Plant-based milk has become increasingly popular. Once regarded as a fringe product geared toward “health nuts,” it’s now gone mainstream and is available at many supermarkets and coffee shops. The health benefits, if any, of alternative milks are debatable, and new health guidelines released by a group of health organizations suggest most young children should not consume it.
Childhood nutrition sets the stage for optimal development and lifelong health. What your child drinks is part of this equation, as is what your child does not drink. It’s widely known that sugar-sweetened beverages and even fruit juice should be limited or avoided, but milk is largely considered to be a go-to beverage option for children. However, not all milk is created equal.
Most Young Children Should Avoid Plant-Based Milk
A panel of experts with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association prepared the healthy beverage consensus statement, “Healthy Beverage Consumption in Early Childhood.”1
For infants aged zero to 12 months, the panel stated plant milks are not recommended. For those aged 1 to 5 years, plant milks were also not recommended for exclusive consumption in place of dairy milk. This includes plant milks and nondairy beverages such as rice, nut and seed milk, or milk made from coconut, oats, peas or blends of these ingredients. The rationale, according to the statement:2
“Plant-based milks are growing in popularity, but it is important to note that they are not nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk. They have varying nutritional pro les based on their plant source and many often contain added sugars.”
Two studies were cited that compared the nutritional value of cow’s milk with nondairy beverages. One found that cow’s milk has higher protein content and quality compared to most nondairy milk beverages.3
The other concluded, “[I]f the goal is to provide a beverage nutritionally similar to cow’s milk for growing children, then, with the exception of soy, NDMAs [nondairy milk alternatives] are not nutritionally similar to cow’s milk and are not a good substitute.”4 The expert panel noted:5
“Although plant milks may be fortified to attain similar nutrient levels as cow’s milk, it is not known whether the bioavailability of these added nutrients is comparable to that of their naturally-occurring counterparts in cow’s milk.
These studies concluded that cow’s milk should not be removed from the diets of young children unless there is a medical indication or specific dietary preference, and that non-dairy milk beverages should not be considered adequate nutritional substitutes for cow’s milk until nutrient quality and bioavailability are established.”
Almond and Soy Milk Are Not Healthy Options
Almond milk is loaded with oxalates and should be avoided. Not only can oxalates increase your risk of kidney stones but there is increasing evidence that high oxalate consumption can cause a wide variety of disorders and there is pretty clear evidence that oxalates can cause excess oxidative stress and increase mitochondrial dysfunction.
The panel made an exception for soy milk; however, this beverage is not a healthy choice for children or adults. Most soybeans in the U.S. are genetically engineered to be herbicide tolerant. They are doused with toxic glyphosate, a chemical linked to cancer and other health risks. Soy is also high in antinutrients called lectins, including soybean agglutinin (SBA), which may alter intestinal health and gut flora.6
Other antinutrients in soy include saponins, soyatoxin, phytates (which prevent the absorption of certain minerals), oxalates, protease inhibitors, estrogens (which can block the hormone estrogen and disrupt endocrine function) and goitrogens (interfering with your thyroid function) as well as a blood clot-inhibiting substance called hemagglutinin.
The expert panel noted that children with allergies may choose to consume plant milks, but even in these instances, soy milk is not a healthy choice. It’s also not a safe choice for infant formula either, in part because it exposes infants to hormone-mimicking substances. As noted in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives:7
"Early-life exposure to estrogenic compounds affects the development of the reproductive system in rodent models and humans. Soy products, which contain phytoestrogens such as genistein, are one source of exposure in infants fed soy formula, and they result in high serum concentrations."
Are Plant Milks Ever Healthy?
One major problem with plant milks, particularly if you’re giving it to a child as a significant portion of their diet, is that they don’t offer much nutrition. Almond milk, for instance, may contain only 2% almonds.8 The rest of the beverage may be made largely of water, sugar and other additives, like carrageenan, a highly inflammatory additive that may cause inflammation in your gastrointestinal system and related problems.9
Rice milk is also problematic due to potential arsenic contamination, which may surpass the maximum levels allowed in drinking water.10 That being said, if you choose unsweetened, organic options, most plant milks aren’t necessarily harmful, but they’re not going to provide children with the nutrition their growing bodies need.
What they will do is fill up the child, making them less likely to eat the foods they need, like healthy fats and vegetables. The panel stated:11
“For 0 to 12-month-olds, plant milks/non-dairy beverages should not be used as a substitute for breast milk or infant formula. Use of alternative beverages as a major component of the diet during this period has been associated with malnutrition.”
Certain plant milks, particularly coconut milk, can provide some nutrition, but you’re almost always better off choosing the whole food instead, especially for children. So instead of serving a child almond milk, choose a handful of organic almonds.
Is Cow’s Milk a Healthy Choice?
The assumption that all children need milk to grow up strong is outdated. The calcium and protein found in milk can be consumed via a variety of dairy sources, vegetables and other foods. It’s not necessary to give children milk, provided they’re consuming a healthy, whole-food diet otherwise.
If your child feels ill after drinking dairy milk, a lactose intolerance, casein allergy or another type of dairy sensitivity may be present, and regular cows’ milk may be better off avoided. If you’re still looking for a dairy beverage, keep in mind that some people who have problems drinking regular dairy do fine when drinking raw, organic grass fed milk, which is far easier on your digestive system. Raw, grass fed A2-only milk may be even more ideal.
Due to the unique needs of their developing bodies, it is important to ensure children are getting the full spectrum of vitamins and minerals, as well as sufficient amounts of high-quality fat and protein, on a daily basis. However, this can come from a number of healthy sources, not necessarily milk.
Have You Heard of Cockroach Milk?
Speaking of milk alternatives, one of the most outrageous to surface is cockroach milk — but when you learn about the potential benefits, it doesn’t sound so outrageous after all. The female Pacific beetle cockroach is the only known cockroach species to be viviparous, meaning they give birth to live young and nurse their offspring.
As cockroach embryos drink their mother’s milk, it concentrates inside their guts and forms tiny crystals, which are considered a complete food with proteins, fats and sugars. Because cockroach milk has quadruple the nutrition value in comparison to cow’s milk, it may in the future be tapped to feed the world.12
What Are the Healthiest Beverage Choices for Children?
Healthy beverage choices are an important component of an overall healthy diet, particularly in childhood. As the panel explained:13
“Establishing healthy dietary patterns in early childhood (0 to 5 years) is important to help prevent future diet-related chronic diseases, as well as to support optimal physical and cognitive growth and development and overall health.
Healthy beverage intake is critical in early childhood as beverages can make a significant contribution to dietary intake during this period, and thus may serve as important sources of essential nutrients.”
If cockroach milk is too “out there,” and plant milks aren’t really healthy, what should you give your children to drink? From zero to 6 months, infants need only breastmilk. At 6 to 12 months, breastmilk along with a small amount of pure water (one-fourth to 1 cup a day) can be given.
For those older than 12 months, the panel recommended a combination of pure water and milk, along with a small amount of fruit juice (no more than 0.5 to 0.75 cups daily)14 — an addition I don’t recommend due to the high sugar content. And, while the panel recommended the water you give your children be fluoridated, I don’t recommend that either, as research confirms that fluoride lowers children’s IQ levels.
Perhaps most notable are the beverages the panel does not recommend for children aged zero to 5, which include:
Plant milks and other nondairy beverages, unless medically indicated
Flavored milk, such as chocolate or strawberry milk
Toddler milk, which often contains added sugars
Beverages with low-calorie, or artificial, sweeteners
Unfortunately, many children are consuming far too many unhealthy beverages and not enough pure water, putting them at risk of diet-related chronic diseases such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes and dental caries. The panel stated:15
- Many infants consume milk and 100% juice prior to their first birthday, which increases the risk of nutrient deficiencies and anemia
- Among 2- to 5-year-olds, 44% consume a sugar-sweetened beverage daily
- The prevalence of sugar-sweetened beverage consumption increases throughout childhood
To replace sugar-sweetened beverages, many children enjoy homemade smoothies made from kefir (fermented milk) and berries. If you’re having a hard time getting your child to drink water, try adding in some healthy flavor, such as fresh lemon or lime juice, cucumber slices or crushed mint leaves.
Sparkling mineral water can add some variety, but the fact remains that, once you’re past 6 to 12 months and no longer breastfeeding, your body needs pure water, and plenty of it. Swapping out sweetened beverages, plant milks and artificially sweetened drinks for pure water will go a long way toward protecting your child’s health, both now and in the years to come.