Different types of milk alternatives
Submitted by Sophia Kalil and Brianne Davidson, dietetic interns, and Nadia Guirguis, public health dietitian

With so many different kinds of ‘milk’ alternatives on the market, it can be hard to know which plant-based beverage is best to offer your growing child.

When was the last time you poured your child a cold glass of milk? Whether it’s because of dairy allergies, lactose intolerance, or increasingly popular diet choices such as vegetarianism and veganism, many households have switched to plant-based beverages instead of milk from animals. But with so many different kinds of ‘milk’ alternatives on the market, it can be hard to know which plant-based beverage is best to offer your growing child.

What is a plant-based beverage?

Plant-based beverages are made from grains, legumes, nuts or seeds. Varieties include soy, almond, rice, coconut, hemp, oat or pea. People often choose these beverages instead of cow’s milk when they follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. And yet while these drinks are called ‘milks’ they have different amounts of nutrients when compared to cow’s milk, and parents should be aware of nutrients their children may be missing.

Why does it matter which plant-based beverage my child drinks?

Whichever beverage you choose to offer your child, it is important that it contributes to meeting their nutritional needs. The best choice is the beverage with an adequate amount of protein, fat, vitamin D and calcium, which does not contain added sugar. Only fortified soy beverage is considered a cow’s milk alternative, because it replicates the calcium, vitamin and protein components. One cup, or 250 mL of soy milk, has an equivalent amount of protein, fat, calcium and vitamins A or D as cow’s milk.

Because almond, coconut and rice milks are lower in protein and fat than cow’s milk or soy beverages, your child’s nutritional needs may not be met by relying on these beverages alone. Cup for cup, almond milk has significantly less protein and fat than soy milk, while rice milk also contains less fat and protein, and coconut milk provides no protein.

So if you are substituting plant-based beverages for animal milks in your child’s glass, you should carefully consider their diet to make sure their nutritional needs are being met.

How much should my child drink?

Health Canada recommends children ages two to eight years old should drink two cups of cow's milk or fortified soy beverage each day. Two cups of cow’s milk (500 mL) provides 16 grams of protein, 600 mg of calcium and 200 IU of vitamin D to your growing child’s muscles and bones.

How healthy are homemade plant-based beverages?

Homemade plant-based beverages – ones you might make from ground almonds and water at home – are not recommended for your child because they are not fortified. They do not contain enough vitamin A, D or calcium and are therefore not a suitable replacement for a fortified store-bought, plant-based beverage.

What should I look when selecting a store-bought plant-based beverage?

When purchasing plant milks for children aged two to eight, check the nutrition facts label to ensure:

  • The beverage is fortified with vitamin D and calcium
  • It contains at least five grams of fat and eight grams of protein per cup (250ml)
  • It’s unsweetened or contains no added sugar.

Contact a dietitian

If you have any questions about healthy eating, food, or nutrition, call 8-1-1 to speak to a registered dietitian.

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