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Milk Alternatives: How to make the best choice for your child
More and more parents are looking towards plant-based alternatives to cow’s milk for their children. New products are constantly entering the marketplace and it is wonderful to see the variety of options available. With so many choices, including milk made of soy, rice, hemp, coconut, flax, oats, quinoa, sunflower seeds and a variety of nuts, parents are left feeling overwhelmed and confused about which milk alternative is the best choice for their child.
Before choosing a plant-based milk alternative, here are some points to consider:
1. Added ingredients:
Most plant-based milk alternatives will contain a range of added ingredients including thickeners and stabilizers, added oils and sweeteners. Carrageenan is a thickening agent that many consumers are trying to avoid due to questions regarding its health and safety implications. An increasing number of companies have been responding to consumer demands and removing carrageenan from their products. If this is a concern for you, be sure the check the ingredient list as carrageenan is still found in the majority of milk alternatives on the market. I always look for products with as few ingredients as possible and choose the unsweetened variety. If necessary, you can always add your own sweetener.
2. Sensory-based considerations:
Other items that should factor into your decision include taste, colour and consistency. Depending on what your child is already used to drinking and their individual preferences, they may enjoy one brand or type of milk more than another. Rice milk, for example, is naturally sweet tasting and this can be appealing to children. Some brands, however, can be quite watery or have a bit of a brownish hue so it is not always easy to seamlessly transition a child who is used to a thicker, whiter milk. Hemp milk is a great option from a nutritional standpoint and has a very white colour, similar to that of cow’s milk, but the taste can be quite grassy. Some kids love it, but it’s not for everyone. If you need to add a hint of sweetness in order for your child to accept a particular milk alternative, it is always better to do this at home with a little honey (if your child is over the age of one) or pure maple syrup rather than purchasing a product which has already been sweetened with refined sugar. This way you can control the quality, the amount and can gradually wean off of the sweetener altogether at some point.
3. Where will your child be drinking it?
If you be using a milk alternative as a base for smoothies, the taste, colour and consistency concerns are not going to factor in as much since they can be easily masked with the right combination of ingredients. An important consideration is whether or not your child be drinking this at daycare or school. If so, chances are that nut-based milk alternatives such as almond, hazelnut or cashew milk will not be an option for them.
4. What are your child’s specific needs?
Think about why you feel the need to offer your child a plant-based milk alternative. Perhaps there are certain dietary restrictions involved such as a milk protein allergy, dairy sensitivity or lactose intolerance. Maybe you are a vegan family or making a personal choice to avoid cow’s milk (or milk from other animals in general). Consider what you are trying to achieve. Are you trying to wean your child from breast milk or formula and want another type of “milk" to transition to? Are you looking for an easy way to ensure nutrients in your child’s diet? Calcium and fat are important nutrients, however, they do not need to come in liquid form. Rather than simply examining what is in your child’s cup, take a look at their diet as a whole. A child with a good appetite and a balanced diet that includes a range of nutrients does not necessarily need to drink milk, whether it be from plant OR animal origin. If you are trying to supplement your child’s diet, it may be helpful to have a nutritionist look at your child’s diet to determine the best way to fill those gaps. Coconut milk, for example, can be a great way to include more fat into your child’s diet. In Canada, however, coconut milk is not fortified with calcium so you would need to look elsewhere if ensuring calcium is your goal.
**Note: Some families enjoy making their own plant-based milk alternatives, such as almond milk. This can be a very tasty beverage, just be aware that even though almonds and almond butter are an excellent sources of calcium, homemade almond milk is not. When you make almond milk at home, the almond meal is strained out in the process, along with most of the calcium. The reason that store bought almond milk contains approximately 30% of your recommended daily intake of calcium is because it is fortified.
Hopefully this will help you navigate the supermarket aisles with a little less anxiety. I encourage you to try different brands and different types of milk alternatives until you find one that both you and your child are happy with. Keep in mind that you do not need to find just one. In my nutrition practice, I will often recommend combinations of milks in order to achieve a specific taste profile or balance of nutrients.
Aviva Allen is a Kids’ Nutritionist specializing in helping parents with their picky eaters. For more information about services, upcoming workshops or to set up a phone, Skype or in-office appointment, visit www.avivaallen.com.