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Should Children Drink Plant-Based Milks? Here’s What The Experts Say…

What kids eat and drink matters!  This is especially true during early childhood when habits and taste preferences are established, and major growth and development takes place.  It’s also why four leading health organizations convened an expert panel to develop the first-ever consensus recommendations on what young children (birth to age 5) should be drinking for optimal health, based on the best available evidence. 

The following four organizations collaborated:     

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry

American Academy of Pediatrics

American Heart Association

Here are some of the most relevant highlights:

  • Recommended beverages for young children (birth to age 5) include breast milk, infant formula, water, and cow’s milk (unsweetened).  Specific guidelines, by age, are included in the report.
  • Plain water is the best way to quench a child’s thirst.  Fluoridated water is recommended to help prevent dental cavities. 
  • Children should meet their daily fruit intake primarily by eating whole fresh, frozen, or canned fruit (without added sugar).  Children age 1 to 3 should drink no more than ½ cup (125 mL) of 100% fruit juice daily. Children age 4 to 5 should drink no more than ½ – ¾ cup (125-175 mL). Adding water to juice makes a little bit go a long way.
  • Cow’s milk is considered a critical part of a healthy diet – it’s the number one source of energy, calcium, vitamin A, vitamin D, and zinc for infants and young children.  Although recent research questions whether there may be benefits to including more higher fat dairy products in the diet, until the evidence is clear, children (age 1 to 2) should consume whole milk, while children age 2 and older should still switch to lower fat milk (skim or 1%).  Flavored milks, like chocolate or strawberry, are not recommended due to the added sugar they contain.
  • Plant-based/non-dairy milks are not recommended as a full replacement for regular milk. With the exception of fortified soy milk, many plant-based/non-dairy milk alternatives lack key nutrients found in cow’s milk, including high quality protein.  In addition, although many plant-based milks contain added nutrients, some research suggests that the nutrients found in plant-based milks (whether added or naturally occurring) may not be as well absorbed by the body as the nutrients found in cow’s milk (this includes nutrients like calcium, zinc, magnesium, and iron). 
  • Plant-based milks (unsweetened and fortified) may be a good choice if your child is allergic to dairy, lactose intolerant, or is if your family has chosen not to consume animal products.  If your child consumes a plant-based milk, however, you should consult with your pediatrician or a dietitian to make sure all nutritional needs are being met, including protein. 
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages are not recommended, including soft drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks, sweetened waters, and sweetened coffee and tea beverages.  Fruit-flavoured drinks (fruit cocktails, fruit punches, lemonades, etc) should also be avoided – they are the most commonly consumed sugar-sweetened beverages in young children. 
  • Beverages containing sugar substitutes or low-calorie sweeteners are also not recommended.  Not enough is known about how their impact on health at this time. 

For the full report, visit “Healthy Drinks Healthy Kids” (click here)

Consensus Statement (click here)

Technical Scientific Report (click here)

My closing thoughts and input…

The lower protein content of many plant-based milks can compromise the nutritional well-being of young children.  If these drinks are consumed, diets need to be planned accordingly.  Plant-based milks can fit more easily into the diets of older children and adults, as their diets are more likely to contain enough protein from other sources.  As for sugary drinks, children of all ages are consuming far too many of them – these drinks greatly compromise health. 

OTHER RESOURCES ON THIS TOPIC:

Position of Dietitians of Canada and the Canadian Paediatric Society on Plant-Based Milk – Released Nov. 2017.  (click here)

“Other than soy-fortified beverages, plant-based drinks, whether available in the dairy section of the store refrigerator or in shelf-stable containers, are not appropriate choices for young children as their main beverage since they are not nutritionally adequate if the child has only small servings of high protein foods.”

Dietitians of Canada (PEN: Practice Based Evidence in Nutrition) – “Plant-Based Beverages – Are They Really Healthier for Young Children?” (click here)

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