Non-Dairy Milk: What You Should Know
This post was created in partnership with the dairy families of New England.
If you search the web, you’ll find several articles on the topic of real milk versus non-dairy milk. Some articles will warn you against cow’s milk, while others will sing its praises.
If you’re a parent who is considering the best milk for your child, you may find this all very confusing. I don’t blame you.
As the market for milk alternatives grow, it’s becoming more difficult to choose the best milk for your child. According to a 2017 Mintel survey, non-dairy milk sales are up 61% since 2012.
Many consumers perceive non-dairy alternatives as healthier and better tasting than traditional cow’s milk.
If you’ve got a young child and you’re thinking about using a non-dairy milk, there are a few things you’ll want to consider. Choosing a healthy milk for your child is important, simply because your child is growing.
I’ve got a few surprising facts that will help you decide between real milk and a milk substitute.
Why Are Nutrients Important to Consider?
In children under five years of age, brains are developing. The pathways for learning and intelligence are laid early on.
Nutrients like fat, protein, vitamins and minerals are in high demand for the developing brain. Young children need these nutrients in their diet (especially fat) to sustain healthy brain development.
Babies are also born with soft bones. The vitamins and minerals in their diet help harden and grow their bones.
Calcium and vitamin D are some of the key nutrients involved in this process.
Additionally, the tummies of toddlers are small, which makes every bite and gulp of nutrition an important contribution to their overall ability to grow, develop and be healthy.
For these reasons, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and other organizations recommend whole milk for its higher level of fat, as well as its source of protein, calcium and vitamin D.
Most babies will make the switch to whole milk at one year of age. From age two years and up, 2% milk is recommended.
However, not every kid can, or will, drink real milk.
Why Do Some Kids Drink a Milk Alternative?
Some children need a milk alternative because they are allergic to cow’s milk. Others may be following a vegan diet along with their parents. Cultural practices and dietary preferences are other reasons why children may drink a non-dairy milk. And, some adults who use them for themselves may assume it’s also a good choice for their kids.
If your child is lactose-intolerant, he can still drink real milk with the lactose (sugar) eliminated. Read this article on lactose intolerance in children.
What is a Substitute for Milk?
Common alternatives to cow’s milk are pea milk (made from yellow peas), soy milk, flax milk, nut milk (almond milk, cashew milk, etc), hemp milk, oat milk, coconut milk, and rice milk.
I’ve compared some of these milk alternatives in another article so you can compare the nutrients of each and use the information to make the best decision for your child.
For those kids who need to be on a non-dairy milk, or whose parents choose this for them, there are some facts you should be aware of as you decide the best milk for your child.
5 Surprising Facts about Non-Dairy Milk
It’s important to recognize that most non-dairy milks on the mainstream market are plant-based. You may want to consider their affordability, nutrient content, presence of added sugar, and whether and how they are processed.
Protein in Milk Substitutes Vary Widely
Cow’s milk has about 8 grams of high quality protein per cup, but non-dairy milks can vary widely in their protein content. Soy milk is the closest milk substitute in terms of protein content. Others, such as rice milk and almond milk are very low in protein content, barely containing a gram per cup.
This is confusing for parents, particularly around almond milk, because they think almonds are high in protein. Nuts are a source of protein, but in the processing of nuts into milk, the protein content doesn’t match up in the milk version. For a protein comparison of milk alternatives, read this.
Other non-dairy milks like soy milk do a better job of providing protein to growing children and are similar in protein content to cow’s milk. Soybeans and yellow peas are the protein provider for soy milk and pea milk, respectively. Both are considered a good source of plant-based protein.
Why does this matter? Because low protein intake in the diet may stall your child’s growth. Pay attention to all sources of protein in your child’s diet, including beverages like cow’s milk or milk substitutes.
Milk Alternatives May Lack Fat
This may be music to your ears. Many adults choose or prefer a low-fat or fat-free version of cow’s milk or non-dairy milk. For kids, the amount and type of fat matters.
Cow’s milk contains both saturated and unsaturated fat. Most non-dairy milk contains unsaturated fat, with the exception of coconut milk, which delivers a significant dose of saturated fat. Hemp and coconut milks are higher in fat, while rice, almond, and soy milks are lower in fat.
Low amounts or a lack of fat in any type of milk will impact the caloric content of the product.
Depending on your nutritional goals, such as promoting normal growth and development, or helping an underweight toddler gain weight, the fat content may be something to consider.
Plant-Based Milks are Manufactured & May be Pricier
Plants don’t make milk. Nuts don’t make milk. Rice doesn’t make milk. Peas don’t make milk. To get milk from these plants, they have to be processed. For example, almond milk is made by blending almonds with water and straining the resulting milk. To that, stabilizers, thickeners, colors and sugar may be added.
Additionally, the price tag is often more expensive than cow’s milk, unless you make your own at home. If you do so, you’ll have to figure out a way to get those important nutrients into the homemade version, or into your child’s diet.
Cup for cup, plant-based and alternative milks are two to three times the cost of cow’s milk.
Nutrients are Added to Milk Substitutes
Non-dairy milks, with the exception of fortified soy milk, are not considered a serving of dairy in the USDA My Plate recommendations or the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA). This is due to the fact that the total nutrient profile of alternative milks is not equal to dairy milk, particularly for protein, fat and vitamin D.
For the most part, nutrients are added to milk substitutes. For example, calcium and Vitamin D are commonly added.
Vitamin D is a voluntary addition in the US in amounts up to 205 IU per cup. However, because this is voluntary and not mandatory, milk substitutes may not contain vitamin D, so check your Nutrition Facts panel.
Vitamin D is added to cow’s milk in the same amount (205 IU/cup), which is required by the 2016 Food and Drug Administration rule changes. Since vitamin D is a challenging nutrient to meet from our diets, this is good news all around.
Added Sugar for Flavor
Some milk alternatives don’t taste good to children, so manufacturers add sugar to mask bitterness and make them taste better. While some brands are lightly sweetened, other milk alternatives can contain up to 2 to 3 teaspoons of sugar per cup.
As an experienced, practicing pediatric nutritionist, I know the decision about choosing the best milk for your child is not taken lightly. Whatever you choose – real milk or non-dairy milk – do your homework and pick the right type for your child, your family, and your situation.
Written by: Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Published on: December 12, 2018
Updated on: September 12, 2019