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Trendy new ‘pea milk’ generates lots of headlines, but little scrutiny

The following post is by Joy Victory, who joined HealthNewsReview.org in March as deputy managing editor. She tweets as @thejoyvictory.

If you’re like us, you might already be tired of reading about Ripple, a new “pea milk” product that’s just barely hit store shelves (and costs at least two times as much as regular milk), but already has generated stories from more than a dozen women’s magazines and health news sites.

“This Pea-Based Milk Is Healthier Than Almond Milk, And Actually Tastes Almost Like Milk,” states the headline of the story in FastCo, which was one of the first outlets to write about the product. As a result, its coverage was subsequently quoted by other news outlets picking up the story.

pea-milk (1)FastCo’s story goes on to tell us that the product’s manufacturer considers it “a lot more like dairy milk than any other dairy-alternative milk on the market” and that the product is made palatable by separating “the good stuff from the peas from all of the stuff that kind of gives it that off-flavor and color.”

Glamour.com’s story implied that it might actually even be better for us than dairy milk, via this quote from a dietitian: “Ripple is also fortified to provide more calcium and vitamin D than cow’s milk, which can help more women meet their daily calcium and vitamin D requirements—these are two nutrients that the vast majority of women don’t get enough of.”

And, we’re told, it has protein, stresses a Fox News Magazine story headlined “Why ‘Pea Milk’ Might Be Better Than Cow’s Milk and Almond Milk.” “The drink has 8 grams of protein per serving — the same amount as milk from cows and eight times the amount of almond milk,” Fox states.

Yet fortification isn’t always necessary nor even beneficial, points out Dr. Kathleen Fairfield, a HealthNewsReview.org contributor who practices primary care internal medicine at Maine Medical Center and is a health services researcher at the Center for Outcomes Research and Evaluation.

For example, “there is mixed scientific literature on calcium supplementation: There is concern that taking calcium supplements increases the risk of kidney stones and heart disease,” she explained. “For those reasons, plus considering the added sugar in these products, we think it’s better to get calcium from foods.”

Pea milk shines bright under a questionable ‘health halo’

All this name-dropping of specific ingredients builds a “health halo” around the product that overshadows other important facts about this product and similar products, notes HealthNewsReview.org contributor Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute at the University of Ottawa. This is a technique cleverly employed by marketing companies as they try to generate buzz for a new product.

“Marketing a product on the basis of its ‘nutrients’–as pea milk seems to be doing–feeds into the notion that so long as a product has nutrient x, y, or z in it. it’s good for you,” he explains.

The word “milk” also helps brighten the halo, Freedhoff said. “Attaching the word ‘milk’ to a beverage leads to the translation of milk’s presumptive need and/or benefits. While there have in fact been some positive studies on the consumption of milk (there have been negative studies too),” he said, “there isn’t remotely the same degree of evidence underlying non-dairy ‘milks’ to hang one’s hat on.”

“Just because it’s milk doesn’t mean it’s healthy, and just because it’s white doesn’t mean it’s ‘milk,'” he added.

‘Plant-based’ adds to the halo

Another phrase that adds to the halo is the “plant-based” label that some news stories ascribed to the product, such as this U.S. News & World Report story. Never mind that many foods–from pasta to cookies to soups–are often largely “plant-based,” and may contain just as much natural or fortified protein, minerals or vitamins as pea milk.

Like these products, Ripple is processed, a fact that most stories overlooked, though we did appreciate how Cosmo pointed this out: “FWIW, the stuff still has way more ingredients than you’d find in pure cow’s milk: pea protein, sunflower oil, algal oil, a bunch of vitamins and minerals, guar gum, and gellan gum.”

We also like how the U.S News story cautioned readers on the added sugars of non-dairy milks, and created a handy comparison chart listing nutrient facts of the most popular types. They were also the only news outlet we read that made this important point: “Don’t assume [non-dairy milks] provide the same health benefits as the whole foods (such as soybeans, peas and almonds) from which they’re derived.”

Drinking calories should always be done carefully

Here’s another point we wish these stories had clued readers in on: Drinking calories can be hazardous to your waistline, and should be done with caution.

Liquid calories, regardless of source, are especially problematic in the context of weight, Freedhoff said.

“We tend not to compensate for the calories we drink, meaning that a glass of whatever with dinner and you’ll likely eat the same amount of dinner. Consequently, liquid calories are among the lowest hanging fruit of weight management.”

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