Plant based milk alternatives
There has been an explosion of plant-based “milks” available in the UK in the last few years and there is now a huge variety of these plant-based “milks” available in supermarkets and health food shops around the country. However, there are a few things that I feel are important to consider before choosing one of these drinks for young children.
There are many reasons why families may wish to use plant-based drinks instead of cow’s milk…your child may have a cow’s milk allergy, your family may be vegan or your family may simply want to include more plant-derived foods in their diets from a sustainability and ‘better for the planet’ point of view.
It is worth remembering that these drinks (I don’t like to call them milks) are low in calories and protein (except soya milk) and therefore they are not suitable for infants and children up to 18 months to 2 years of age, depending on their growth and variety of other foods eaten.
Plant-based drinks can be used in cooking or over cereals for infants from 6 months of age, but should NOT be used as a main drink until the child is at least 18 months to 2 years of age and eating a diet sufficient in calories, protein, fats, vitamins and minerals. I would suggest an assessment by a registered paediatric dietitian. It is also important to point out that organic varieties are not suitable for children, as they are not fortified with vitamins and minerals.
All infants (under 12 months) who cannot tolerate cow’s milk protein (or soya protein) should either be breast-fed or be on a suitable infant formula such as an extensively hydrolysed or amino acid based formula. Speak with a paediatric dietitian about this.
(You can ask your GP to refer you to an NHS dietitian or you can search for a freelance dietitian here: https://freelancedietitians.org)
Apologies, this is quite a long blog post! So if you don’t have time to read the whole article, I would recommend that you read these top tips…
My top tips for choosing a plant-based drink for children:
What nutrition does cow’s milk provide?
We all know that cow’s milk provides a good source of complete protein, which means it contains all the essential amino acids (building blocks of protein) important for growth and repair of our cells. I
am sure we all also know that milk is a great source of calcium (typically 120mg/100ml) but it is also an important source some other vitamins and minerals, such as riboflavin (vitamin B2), vitamin B12 and iodine.
How much calcium do children need each day?
0-12 months 525mg
1-3 years 350mg
4-6 years 450mg
7-10 years 550mg
Breastfeeding mums 1250mg
Why is Iodine important?
Iodine is an essential micronutrient but not one you often hear about. It is only needed in tiny quantities (50 – 130 micrograms per day, depending on the age of the child and 200 micrograms per day for pregnant and breastfeeding mums), but it has an essential role to play in helping our bodies to make thyroid hormones. Iodine is also essential in pregnant women to support baby’s brain and neurological development. Recent research has shown that there has been a re-emergence of iodine deficiency in the UK and this is particularly important in pregnant women, where a deficiency of iodine could influence the neurodevelopment of their children (Ann Clin Biochem. 2015 Nov;52(Pt 6):705-8)
Food sources of iodine:
The best sources of iodine are found in dairy products and in sea fish (particularly white fish) and shellfish. For this reason, dairy-free diets can be low in iodine and vegan diets can be very low in iodine. Check with your healthcare professional, as some children may need to take an iodine supplement, but be careful, as very high intakes of iodine can be harmful.
To read more about iodine: Iodine
What about vitamin B12?
Vitamin B12 is very important for keeping our nervous system healthy. Vitamin B12 is only found in animal food sources and for this reason vegans are at high risk of deficiency and should consider taking a vitamin B12 supplement. Food sources include dairy products, meat, fish and eggs. Soy based meat substitutes are often fortified with vitamin B12 but vitamin B12 does not occur naturally in soya.
You can read further information about a vegan-friendly vitamin B12 supplement here: Vegan vitamin B12 supplement
Thinking about the energy content of plant-based drinks…
In order to illustrate the relatively low energy content of these drinks, I have shown below the amount of each plant-based drink providing the same number of energy/calories as 50ml cow’s milk:
100ml soya milk (unsweetened)
50ml soya milk (for 1-3 year olds, sweetened)
75ml oat drink
75ml rice drink** (sweetened) – see note below
115ml hazelnut drink (sweetened)
120ml coconut drink
140ml hemp drink
250ml almond drink (unsweetened)
**PLEASE NOTE: Rice “milk” is not suitable for children under 5 years of age due to the arsenic content
So what is in these plant-based drinks?
The tables below illustrate the nutritional content of different plant-based drinks available in the UK. I have only included the brands fortified with calcium and vitamins in the tables but have given the names of brands to illustrate the variety available.
(I have tried to include as many brands as I could find but please let me know if there are any that I’ve not included!)
Alpro, supermarket own brands, Provamel
* Contains added sugar and starch
** Contains apple extract
*** Contains added sugar – Alpro unsweetened soya drink is also available, with a nutritional profile similar to the supermarket own brand shown above.
Oatly, Alpro, Provitamil, Provamel, Rude Health, Oat Dream
* Oatly has added iodised salt that contributes a small amount of iodine
Koko, Alpro, Rude Health, Provamel, Rebel Kitchen (Rebel Mylks), Coconut Dream, Califia Farms (almond and coconut drink)
* contains added sugar from grape juice concentrate
** no added sugar, rice has been added to increase the CHO content
Alpro, Provamel, Rude Health, Pip & Nut, Califia Farms, Plenish
There is a huge variety of nut drinks available in supermarkets and health food shops.
* unsweetened (sweetened varieties also available)
** added sugars
Rice drinks – **NOT suitable for children under 5 years of age**
Rice Dream, Provamel, Alpro,
*added starch (maltodextrin)
* added sugar
A few comments….
Just for fun…flavour rating from my 8 year old…
My youngest daughter had great fun rating the plant-based drinks….no surprises that the sweetest drinks were her favourite!
Interestingly, my 11 year old liked the Oat drink from Provitamil the best and her 2 least favourite drinks were the almond drink and (unsweetened, supermarket own brand) soya milk.
I hope you have found this blog post useful and interesting. Please let me know if you have any questions or comments.