Plant-based milks; safe for young children?

There has been some coverage in the media lately, calling into question the safety of plant-based milks as a beverage for young children.

The authors raise three concerns:

  • The amount of protein in plant-based milks
  • The sugars in plant-based milks
  • Fortification in plant-based milks

 

Let’s take a look at those three concerns, and see if the science backs them up.

 

Protein

 

Let’s start with what I agree with. It is certainly true that almond, coconut and rice milk are all low in protein, and they should not form the basis of the diet for young children. I don’t think anyone ever said they should! This is not news! It is well known in the vegetarian, vegan and nutrition communities.

 

In most cases I  see plant-based milks as convenience foods. They allow us to enjoy similar (or even better!) drinking, cooking and baking experiences that we had with dairy milk. Toddlers should be eating a variety of foods. Although soy milk is on par with dairy milk in terms of protein, and can be a wonderful source of nutrients for children, we should should encourage children to enjoy colourful and varied meals, not only rely on beverages for their protein.

 

The great news is that protein is abundant in plants, and parents will have no difficulty meeting their children’s needs on a well-planned plant-based diet. As the 2016 position paper from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in the US states, a well planned vegetarian or vegan diet is appropriate for all stages of the life cycle.  

I created this daily menu based on what my seven year old daughter loves to eat. I’m keepin’ it real here, so no judgement please! This is just an example. She also loves lots of other foods like tofu stir-fry, chick-pea curry, hummus, kale…. and rockets.

 

 

 

 

Day’s menu

Food Serving Protein in grams
 Breakfast
Oatmeal 1 cup 5.3
Almond milk ½ cup 0.5
Peanut butter 1 tbsp 3.6
Dates 3 dates 0.5
Lunch
Cucumber slices 5 slices 0.2
Vegan chocolate chip cookie 1 cookie 1.0
Wow butter (PB alternative, school safe) 1 tbsp 4.0
Smucker’s jam ½ tbsp 0.0
After school snack
Apple 1 medium 0.5
Pumpkin seeds ¼ cup 8.8
Evening meal
White rice ½ cup 2.1
Bean chili ¾ cup 6.8
Banana 1 medium 1.3
Total protein 43.6 grams

 

She requires 19 grams of protein per day, according to recommendations. In this meal plan she is getting 230% of her requirements! This is even with the inclusion of foods that are processed or not good nutrient sources like vegan cookies, wow butter, jam, and white rice.

 

Interestingly, breastmilk, the optimal food to support infant growth, has only 2.5 grams of protein per cup. Breastmilk is, of course, optimally designed for babies, and I would never compare it with almond milk, however it does show that humans can grow and develop well even with low protein intake. As recommended by the Canadian Pediatric Society, “Breastfeeding – exclusively for the first six months, and continued for up to two years or longer with appropriate complementary feeding – is important for the nutrition, immunologic protection, growth and development of infants and toddlers” This includes vegan children!

 

Please let’s put this protein thing to bed, where it belongs.

 

Sugar

This one is easy. There are many unsweetened plant-milk options, and so you can chose the sweetness level that you feel is right for your family. If you want your children to avoid added sugars, it is easy to do that with unsweetened plant-based milks.

 

Fortification

While it may be true that a few varieties of plant-based milk are not fortified, the vast majority of them are. It is easy to find fortified options of plant-based milks, as  found when I visited my local No Frills supermarket. Forgive my roving reporter style!

 

All the national brands I saw were fortified with calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12. Check the label of the product you would like to buy, to be sure it is fortified.

 

Overall, plant-based milks can be part of a healthy, and well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet, at any stage of the life cycle. You can check out more of my thoughts on raising healthy plant-based kids here! In my home, and in my practice I use and recommend plant-based milks, but I would never expect anyone to rely on these, or any other beverage for complete nutrition for toddlers or young children. 

 

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