The age old question: Is milk bad for children? Does the dairy fridge of the supermarket send your head into a spin? Then there is the long-life selection filled with milk and milk alternatives. How do you decide what is “right” for your child when the choice seems to expand on a weekly basis?
What is the difference?
Compared to cow’s milk, plant based milk products (e.g. rice, almond, coconut and soy) naturally contain a lower volume of protein and smaller range of vitamins and minerals. Soy based milks have the most similar protein and energy content to cows milk. Therefore are more prone to have added vitamins and minerals. Compared with cow and soy-based milks, nut and seed (e.g. almond and coconut) milks tend to have a very low energy/calorie and protein content. Many brands of plant-based milks do not include added vitamins and minerals. Essentially some brands are little more than water with a small amount (about 5-10%) of the plant-based ingredient.
When it comes to the difference between breastmilk, formula and full-cream cow’s milk; they all have similar energy and protein contents. Breastmilk and formula have a more comprehensive range of essential vitamins and minerals than cow’s milk. This vitamin and mineral profile is essential for infants until 12 months. As a child starts to eat a wider range of food (usually around 12 months) they get extra vitamins and minerals from their food. Hence, they do not routinely require the extra vitamins and minerals that breastmilk or formula provides.
What milk and when for kids?
Breastmilk (or formula) is recommended as the sole source of nutrition for the first 4-6 months of life. Breast milk is recommended to continue until at least 12 months of age together with solids. From 12 months full-cream milk as a drink can be introduced and formula ceased. Breastfeeding can continue as long as a mother desires. It is important to structure breastfeeding in a way that ensures the child doesn’t “fill-up” on breastmilk. And also doesn’t avoid or have a low desire for eating solids.
Reduced fat milks such as rice, coconut or soy varieties are not recommended as the main beverage. At least between 12-24 months old. These milks have a low energy content overall. Children risk the potential to not meet their caloric requirements if consumed as the main milk beverage. It is okay to use these products in cooking, for example when baking muffins or items shared among a family.
What to look for if buying a cow’s milk alternative
If you prefer to buy a plant-based milk for a child under 5 years aim for a beverage that contains:
- Added calcium- check the nutrition panel and aim for > 120mg per 100mL
- Adequate protein- check the nutrition panel and aim for at least 3g per 100mL
- A little bit of fat- check the nutrition panel and aim for 2-4g per 100mL
- Different brands contain different ingredients so best to check the label and compare products.
- Most organic brands do not have added calcium
What about raw milk?
Pasteurisation is a process that heats milk to a temperature that kills bacteria. That bacteria can cause disease or even death if consumed by humans. Children and women who are pregnant are particularly at risk of getting sick from these bacteria. Even good food hygiene procedures won’t stop these bacteria from causing harm. Milk that isn’t pasteurised is called Raw Milk. Raw milk is not permitted to be sold in most States. Sometimes, it can be found from alternative food suppliers and farmers markets. Raw milk is not recommended to be consumed by infants, toddlers or children.
Unless a child has a diagnosed food allergy, cow’s milk is recommended. At least for the first 5 years of life. Full-fat varieties until 2 years of age then reduced fat thereafter. If non-animal milk is a family’s preference then soy milk with added vitamins and minerals is the next best choice. This is because of the energy and protein qualities.
Renae Reid is the ToBeMe Early Learning Thought Leader for Nutrition and Dietetics. She is an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD), Accredited Nutritionist (AN) and founder of Ambrosia Dietetics. She holds a Master’s of Nutrition and Dietetics and Bachelor of Applied Science (Nutrition and Food) and specialises in the care of infants, toddlers and Children.
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