Just about any food, it seems, can be made into milk. Seeds, coconut, nuts, and rice are just a few of the milk alternatives you’ll find in the grocery store. Although it may seem that these milk alternatives would offer the same nutrition as cow’s milk, the truth is that they don’t.
Aside from cow’s milk, the most common milk alternatives you’ll find in the grocery store are rice milk, soy milk, hemp milk, almond milk, oat milk, and coconut milk. However, other types are emerging on the market, including cashew milk, buffalo milk, and sheep milk.
When choosing a milk alternative, there are certain considerations to weigh, such as calorie content, whether important nutrients are present in sufficient amounts, and taste. For a young child, the nutrient profile is an important consideration.
Keep these aspects about milk alternatives in mind as you choose the right one for your child.
The calorie content of milk alternatives varies considerably from whole cow’s milk (150 calories per cup). For example, unsweetened coconut milk (40 calories per cup) or unsweetened plain almond milk (30 calories per cup) are low-calorie versions, compared to higher calorie options like hemp milk (140 calories per cup) or flavored rice milk (130 calories per cup).
The calorie content of a milk alternative is important to consider, especially for your growing toddler. Low-calorie milk alternative options may require eating more food so that growth continues along at an optimal pace.
Cow’s milk offers a good source of protein, at 8 grams per cup. The closest milk alternative to this level of protein content is soy milk, at 6 to 8 grams per cup. All other milks offer less protein. For example, hemp milk may offer up to 5-6 grams per cup, and coconut, almond, and rice milks offer between 0 and 1 gram per cup.
Again, the protein content matters when considering the nutritional needs of a growing child because low protein intake may stall growth.
Not only does the amount of fat in an alternative milk matter, so does the type of fat. Cow’s milk contains both saturated and unsaturated fat, but many milk alternatives are known for their unsaturated fat content, such as oat, hemp, rice, and nut milks.
The amount of fat also matters. Hemp and coconut milks are higher in fat with about 5 to 7 grams of fat per cup, while rice, almond, and soy milks are lower in fat at 1 to 3 grams per cup. As a comparison, whole milk contains about 9 grams of fat per cup, while 1 percent contains about 2.5 grams of fat. Depending on nutritional goals, such as promoting normal growth or helping an underweight toddler gain weight, the fat content may be a consideration.
Calcium and vitamin D
Many milk alternatives are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, but that hasn’t always been the case. Be sure to read the ingredients label and look for a Daily Value (DV) of 20 percent for calcium, which indicates it’s a good source.
Children drinking milk alternatives may not be getting enough vitamin D, which is an important nutrient in the building of strong bones and supporting general health. A study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that children aged 1 to 6 years who drank cow’s milk alternatives were twice as likely to be vitamin D deficient compared to children drinking cow’s milk.
You can read the ingredients label and look for vitamin D content (children and adults need 600 International Units [IU] per day). However, finding other sources of vitamin D foods and getting out in the sunshine will help to ensure your child consumes adequate amounts.
Some milk alternatives don’t taste good. Manufacturers add sugar to make them taste better. While some brands are lightly sweetened, others can contain 2 to 3 teaspoons of sugar per cup.
Rice products, including rice milk, have been found to have trace amounts of arsenic, a common element found in the water and soil of rice fields. This is a concern for families with children who consume rice milk.
The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that parents offer their children a wide variety of foods, including other grains such as oats, wheat, and barley, which will decrease their child’s exposure to arsenic from rice. This is good advice for rice milk as well. Rotate different types when possible.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, September 2020
- There are many different types of cow’s milk alternatives, such as rice milk or hemp milk, available for children.
- Take care to review your child’s nutritional needs when making a decision to offer cow’s milk alternatives.
- Calories, protein, fat, calcium, and vitamin D are the main differences to evaluate before choosing a cow’s milk alternative for your child.