Plant-based milk has become increasingly popular. Once regarded as a fringe product geared toward “health nuts,” it’s now gone mainstream and is available at many supermarkets and coffee shops. The health benefits, if any, of alternative milks are debatable, and new health guidelines released by a group of health organizations suggest most young children should not consume it.
Childhood nutrition sets the stage for optimal development and lifelong health. What your child drinks is part of this equation, as is what your child does not drink. It’s widely known that sugar-sweetened beverages and even fruit juice should be limited or avoided, but milk is largely considered to be a go-to beverage option for children. However, not all milk is created equal.
Most Young Children Should Avoid Plant-Based Milk
A panel of experts with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association prepared the healthy beverage consensus statement, “Healthy Beverage Consumption in Early Childhood.”1
For infants aged zero to 12 months, the panel stated plant milks are not recommended. For those aged 1 to 5 years, plant milks were also not recommended for exclusive consumption in place of dairy milk. This includes plant milks and nondairy beverages such as rice, nut and seed milk, or milk made from coconut, oats, peas or blends of these ingredients. The rationale, according to the statement:2
“Plant-based milks are growing in popularity, but it is important to note that they are not nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk. They have varying nutritional pro les based on their plant source and many often contain added sugars.”
Two studies were cited that compared the nutritional value of cow’s milk with nondairy beverages. One found that cow’s milk has higher protein content and quality compared to most nondairy milk beverages.3
The other concluded, “[I]f the goal is to provide a beverage nutritionally similar to cow’s milk for growing children, then, with the exception of soy, NDMAs [nondairy milk alternatives] are not nutritionally similar to cow’s milk and are not a good substitute.”4 The expert panel noted:5
“Although plant milks may be fortified to attain similar nutrient levels as cow’s milk, it is not known whether the bioavailability of these added nutrients is comparable to that of their naturally-occurring counterparts in cow’s milk.
These studies concluded that cow’s milk should not be removed from the diets of young children unless there is a medical indication or specific dietary preference, and that non-dairy milk beverages should not be considered adequate nutritional substitutes for cow’s milk until nutrient quality and bioavailability are established.”
Almond and Soy Milk Are Not Healthy Options
Almond milk is loaded with oxalates and should be avoided. Not only can oxalates increase your risk of kidney stones but there is increasing evidence that high oxalate consumption can cause a wide variety of disorders and there is pretty clear evidence that oxalates can cause excess oxidative stress and increase mitochondrial dysfunction.
The panel made an exception for soy milk; however, this beverage is not a healthy choice for children or adults. Most soybeans in the U.S. are genetically engineered to be herbicide tolerant. They are doused with toxic glyphosate, a chemical linked to cancer and other health risks. Soy is also high in antinutrients called lectins, including soybean agglutinin (SBA), which may alter intestinal health and gut flora.6
Other antinutrients in soy include saponins, soyatoxin, phytates (which prevent the absorption of certain minerals), oxalates, protease inhibitors, estrogens (which can block the hormone estrogen and disrupt endocrine function) and goitrogens (interfering with your thyroid function) as well as a blood clot-inhibiting substance called hemagglutinin.
The expert panel noted that children with allergies may choose to consume plant milks, but even in these instances, soy milk is not a healthy choice. It’s also not a safe choice for infant formula either, in part because it exposes infants to hormone-mimicking substances. As noted in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives:7
"Early-life exposure to estrogenic compounds affects the development of the reproductive system in rodent models and humans. Soy products, which contain phytoestrogens such as genistein, are one source of exposure in infants fed soy formula, and they result in high serum concentrations."