Milk Alternatives and Children: What Does the Science Say?
There are some new, trendy beverages in the dairy aisle. With catchy claims, social media buzz and inventive flavors, milk alternatives may be tempting our clients away from the MyPlate staple, real cow’s milk, towards beverages that lack a lot of benefit. It’s not just marketing. Misinformation and misconceptions may be sending clients away from dairy.
When comparing the naturally occurring nutrients, real cow’s milk wins. An extensive body of research links eating dairy foods to health benefits – including better bone health, especially in children and adolescents, reduced risk for cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes, and lower blood pressure. The alternatives don’t compare.
When it comes to the 2015-20 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, these alternative beverages don’t even make the cut. The guidelines even encourage real cow’s milk for people with lactose intolerance, who still need the same nine essential nutrients from dairy foods. There are many solutions for those with lactose intolerance, including low-lactose foods and lactose-free milk. For people with a true milk allergy, the guidelines recommend soy milk for its similar nutrient profile.
The Choice for Children
Nutrition is important lifelong, but especially crucial during childhood. Milk alternatives simply aren’t giving children the nutrients they need. Recent research is confirming this:
- A recent study found that milk alternatives might not give children enough vitamin D. The study, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, found that young children who drank milk alternatives, such as almond, soy or rice milk, were more likely to have low levels of vitamin D in their blood.
- Another found that children who drank milk alternatives were shorter than their peers who drank real cow’s milk.
- Seeing the risks associated with turning away from dairy food, a joint statement by the Dietitians of Canada and Canadian Paediatric Society advised parents to select beverages carefully for their children and stressed that a plant-based beverage should not be the main beverage for children.
Real cow’s milk should remain the recommendation:
Age 1-2 – The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 16-24 fluid ounces of plain whole milk for children starting at age 1.
Age 2-3 – The 2015-20 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends two servings (16 fluid ounces total daily) of low-fat milk, fat-free milk or fortified soy beverages for children aged 2 to 3 years.
Age 4-8 – The 2015-20 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends 2½ servings (20 fluid ounces total daily) for children 4 to 8 years.
Current guidelines recommend limiting saturated fat – including dairy foods – but with emerging evidence about the role of dairy fat in cardiovascular disease risk, this recommendation could change in the future.
Strategies for Clients
Educating clients on hot topics like milk alternatives is crucial, but we ultimately need them to put this information into practice. Learning more about lactose intolerance and how dairy still fits into a healthy eating pattern should be the first step. Offering strategies to help clients make the most out of milk should be second. I stay focused on ensuring our clients have the nutrients they need; being an advocate for good food helps me nourish my clients and their families.