Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Plant-based milk alternatives in the USDA Branded Food Products Database would benefit from nutrient density standards


Many plant-based beverages (PBBs) in the US Department of Agriculture Branded Food Products Database serve as milk alternatives or replacements. Their collective nutrient content and fortification patterns need to be evaluated more fully. Listed ingredients for 641 PBBs were machine-searched for added vitamins, minerals, sugar and salt. The Nutrient Rich Food index NRF5.3 measured nutrient density. Except for soy milks, there was little consistency in nutrient density and micronutrient content across and within PBB product types. Industry-wide voluntary nutrient standards are one mechanism to bring more consistency to the expanding PBB category.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type



Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Fig. 1: Nutrient content of individual PBBs within a category.

Data availability

The USDA BFPDB is publicly available online at FoodData Central.

Code availability

The SPSS code for calculating the NRF score is in the public domain and can be provided on request.


  1. Sexton, A. E., Garnett, T. & Lorimer, J. Framing the future of food: the contested promises of alternative proteins. Environ. Plan. E Nat. Space 2, 47–72 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. McClements, D. J., Newman, E. & McClements, I. F. Plant-based milks: a review of the science underpinning their design, fabrication, and performance. Compr. Rev. Food Sci. Food Saf. 18, 2047–2067 (2019).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Ferreira, S. Going Nuts About Milk? Here’s What You Need to Know About Plant-based Milk Alternatives (25 January 2019, American Society for Nutrition);

  4. Chalupa-Krebzdak, S., Long, C. J. & Bohrer, B. M. Nutrient density and nutritional value of milk and plant-based milk alternatives. Int. Dairy J. 87, 84–92 (2018).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. Merritt, R. J. et al. North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition position paper: plant-based milks. J. Pediatr. Gastroenterol. Nutr. 71, 276–281 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Zhang, Y. Y., Hughes, J. & Grafenauer, S. Got mylk? The emerging role of Australian plant-based milk alternatives as a cow’s milk substitute. Nutrients 12, 1254 (2020).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. Pehrsson, P. et al. USDA Branded Food Products Database (USDA Agricultural Research Service, 2018);

  8. Drewnowski, A. & Fulgoni, V. L. Nutrient density: principles and evaluation tools. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 99, 1223S–1228S (2014).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Drewnowski, A. Uses of nutrient profiling to address public health needs: from regulation to reformulation. Proc. Nutr. Soc. 76, 220–229 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Electronic code of Federal Regulations: Part 101 Food labeling. available at:

Download references


Analyses of the publicly available USDA BFPDB were supported by Dairy Management Inc. The funder was not involved in data collection, data analysis, interpretation of data, the writing of the initial draft of the article or in the decision to submit the manuscript for publication.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Adam Drewnowski.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

A.D. is the original developer of the Naturally Nutrient Rich and the Nutrient Rich Food (NRF) indices. That work was supported at the time by the Nutrient Rich Coalition whose members were the Beef Checkoff Program through the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the California Avocado Commission, California Kiwifruit, the California Strawberry Commission, the Egg Nutrition Center, Florida Department of Citrus, the Grain Foods Foundation, the National Dairy Council, the National Pork Board, the United States Potato Board, the Wheat Foods Council and the Wild Blueberry Association of North America. A.D. has received grants, contracts and honoraria from entities both public and private with an interest in nutrient density metrics and nutrient profiling of foods.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature Food thanks Michael Gibney, Edmond Rock and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Drewnowski, A. Plant-based milk alternatives in the USDA Branded Food Products Database would benefit from nutrient density standards. Nat Food 2, 567–569 (2021).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing