy yogurt: 5 to 8 grams of protein. Greek nonfat plain dairy yogurt: 14 grams. Plant-based yogurts with added soy, pea or fava bean proteins: 3-15 grams. Plant-based yogurts without added protein: less than 1 gram (for one coconut milk type) to 7 grams (for a soy milk type).
Bottom line: “One thing we do know is as we age our protein needs do go up a little bit; that’s going to help us maintain lean body mass,” Mills says, noting that if you’re looking to maximize protein, you’re going to want to choose a soy-based yogurt or a Greek-style yogurt.
Saturated fat and added sugar
Some coconut milk yogurts pack more artery-clogging saturated fat into a single serving than a tablespoon of butter. Almond milk yogurts are also sometimes high in fat, but mostly of the healthier unsaturated kind. And like dairy yogurt, plant types come in both no-sugar-added plain varieties and in flavored options with added fruit and sophisticated flavors such as salted caramel, cold-brewed coffee and blueberry crumble — all of which can mean added sugars.
The comparison: Whole-milk dairy yogurt: 4.5 grams of saturated fat. Low-fat and no-fat dairy yogurt: 3.5 grams and 0 grams. Coconut milk yogurts: 4.5 to 10 grams of saturated fat. Some almond milk yogurt we checked had 11 grams of total fat, mostly unsaturated. Still other types had 0.5 to 2.5 grams of saturated fat. Added sugars range from 0 to 6 grams.
Bottom line: “Not all plant-based yogurts are created equal,” says McWhorter. “There are variances in saturated fat, in added sugars. You have to be honest about whether this is a dessert or a healthy food.” There’s nothing wrong, he adds, with savoring a creamy, higher-fat yogurt with fancy flavorings as a treat.
Live active cultures
The plant-based yogurts we checked all included these beneficial bacteria on the ingredients list, as do good-quality cow’s milk yogurts.
The comparison: Some labels list these probiotic good buys by name, including S. thermopilus, L. bulgaricus, Bifidobacterium lactis and L. acidophilus.
Bottom line: “Active cultures can range from four to six different types of bacteria in the fermentation process … one had up to eight different strains present,” Mills says. “Not all are going to have the same number or the same kind. And it looks like the more varied the probiotics we eat, the healthier for our gut microbiome.”
Sari Harrar is a contributing editor to AARP publications who specializes in health and science.