Key things to look for, and which to avoid, by Lydia Collins-Hussey, @themilkallergydietitian
As a specialist paediatric allergy dietitian, predominantly working in milk allergy, plant-based milks are something I get asked about on an almost daily basis. We’ve also seen an increase in families moving towards a plant-based or vegan lifestyle for reasons such as ethical, environmental, and sustainability. In doing so the plant-based milk market has responded and substantially grown.
Plant milks include a broad spectrum of milks such as soya, oat, pea, coconut, almond, hazelnut and rice. There is even a potato milk! It’s important to remember that they are not all nutritionally the same. Even amongst the same type (e.g. soya milk) there is such variation in nutrients and price!
You may be wondering does my toddler even need a milk? And the answer is… it depends! If you are breastfeeding or using a formula, then a plant milk may not be needed. Standard NHS advice for cow’s milk is that it can be introduced from 12 months of age, the same advice is given for unsweetened and fortified plant milks alongside a healthy balanced diet. Plant milks can be introduced earlier in cooking and cereals from 6 months of age. Before starting with a plant milk there are a few considerations such as your child’s growth, the nutritional adequacy of their diet, if they are particularly selective with eating or have multiple allergies. What might be good choice for one toddler, may not be for another.
Which ones to avoid?
In the UK, it is advised to avoid rice milk if the child is <5 years of age because of the inorganic arsenic levels. I also recommend avoiding nut-based milks such as almond and hazelnut as these are much lower in energy and protein. They can be incorporated in the diet of an older child, but I suggest not for little ones in the first years. Other plant milks to avoid include organic varieties, these will not be fortified with micronutrients that need replacing such as calcium and iodine.
So, what do you need to look out for? Here are my top 5 areas to consider…
As already highlighted there are many different types of plant milks. My preferred options include soya, pea, oat or coconut ‘super’ (many coconut varieties are much lower in energy and protein so please be mindful of this). Opt for unsweetened or no added sugar where possible. You will notice mix blends too (such as coconut mixed with rice milk), always double check the ingredients list.
It is so important to replace key nutrients found in cow’s milk such as calcium and iodine. Try to choose a plant milk that has 120mg of calcium per 100mls and around 25ug of iodine per 100mls. Many plant milks will also have B12, B2 and vitamin D. Vitamin D is particularly important as it helps in the absorption of calcium and can be hard to obtain from diet alone. In the UK a vitamin D supplement of 10ug is recommended for little ones until 5 years of age. Just remember to shake the carton as the sentiment falls to the bottom.
Little ones rapidly grow in the first few years of life and in doing so need plenty of energy (calories) for growth. Full fat cow’s milk contains 66kcal per 100mls. Opt for plant milks that are >45kcal per 100ml. Barista style plant milks will have a higher energy and fat compared to other versions.
There are considerable differences between plant milks on the amount of protein they contain. Soya and pea milk are naturally high in protein, varying from 2-3g per 100mls whereas oat milks are much lower (many <1g per 100mls). Where possible try to choose one >1g per 100mls. If you do opt for oat milk containing 1g then protein can be made up elsewhere in the diet such as beans, pulses, meat, fish, and grains. A toddler usually needs around 15g of protein a day. As previously mentioned, nut-based milks are much lower in both energy and protein and best avoided.
We can get bogged down with the nutritional information but at the end of the day your little one should enjoy what they are drinking, and so personal preference is also key! You may also find you mix up different plant milks you use, such as oat milk in breakfast cereal/cooking and soya milk as a drink. If your little one doesn’t like the taste or doesn’t drink much, please don’t worry! There are plenty of other ways to ensure nutrients are met in your little one’s diet as part of a balanced diet, which is why speaking with a registered paediatric dietitian is so important.
Need further help?
If you need further guidance on plant-based milks and milk-free shopping, I cover this in more detail in my milk free shopping handbook, including product recommendations specific to the UK market so you can feel rest assured that your little one is getting the right nutrition.
Access HERE and use HANDBOOK35 for a 35% discount at checkout.