Are milk alternatives actually unhealthy for kids?

Experts are warning parents to use caution when choosing plant-based drinks for kids. Dietitian Cara Rosenbloom explains what to look for.

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Plant-based diets make headlines for being healthy for our bodies and planet, but that doesn’t mean that every plant-based food is the best choice—especially when it comes to kids. Though almond, coconut and rice milk have been growing in popularity among parents, experts say many of these drinks don’t have the nutrients kids and babies need.

Today, Dietitians of Canada and the Canadian Paediatric Society made a joint statement to urge parents to use caution when choosing beverages. The statement mentions that there have been recent cases of infants and young children becoming malnourished after being fed plant-based milk alternatives as their primary beverage. The reason? Most of these beverages don’t contain the protein, fat and calories kids need.

Current recommendations from the Canadian Paediatric Society say that babies should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months (though formula works if you can’t breastfeed). Then they can continue to have breastmilk as long as parents wish, but whole cow’s milk can be started around a year, and 2% can be started when a child is two years old or growing well. Dietitians of Canada says children ages two to eight should get two cups of cow’s milk or fortified soy milk a day to provide protein, calcium and vitamin D. Other plant-based milks just don’t have the vitamin or protein content to nourish growing bodies. Here’s what you need to know.

1. There are no milk alternatives that can replace breastmilk or formula. For normal growth and development, babies require the calories, protein, fat, vitamins and minerals that are found in breastmilk or infant formula. There is no milk alternative that can provide that level of nutrition.    Little boy eating a bowl of cereal following Canada's Food Guide    
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2. Fortified soy milk can be a substitute for cow’s milk. Not every child needs to drink cow’s milk. Yes, it’s offered at every daycare, and if your child loves cow’s milk, that’s great. But if your family follows a vegan diet or your child has a milk allergy, rest assured that they can still be well-nourished without cow’s milk. Soy milk that’s fortified with vitamins and minerals can support protein, calcium and vitamin D requirements.

3. Most milk alternatives are low in protein. While cow’s milk contains eight grams of protein per cup (and soy milk has seven grams), most other milk alternatives contain just one gram of protein. If your child chooses milk alternatives, make sure they get protein from other sources, such as lentils, beans, eggs, poultry or fish.

4. Milk alternatives are mostly water. Take a look at the list of ingredients. Water, sugar, a smidgen of nuts and some vitamins. They are not a nutritional powerhouse in a child’s diet.

5. Children with lactose intolerance can drink milk. Your lactose intolerant child can still drink lactose-free milk or take lactase pills before eating dairy-based foods. If your child has a milk allergy, soy milk is a good alternative to cow’s milk.

Read more:
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Are vegetable and fruit pouches healthy?

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