I am often asked if there is a plant-based milk I recommend or if they are similar enough that it doesn’t matter. The truth is that the variety of milks out there have many similarities, but important differences as well. This post is not meant to sway you to include or not include cow’s milk in your diet or your child’s diet. It is simply meant to inform you of the differences in the milks and the nutritional requirements that we are trying to meet with milk consumption at different life stages. First, let’s start with the milk we compare plant milks to: Cow’s milk.
Cow’s milk: Cow’s milk contains 2 main proteins: casein and whey. It also contains lactose which is a sugar made up of glucose and galactose. There are many micronutrients that naturally occur in cows milk such as calcium, magnesium, and vitamin B12 (among others), and then vitamin A and D are added as per government regulations. The nutrients in milk work together to help us build and maintain strong bones and teeth, but also serve many other purposes as well. Milk comes in various fat levels. Whole milk (or homogenized) is 3.25% fat. This is the best milk choice for children age 12-24 months who are no longer breastfed due to its high fat content. Fat is essential for brain development in children and choosing a lower fat milk product at this age would take away from the fat in their diet. For a child who is allergic to casein or lactose intolerant, breast milk or a non casein based formula is best until 2 years of age. For children ages 2 and up, 2% milk is a good choice as it has sufficient fat. Ideally children 2 and up are drinking 16 oz of milk per day…no more, no less. So what about children who are allergic/intolerant to casein or lactose intolerant? What do children drink who follow a vegan diet or just don’t like the taste of milk? Let’s look at the options available.
Soy Milk and Pea Protein Milk: Soy and pea protein milk have the same fat percent as 2% milk so they are offer suitable options for children over 2 years of age. For children under two adding a boost of hemp hearts, avocado, or pumpkin seed butter can quickly make up for the lower fat content. They also provides the same amount of complete protein as one cup of cow’s milk. This means that they has all of the amino acids our body cannot make, but needs to make a body protein. Soy milk and pea milk do not contain all the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) that cow’s milk does. So if you are choosing one of these, then please ensure that you choose one that is fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12 at least, and ideally others as well. Because the micronutrients are added, they do not stay suspended in the milk very well so it is best to shake the carton very well before pouring the milk to ensure that you are actually ingesting what you have paid for. Some people do not want to consume soy milk because of its estrogenic properties. I will be looking deeper into the latest research on this topic in a blog post next week…stay tuned.
Oat Milk: Oat milk is increasing in popularity. It offers 3-5 grams of protein per cup; however, this is incomplete protein so it is best if consumed at the same time as a nut or seed butter. Oat milk has the same fat percent as 2% milk so it is a suitable options for children over 2 years of age with respect to fat content.
Coconut Milk: Fortified coconut milk is a great option for children due to it’s fat content’ however, that is where the similarities end. Coconut milk is not a source of protein or any micronutrients. If a parent is choosing coconut milk for their child, then they need to replace the 16-18 grams of protein that would be provided by 2 cups of cow/soy/pea milk each day AND ensure that the coconut milk is fortified. A nice way to add a complete protein into coconut milk is to blend in hemp hearts. These are packed with protein and omega 3 and just add to the creamy nutty flavour that is already in coconut milk.
Almond, Cashew, and Rice Milk: These milks are not a source of fat or protein and are only a source of micronutrients if fortified. These milks are not suitable for young children unless they are mixed with higher fat and protein sources such as hemp hearts and chia seeds. They are suitable for adults as long as they are not considered a source of protein. When fortified, these milks work well as a base for nutrient-dense smoothies.
Sweetened or Unsweetened: All of the above milks come in sweetened and unsweetened. Some also come with the option of “original”, “vanilla”, and/or “chocolate”. When making a decision on whether do choose one with added sugar/flavor it is important to consider a few things:
- Ideally we limit our added sugar intake; however, if we are going to consume added sugar then it is best to come from a nutrient-dense source instead of candy.
- Will you drinking the milk on its own or in a smoothie? If you are using it as a smoothie base, then unsweetened is likely best as you can add flavor with fruit and other smoothie ingredients.
- Will you drink the milk if it is not sweetened/flavored? If the answer is “no”, then this will be one of your added sugar sources for the day, and you may choose to reduce your added sugar elsewhere.
I hope that this information is useful and as always, please comment below with any questions. If you want to read about our journey to dairy free with Clay, you can do so here.