What are the warnings about young kids and plant-based milk all about?

“Hello Rosie, I’m wondering what your thoughts are regarding this news article “Plant-based milks shouldn’t be main beverage for young children, health experts say. Pediatricians, dietitians say well-intentioned parents may be ‘withholding important nutrients”.  My friend and I have been discussing it and she’s questioning why we need cows milk at all, and is also questioning the comment about breast feeding until two years of age (or older?). Your wise and sensible thoughts would be most appreciated. And once again, many thanks.”,  says Enlightened Eater Facebook fan, Jennifer Burnham.

Jennifer, the plant-based milks have become a real issue as the marketplace has expanded with a whole range of offerings. The problem is that not all these plant-based milks are created equal- actually far from it.

The article  is based on a joint statement by Dietitians of Canada and the Canadian Paediatric Society. The statement was due to concern over the increased use of these products in young children aged 2 to 8. There have been reports of infants and young children becoming malnourished and one death after being fed plant-based drinks as a main beverage.

Many of these beverages are low in key nutrients, particularly protein and possibly fat and calories. While cow’s milk is not a necessary component of a child’s diet, parents may be unaware of the nutritional value of the products they may have heard are nutritionally superior. Navigating healthy eating strategies for anyone, never mind youngsters, can be difficult these days given the misinformation on social media and the internet.

But for kids, because it’s a key stage of growth and development, meeting nutritional needs is even more vital. This can be accomplished without cow’s milk, though, it may require a little more attention to the best choices.

For infants, higher fat choices such as breast milk and infant formula (cow’s milk or soy) are recommended and for children up until the age of 2, again breast milk, soy formula or full-fat (homogenized) cow’s milk are advised. The fat is needed for brain development. After 2 years of age, fortified soy milk can replace the formula while lower-fat cow’s milk can be introduced.

While we may now look at breastfeeding until two years as being unusual, at one time it was the norm for a young child to eat table food and still breastfeed. Breast milk is packed with nutrients and can definitely be a convenient option for feeding – even if mothers are away from home at work. For kids over a year of age, breastfeeding can take place in the morning and at night. But it’s not for everyone.

As for cow’s milk, for those who have no objection to animal foods or any allergies, dairy products are a super convenient source of a range of nutrients.

Not all plant-based milks are created equal

When you look at most other plant-based beverages, other than soy (and pea-see below), such as almond, coconut or rice milk, most don’t measure up. Consider that a cup of almond milk may contain only 4 whole almonds or 1 gram of protein. Some contain added sugar – some with enough to actually be considered as a sugar-sweetened beverage. If youngsters are then filling up on these fluids, there may not be room for other foods which may supply necessary protein and calories. As a result, growth and development can be compromised.

For kids who are vegetarian or vegan, it can be even tougher to meet nutritional needs if they’re consuming these particular plant-based milks. It’s also key to include other sources of fat such as nuts and seeds and their butters or options such as avocados. This can be difficult for those on limited food budgets. Those who eat animal products can fill some of the gap with small portions of meat, poultry, fish or eggs and other higher protein plant choices such as pulses.

Check out the protein content of some of these products in the chart below.

But there’s a new kid on the block: pea milk. It’s comparable to cow’s milk in terms of protein and even has more calcium than dairy milk. It’s also kinder on the environment than products such as almond milk. BTW- while I haven’t tried it myself, it doesn’t look or taste like peas.

In an educational piece in PEN: Practice Based Evidence in Nutrition on the topic, the authors point out a few tips:

• Reading labels is key. While Health Canada requires manufacturers of plant-based drinks to add the statement “Not a source of protein” directly on drink containers due to their low protein content, the warning message is frequently very small.

• Plant-based milks may not be fortified with some of the basic minerals and vitamins, like calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12 that are found in cow’s milk. Others like magnesium, zinc, vitamin A, riboflavin, vitamin B6 and iodine are not found in even the fortified selections.

• There is also concern about overdoing choices such as soy or rice milk due to the amount of manganese they contain. In excess, they may pose a health risk.

 

 

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Categories: Children's Health, Your Questions Answered

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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