Milk Nutrition Showdown: Which One is Best for My Child?

milk nutrition

 Milk Nutrition Showdown for Kids

Making a decision about milk isn’t always straight forward. Sure, many families choose to include dairy, or cow’s milk, in their daily routine. But what if your child has an allergy to cow’s milk or soy milk? Or an allergy to nuts? What if your family is opting to follow a vegetarian diet? Or, what if you want the best for your child, but you just aren’t sure what that really is?

Milk nutrition comparisons are tedious and the information isn’t always easy to find. And let’s face it, the milk or fortified beverage you choose is an important decision. It’s also a personal decision that may reflect cultural considerations, core beliefs, flavor preferences, and any medical conditions your child may have.

To make the best decision for your child, you need to understand milk nutrition, especially how milk and fortified beverages fit into your child’s diet, and which one will best complement the foods your child is regularly eating.

To make the best decision about milk and fortified beverages, you need to understand milk nutrition. Click To Tweet

Your Child’s Nutritional Requirements

The younger the child, the more dependent he or she will be on the milk beverage you choose as an important source of nutrition. For example, young toddlers (aged 1-2 years) continue to have unique nutritional requirements that are different from those of older children and adults, including higher fat and nutrient needs related to body weight, and sufficient calories for growth. Additionally, for most young children, the liquids they drink provide a major source of nutrition throughout the day.

As kids get older, they rely less on liquid nutrition and more on solid food. The diet shifts to meals consisting of food groups and the focus becomes one of food balance. “Balance” is the key word here, because nutrients like calcium and vitamin D remain very important in the growing child’s diet (up through adolescence).

Believe it or not, many children don’t get enough calcium and vitamin D, according to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. As such, these nutrients (and meeting the requirement for them) deserve a little more attention so that kids attain a nutritious diet. It’s important to select food and beverages with these nutrients in mind and balance the diet to meet your child’s nutrient needs.

For example, if you choose cow’s milk, you still need to make sure your child is getting calcium and vitamin D from other sources in the diet because three cups of dairy won’t meet the requirement for vitamin D, or for calcium in the older child and teen.

If you select rice, almond, cashew or coconut milk, you’ll need to pay more attention to other protein and fat sources in your child’s diet, because these nutrients are in low supply.

The most important thing when deciding which milk or fortified beverage to give your child is that you make an informed decision. The drink you decide on must contribute to and complement your child’s nutrient intake.

Grab the Milk Comparison Guide Now!

Which Milk is Best?

Now, that is the big question… and I’m afraid to say that it all depends. Personally, I am a big fan of traditional milk – for taste and nutrient composition. But that’s my dietitian brain talking. I understand that you may have other criteria for choosing milk or a fortified beverage for your child. From coconut milk to cashew milk, I’ve outlined the most popular and widely available sources here to help you decide:

Dairy Milk

The gold standard, cow’s milk, has been the fluid of choice for many years, and many generations, and remains so in the eyes of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).  Cow’s milk, when included with a variety of foods, can support the growth and development of children.

The fat content in milk determines the difference between whole milk, 2% milk, 1% milk and fat-free milk. At one year of age, it is recommended that babies transition to whole cow’s milk. At two years, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advocates a decrease in milk fat to 2% cow’s milk, and as the child ages, further decreases to 1% or fat free milk may be advised depending on family history of cardiovascular disease or obesity.

All varieties of cow’s milk are a good source of protein, calcium, and Vitamins A and D. If you have a child who is lactose-intolerant, a lactose-free cow’s milk may be ideal.

Soy Milk

Soy milk is an alternative to cow’s milk. It is utilized for children who are intolerant or allergic to cow’s milk, or for those following a vegetarian diet. Research indicates that about 40% of children who are allergic to cow’s milk are also allergic to soy milk.

Soy milk is fortified with calcium and Vitamin D, and can provide adequate protein and calories for growing children over the age of one year. Soy milk is processed to match the nutrient content of cow’s milk, although some versions provide higher levels of protein. Sugar may be added to mask the bitter taste of soy. 

I get questions about the use of soy products in girls and boys. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), moderate soy consumption (up to two servings per day* of whole soy foods) is safe. One serving of soy averages about 7 grams of protein and 25 mg of isoflavones. Furthermore, scientists now know that soy does not increase estrogen levels in humans, nor does it feminize men.

Rice milk

Rice milk may be used in children who are allergic to both cow and soy milks, or as a milk substitute in the vegetarian child. Rice milk contains low amounts of protein, fat, and calories and requires thoughtful meal planning, especially for toddlers who generally need more of these nutrients. It’s fortified with vitamin D and may contain added sugar.

Some research has shown evidence of growth failure in young children consuming rice milk due to its poor protein, fat, calorie, and vitamin/mineral content.  If it is necessary for your young child to consume rice milk (ie., due to a food allergy), be sure to consult with a Registered Dietitian (RD) or your pediatrician (MD) so that proper attention can be given to ensuring your child’s overall nutrient needs are being met.

Related: Arsenic in Rice, Not so Nice

Hemp milk

Hemp milk is a grain-based milk made from the cannabis plant. It contains omega-3 fatty acids and is also a source of iron, vitamin B12, magnesium, calcium and vitamin D.

Flavored hemp milk is similar in caloric content to whole cow’s milk and soy milk but carries a punch of added sugar (~14 gm/cup). The unflavored variety is considerably lower in calories. Protein and fat content are lower than cow’s milk, but higher than other grain-based milks.

Nut Milks (Cashew and Almond)

Nut milks, such as almond and cashew milk, also tend to be low in protein and fat. Nut milks should not be offered to children who have a nut allergy.

Almond milk has a very low protein content (~1 gm per cup) and low calories, but has vitamins E and B12. It may be fortified with calcium and vitamin D (check label). Cashew milk showcases a similar nutrient profile to almond milk.

Related: How to Introduce Peanuts to Your Baby

Coconut Milk

The carton version of coconut milk is a low to no protein dairy alternative (depending on the brand) made from blending coconut water with the liquid extracted from grated coconut flesh. It’s fat content is similar to whole cow’s milk and it boasts some decent levels of vitamin B12. Generally, dairy aisle coconut milk is low in calories.

Pea Milk (Ripple)

Pea milk is made from yellow peas and boasts equal protein to cow’s milk. It offers up omega-3 fats, a hefty dose of both calcium and vitamin D (more than cow’s milk).

Oat Milk

Similar in nutrient composition to rice milk, oat milk is low in protein and calories and has considerable added sugar.

Flax Milk

As far as alternative milks go, flax milk is in the same boat with almond, cashew and coconut milks: virtually no protein content. However, it does have a decent dose of heart healthy omega-3 fats.

The Bottom Line on Milk Nutrition

If you are trying to choose the right milk for your child, consider his age and nutrient needs for growth and development, any food allergies or other medical conditions that may require specific nutrient composition, and your family food practices. Most importantly, choose the milk or fortified beverage that best meets your child’s nutritional needs and taste preferences.

I’ve put all this information together in a handy chart that’s easy to reference and refer to: 

Grab the Milk Comparison Guide Now!

What is the reason for your decision about milk and fortified beverages?

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  1. My daughter has a cow’s milk and soy allergy. As she is about to turn one, I am trying to figure out what alternative to give her. It sounds like none of the other milks are even close to the same fat and protein content of regular milk! So difficult to figure out what to do.

    1. Yes, it sure can be! The recs for young children who have cow’s milk allergy are to transition to a safe toddler formula…in your case, a milk and soy free toddler formula like Nutramigen Toddler may be the best choice to ensure all nutrients are met. This is a scientific article link, but it gives you an idea of the risks associated with low nutrition. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4280668/