Milk has been a staple for dietary guidelines for decades. In the U.S., the star-powered Got Milk? ads featured celebrities, cartoon characters, and video game characters selling dairy as the key to growing up big and strong. The mandatory milk policy for public school lunches further positions dairy as integral to children’s health. (The USDA even goes so far as to say that “milk, not water, is required in school meals.”) And that begs the question: do kids need milk to be healthy?
Do Kids Need Milk?
First, what does the USDA say? According to the MyPlate nutrition guide, children should consume 2 cups of dairy up to age three, and 2 ½ cups up to age eight. But, “dairy” doesn’t exclusively refer to products that come from a cow. The MyPlate website states that “the Dairy Group includes milk, yogurt, cheese, lactose-free milk, and fortified soy milk and yogurt.”
Lisa Moskovitz, RD, CDN, and CEO of the NY Nutrition Group tells LIVEKINDLY that “While cow’s milk is not completely necessary in a child’s diet, it does offer a plethora of vital nutrients including bone-building calcium and vitamin D, iodine for a healthy thyroid, and a complete source of protein with all 9 essential amino acids for proper growth and development.”
However, these nutrients can be acquired through fortified vegan milk.
Allergens or lactose intolerance may be another reason why your kids might want to steer clear of cow’s milk. According to the National Institute of Health, 95 percent of Asians, 60 to 80 percent of African Americans and Ashkenazi Jews, 80 to 100 percent of Native Americans, and 50 to 80 percent of Hispanics are affected by lactose intolerance. Anyone can have a dairy allergy or intolerance and most will begin showing signs at around age five.
“If you’re noticing diarrhea, constipation, increased upper respiratory infections, and skin rashes, it’s possible cow’s milk dairy is causing unfavorable reactions. In that case, switching to a dairy-free milk like soy, almond, oat, or coconut milk might be the better option,” says Moskovitz.
What Should Kids Drink Instead of Cow’s Milk?
“Plant-based milks like almond and coconut milk are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, however they do not contain nearly the amount of bioavailable protein as cow’s milk dairy,” says Moskovitz. “Soy milk does compare to cow’s milk in terms of protein and also offers a great source of calcium, D, iron, and B-vitamins.”
Giving your child plant-based milk instead of dairy is perfectly fine, given that they eat enough protein. Moskowitz recommends soy milk. This is because it contains “the most balanced nutritional profile of the plant-milk family and also offers a complete source of protein. Ultimately, incorporating a variety of different plant-milks can ensure proper nutrient delivery and absorption. Opt for unsweetened versions to limit added sugars and milks that are carrageenan-free.”
“While research is still ongoing, there is speculation that based on the individual and amount consumed, the additive carrageenan can be inflammatory,” adds Moskowitz.
So, (plant) milk really can do the body and the planet good. But as with any health and nutrition advice, always defer to the experts with nutrition-related concerns.
Looking for the best vegan milks? Check out some of our guides below for picking the right plant-based milk for you: