Skip to main content

Gone are the days of serving your child a simple glass of cold, creamy cow’s milk at the dinner table.

Having a glass of milk with every meal used to be a childhood staple. Milk was encouraged to promote healthy bones, teeth, and growth. Now however, there’s a plethora of dairy milk variations to choose from, such as skim, low -fat, raw, 2 per cent, lactose free or A2, and an even longer list of dairy-free milks to consider.

With almond, soy, and everything in between, how does one know which milk is the most beneficial for your child, and what the potential effects of straying away from good old faithful cow’s milk may be?

The “old-school” way of parenting often included offering babies breast milk or formula up until the age of one year. After a child’s first birthday, whole cow’s milk was commonly introduced as the main drink for toddlers.

Many adults remember their parents encouraging them to drink their milk at dinner as part of a balanced diet, but cow’s milk has become less popular as more families decide to lead dairy-free lifestyles, either because of personal preference (such as a vegan diet) or food allergies.

Today, some babies may never have cow’s milk, being fed dairy-free formula right from infancy. And as more kids grow up with dairy-free milk in their diets, doctors and researchers are looking at how they might affect children’s health as they grow.

Soy milk

Soy milk is made from either ground soybeans or soy protein powder, and since most soy milk is fortified with calcium, it tends to be most like cow’s milk. Many soy milks also contain added vitamin B12 which is important for people following a vegan diet who are at risk of being deficient in this nutrient.

Children under the age of 15 months who struggle with chronic constipation may benefit from a soy-based formula.

Almond milk

Almond is made from ground almonds. Commercial almond milks vary in their almond content, containing between 2 to 14 percent almonds. Some may contain sweeteners although many no-added-sugar varieties are available.

Almond milk is lower in energy and saturated fat compared to dairy milk. It is also generally very low in protein with a typical serving containing just one gram of protein per serving.

Almond milk is soy, lactose and dairy-free. That makes it suitable for people who are allergic or intolerant to soy or dairy, or who are lactose intolerant. 

Oat milk

Oat milk is made by blending oats and water and then straining off the liquid. It is low in saturated fat and only has four grams of protein per serving. Unlike most plant-based milks, oat milk is a good source of fibre as it contains beta-glucan. Beta-glucan has been shown to help reduce cholesterol and to help control blood sugar levels.

Oat milk is naturally sweet because of its higher carbohydrate content compared to cow’s milk. Because of its properties, oat milk can be a good substitute for cow’s milk in cooking.

Oat milk is the creamiest of the plant-based milks and is a good choice in dishes that need a creamy consistency.

Rice milk

Rice milk is made from milled brown rice and water and is allergen free. During processing, many of the carbohydrates in the rice break down into smaller sugars resulting in its distinctive sweet taste. Rice milk is the least likely of the plant-based milks to be a trigger for an allergy.

If beverages like almond or rice milk are a regular part of a young child’s diet, other food sources of protein and energy are needed to ensure a healthy, balanced diet. For guidance visit a vegan or plant-based paediatric dietitian.

Macadamia milk

Macadamia milk is a made by blending soaked macadamia nuts with water. Macadamia milk is naturally low in protein and calcium. Most of the fat in macadamia milk is the healthier unsaturated type. Because of its creamy texture, macadamia milk can be good swap for dairy milk in cooking and hot beverages. Macadamia milk can be fortified with vitamin D, vitamin B12 and calcium, making them better choices as a swap for dairy milk.

Pea milk

Pea milk is made using pea protein extracted from peas usually in combination with water, sunflower oil, and some other nutrients for fortification like vitamin B12. The protein content of pea milk is similar to dairy milk.

Hemp milk

Hemp milk is made from blending hemp seeds taken from the hemp plant with water. Importantly, hemp milk does not contain any of the psychoactive substances found in marijuana. Compared to whole dairy milk, hemp milk has fewer kilojoules, protein, and carbohydrates. It is also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. Commercial hemp milk is often fortified with calcium, vitamin B12 and vitamin D making these ones the better one to choose.

Coconut milk

Coconut milk is made by diluting coconut cream with water. Coconut milk is lower in carbohydrate and protein and higher in saturated fat compared to dairy milk. It is low in calcium so choose one that has been fortified.

Studies are still emerging about the long-term effects of these milk alternatives, but this is what we have learned so far:

Non-dairy milk should never be used as infant formula

Infant formulas are specifically designed to meet the unique needs of babies. They’re regulated by the FDA and must meet federal nutrient standards. Non-dairy milks are not safe swaps for formula. Never give soy milk in place of a soy-based infant formula and do not feed your baby almond milk. Nut milk, other non-dairy milks, and cow’s milk cannot replace breast milk or formula for infants.

Non-dairy milks are not the same nutritionally

Non-dairy milks aren’t one-for-one substitutions for regular milk, nutritionally speaking. In fact, calcium-fortified soy milk is the only non-dairy milk that the USDA’s MyPlate guidelines consider as equivalent to dairy (because it’s the closest in terms of protein). Unlike non-dairy milks, cow’s milk is naturally a good source of nutrients like protein, calcium, potassium, and vitamin B12.

Homemade versions of nut milks are not good sources of calcium or vitamin D

While homemade nut milks are easy to make (and taste much fresher than store-bought), non-dairy milks are typically fortified with calcium and vitamin D. The homemade kind won’t provide those same nutrients.

Most non-dairy milks are very low in protein

Almond milk may be listed as a good source of protein, but it actually contains very little protein: only about 1 gram per serving compared to 8 grams for cow’s milk or 7 grams for soy milk. (Although almonds are a good source of protein, the nut solids are strained out when making the milk.) Hemp, cashew, rice, and coconut milk are also low or very low in protein.

It’s important to shake non-dairy milks before serving

In the case of calcium-fortified milks, calcium solids can settle on the bottom of the carton, so it is important to shake the carton well before pouring.

Non-dairy milks can include a lot of sugar

Consumers need to watch out for flavoured non-dairy milks, which can contain multiple teaspoons of sugar in a glass. Case in point: A glass of name-brand vanilla almond milk has four teaspoons of added sugar per serving (that’s about half a day’s worth for a child aged 4-8). Check the ingredient lists for sources of added sugar and look for the word “unsweetened” on the front of the package.

Non-dairy milks have unique flavours

If you’re searching for a non-dairy milk that your kids like, there’s a lot to choose from, and they all have different flavours. While almond milk and cashew milk are slightly nutty, rice milk is mildly sweet.

Non-dairy milk impacts growth?

A 2017 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that lower heights were observed in children who did not drink traditional cow’s milk. The researchers examined 5,034 healthy children in Canada between the ages of 24 and 72 months. When they compared children who regularly drank cow’s milk with those who did not, the researchers found that there was a correlation between lower height and the consumption of non-dairy milk. For every daily cup of non-cow’s milk they drank, the children were 0.4 centimetres shorter on average. For example, a 3-year-old who drank three cups of cow’s milk might be 1.5 centimetres taller than a child who drank three cups of non-cow’s milk a day.

It is important however, to remember that the findings in this study only demonstrate that there is a potential association between decreased linear growth and drinking milk. It certainly does not prove that drinking non-cow’s milk causes children to be shorter.

The bottom line? In toddlers, the substitution of cow’s milk with any of these plant-based beverages carries a significantly increased risk of the child developing nutritional deficiency disease if the diet is not properly managed.

To back this claim, the research refers to studies where young children who were given plant-based drinks rather than cow’s milk developed conditions such as kwashiorkor, rickets and even scurvy.

Interestingly the authors went on to compare the current advice on this issue in various countries around the world. Canada recommends against any plant-based substitution for cow’s milk for under two-year old’s whereas New Zealand endorses calcium-fortified plant-based beverages for toddlers as an alternative for cow’s milk although they do say vegan toddlers will also need vitamin B12. As for Australia, the authors report we are basically against most plant-based substitutions for cow’s milk, with a couple of exceptions.

The current recommendation is “an intake of full-fat, calcium-fortified rice or oat drinks consumed with diets rich in alternative sources of protein and vitamin B12 are acceptable under the supervision of a physician. But they recommend against all other plant-based beverages, including soy milk as an alternative to cow’s milk.”

Making a shift to a more plant-based diet can be healthful and nutritionally adequate if it’s well planned to meet one’s nutritional needs. An Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) can help to meet a family’s or individual’s needs.