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Safety and quality of plant-based beverages

Project launched to characterise selected drinks

Beverages made from oats, almonds or soya are an increasingly common feature of the German market. But a European-level decision has decreed that the plant-based drinks, which are often sold as an alternative to milk from cows or other animals, are not allowed to be called “milk”. The only exception is for drinks like coconut milk that traditionally have the word milk in their title (Regulation (EU) No. 1308/2013). The reasons why the number of milk alternatives is increasing are often given as health-related, such as lactose intolerance or milk allergies, but there are also ethical and ecological factors at play like “industrialised milk production”, factory farming and the ecological footprint of livestock farming. The food industry has responded to demand by bringing various plant-based beverages onto the market that are promoted as alternative products from plant-based sources. Although at approximately 5.5 percent the market share of plant-based drinks lagged well behind animal milk in 2020,  these products have become a staple on supermarket shelves.

Despite this, hardly any studies have been conducted on safety and quality aspects of plant-based beverages. This is partly due to the lack of legal regulations, for instance in the area of chemical and microbial contaminants, but also because there are no validated analytical procedures for this matrix which could, for example, be used in monitoring programmes by official bodies controlling foodstuffs. An MRI pilot project is now set to collect the first data that will facilitate assessment of potential critical parameters for evaluating quality and safety on the one hand and the nutrient profile on the other. This will also allow important data on plant-based beverages to be collected for the German Nutrient Data Base (BLS), the central database on the nutrient content of foodstuffs.

In the framework of a multi-institute project, basic plant-based beverages (soya, almond and oat drinks) will be selected and studied to determine their quality and safety (ingredients, digestibility, microbiology, residues, contaminants). With regard to ingredients, data will be collected on the valuable as well as the undesirable and anti-nutritive compounds. In addition, the microbiological safety of plant-based beverages will be investigated. The project will be rounded off by experiments using an in-vitro digestion model into the bioavailability of selected nutrients such as proteins in the three plant-based drinks. The summary data should form the basis for further differentiated analysis and evaluation of this group of products and be used to derive future research topics. The nutrient data will be included in the German Nutrient Data Base. The project kicked off at the beginning of 2022 and is scheduled to run for approximately 18 months.