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. Let’s face it, the dairy free 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 choose the best milk to drink 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
The Healthiest Milk to Meet Your Child’s Needs
The younger the child, the more dependent he or she will be on the type of milk you choose as an important source of nutrition.
For young kids, drinks provide a major source of nutrition throughout the day.
For example, young toddlers (aged 1-2 years) continue to have unique nutritional requirements that are different from those of older children and adults.
Young toddlers have higher fat and nutrient needs related to their body weight, and higher calories per pound of body weight for growth.
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.
How to Choose the Best Milk for Kids
It’s important to select food and beverages with 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.
Three cups of dairy won’t meet the requirement for vitamin D, or for calcium in the older child and teen.
If you select a milk substitute such as rice, almond, cashew, or coconut milk, you’ll need to pay more attention to other protein and fat sources in your child’s diet. These non dairy milk options contain key nutrients in low supply.
The most important thing when deciding on milk or dairy free milk for your child is that you make an informed decision. Decide on the beverage that best contributes to and complements your child’s nutrient intake.
Which is the Best Milk to Drink?
Now, that is the big question… and I’m afraid to say that it all depends. Personally, I am a big fan of traditional cow’s milk for taste and nutrient composition.
But that’s my pediatric nutritionist and dietitian brain talking.
I understand that you may have other criteria for choosing milk or a milk substitute for your child. From coconut milk to cashew milk, I’ve outlined the most popular and widely available sources here to help you decide:
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 of milk represents 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.
As your child ages, further reductions to 1% or fat free milk may be advised depending on the family history of cardiovascular disease or problematic weight.
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.
When I look at milk alternatives with high protein, soy milk (and pea protein milk, aka Ripple Milk…read more below) is a top choice. 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.
It’s processed to match the nutrient content of cow’s milk, although some versions provide higher levels of protein.
Sugar may be added to soy milk to mask the naturally bitter taste of soy.
Is Soy Good or Bad for You?
I get questions about the use of soy products in girls and boys. Is soy milk okay for kids?
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 is another dairy free milk 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.
Rice milk is fortified with vitamin D and may contain added sugar.
Is Rice Milk Healthy for Toddlers?
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.
There are also questions about the amount of arsenic in rice products, including rice cereal, rice cakes and crackers, and rice milk.
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 and any exposure to arsenic is minimized.
Hemp milk is a vegan 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, or 3 1/2 teaspoons).
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 Milk Nutrition)
Another category of milk substitute are the nut milks. Nut milks, such as almond and cashew milk, also tend to be low in protein and fat.
They 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 all is not lost! Almond milk nutrition stands out for having a decent amount of both 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.
Another dairy free milk popular with adults is coconut milk. The carton version of coconut milk is a low to no protein milk alternative (depending on the brand) made from blending coconut water with the liquid extracted from grated coconut flesh.
Its 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 Protein Milk (Ripple Milk)
Pea protein milk is a newer milk substitute on the market. It’s made from yellow peas and boasts equal protein to cow’s milk. Nutritionally, it offers up omega-3 fats, and a heftier dose of both calcium and vitamin D compared to cow’s milk.
Similar in nutrient composition to rice milk, oat milk is low in protein and calories and has a considerable amount of added sugar.
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.
What is the Healthiest Milk?
If you are trying to choose the right milk for your child, whether it’s cow’s milk or a milk substitute, consider your child’s age and nutrient needs for growth and development. Think about any food allergies or other medical conditions that may require a specific nutrient composition. Last, consider your family food practices and cultural traditions.
Most importantly, choosing the best milk to drink for your child should meet 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. Click the blue box below to get access.
Which is the best milk for your child? Why?
Written by: Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Published on: June 7, 2017
Updated on: May 8, 2019