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Not too long ago, going dairy-free meant you were pretty much doomed to a life without yogurt. But thanks to the soaring popularity of all things plant-based and improvements in manufacturing capabilities, those days are long gone. Stroll down the dairy aisle and you’ll find all sorts of creamy dairy-free yogurt alternatives made with everything from oats to coconut to cashews. A boon to those who need to avoid or limit dairy to prevent unwanted gastrointestinal symptoms like gas and bloating, or for others, like vegans, following dairy-free diets. Increasingly, brands are nailing the taste and texture.
Plant-based yogurts are here to stay. But are these worthy stand-ins for regular milk yogurt when it comes to nutrition and gut health? Here’s what to keep in mind when cruising the dairy aisle for the spoonable no-cow cultured club.
How is dairy-free yogurt made?
Regular milk-based yogurt is produced by heating milk, letting it cool and then adding a bacteria culture. It then rests (ferments) until thickened and tangy.
In contrast, plant-based yogurts use non-dairy liquids like soy, almond, oat, coconut, or cashew as a base and then inoculates these with a culture of bacteria in the form of a probiotic powder. After which the mixture is left to ferment for 24 hours or longer. While dairy yogurt relies on naturally occurring bacteria to give it a thick and creamy consistency, vegan yogurt needs the addition of a thickener like pectin, tapioca starch, or agar to obtain this texture.
How does dairy-free yogurt compare nutritionally to regular yogurt?
Here’s how all the dairy alternatives stack up:
1 container (227g) of regular low-fat plain yogurt contains:
1 container (227g) of plain soy yogurt contains about:
1 container (150g) of plain almond yogurt contains about:
Calories: 140 calories
Fat: 9 g
1 container (150g) of plain coconut milk yogurt contains about:
Calories: 110 calories
Fat: 1 g
What to know about specific nutrients in dairy-free yogurt
Overall, dairy-based yogurt can be considered a good source of protein for athletes. “Protein in regular yogurt is beneficial because it is highly absorbable and is great for lean muscle mass synthesis and muscle recovery,” says Jennifer O’Donnell-Giles, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., owner of Eat4Sport. She cautions that athletes should be aware that dairy-free yogurt alternatives are typically much lower in protein and if an athlete is using one of these products as a recovery fueling option this can be problematic. “There is not a sufficient amount of protein per serving in these dairy-free yogurts to assist with optimal muscle recovery.”
Protein levels will vary among brands and what was used to make the yogurt, but can be as little as 1 gram in a serving for coconut yogurt and typically no more than 8 grams for some almond or soy options. And if you are giving up dairy-based Greek yogurt, which will have at least 16 grams of protein in a ¾-cup serving, the protein divide is even greater. (Note that some brands have developed higher protein Greek-style dairy-free yogurts which typically contain added protein from items like soy protein isolate.)
Nutritionists like O’Donnell-Giles often stress that it’s important that people who rely on dairy-free versions of products like yogurt and milk make sure they are getting sufficient amounts of protein elsewhere in their diets or consume them with other sources of protein such as blended into a smoothie with protein powder.
Many of today’s no-cow yogurts will also contain probiotics—beneficial bacteria that can improve digestive and immune health. A randomized study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that regular probiotic intake could help endurance athletes side-step GI problems during prolonged exercise. “However, it is important to read the label and look for the words ‘live active cultures’ to be sure the product contains probiotics,” O’Donnell-Giles tells Bicycling.
Also, we are not yet sure if there are any health differences among the strains of bacteria that are in regular yogurts compared to their dairy-free counterparts, as sometimes they are not the same.
Beyond protein and probiotics, traditional yogurt also contain a range of important micronutrients including vitamin A, bone-assisting calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12, which the National Institutes of Health says is required for the formation of red blood cells (the cells that carry oxygen to your working muscles), a healthy nervous system, and DNA production. None of these nutrients will be naturally present in any useful amounts in dairy-free yogurts including almond, oat, and cashew.
Increasingly, though, brands are fortifying their products with one or more of these items to better mimic what is found in regular yogurt. So to make it easier for cyclists to meet their overall nutritional needs it can be helpful to look for options that are fortified with the forms of these nutrients such as calcium citrate, vitamin D2, and vitamin B12. But if you are sure you are getting enough of these elsewhere in your diet, it’s not a must.
Even plain cow’s milk yogurt will never be sugar-free since it contains some lactose, a naturally occurring sugar (about 8g to 10g per single-serve container for plain low-fat regular yogurt and 5g to 6g for Greek). But one thing to look out for with dairy-free yogurt (and regular yogurt) is the amount of added sugar that’s included. Oftentimes, the manufacturers of dairy-free yogurt try to make up for taste differences by sneaking in extra sugar and it can be more challenging to locate plain (unsweetened) non-dairy yogurt options. In the end, you may end up spooning up something high in sugar and low in protein.
Look for a lower sugar dairy-free yogurt option if you plan to enjoy this food often. Ideally, no more than 10 grams of added sugar in a serving size. The latest Nutrition Facts panel tells you clearly how much added sugar is in the product. With this said, O’Donnell-Giles believes that after a long and/or high-intensity training session this added sugar can be a good thing. “It can help to replenish depleted stores and assist with recovery.”
Some people who have an intolerance to lactose will choose non-dairy yogurt as it’s easier on their stomachs. It is worth noting, however, that when dairy-based yogurt is fermented the bacteria essentially digest much of the lactose present in milk, which is why yogurt will typically have lower levels of lactose than fluid milk and can be more tolerable to those who are sensitive to lactose.
Almost all dairy-free yogurts on the market are made with one or more emulsifiers, substances like xanthum gum and locust bean gum that are added to help the product better mimic the texture of regular yogurt. While the Food and Drug Administration recognizes these as safe food ingredients, recent studies have found that high intakes may disrupt our microbiome by altering which bacteria are more prolific in our digestive tracts.
We don’t know if there are any health consequences resulting from this, which emulsifiers are most impactful and how much a person needs to eat to have a noticeable effect on the microbiome. But if you are eating these yogurts as well as a lot of other packaged foods with emulsifiers—they are now ubiquitous in the processed food supply—it is something to keep in mind.
Fat levels can vary considerably among non-dairy yogurts, with those made from nuts such as cashews typically being higher than that from soy or oats. But O’Donnell-Giles stresses this mostly hails from heart-healthy unsaturated fats. Coconut milk yogurt is an outlier as it can have even higher amounts of saturated fat than full-fat regular yogurt.
“An athlete needs to be aware of this so that he/she knows how it fits into their overall balanced diet and any possible health considerations,” notes O’Donnell-Giles. The American Heart Association cautions against consuming too much saturated fat from coconut products as it can have detrimental impacts on cholesterol numbers and perhaps heart health.
You’ll likely find a gram or two of dietary fiber in dairy-free yogurts which is more than yogurt from cow’s milk, but they should not be considered high-fiber foods the same way as other plant-based foods, like beans and whole grains. Whole oats, soybeans, and nuts will give you more fiber than the yogurt made from them.
The Bottom Line on Dairy-Free Yogurt
Dairy-free yogurt can certainly fit into a healthy eating pattern and provides a viable option for those who love yogurt, but don’t love dairy. But it’s important to recognize their nutritional limitations and not consider them as nutrient-dense as other foods from plants. A bowl of oat yogurt, for example, is not nutritionally equivalent to a bowl of oatmeal.
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