Take a look at the refrigerated and non-refrigerated sections of the supermarket, and you will see lots of plant-based milk products. It’s mind boggling. There’s soy milk, almond milk, cashew nut milk, oat milk, rice milk, pea-protein based milk, hemp milk, and multiple combination milks to just name a few…but which one is the best for your growing child?
Nowadays, many plant-based milks come fortified, and so provide similar levels of calcium, vitamin D and vitamin A in 8 ounces (or 250 mL) as a cup of cow’s milk. In addition, some of these fortified plant-based milks are fortified with vitamin B-12, to as much as 50% Daily Value (DV) per cup. The key difference then, is that compared to full-fat fortified soy milk, other plant-based milks (fortified or not) tend to be lower in calories, protein and iron levels. So choosing the appropriate plant-based milk for your child depends largely on how well he or she is eating and growing.
For young children (between 2 to 8 years of age) the daily protein needs are between 13 – 19 grams of protein a day. For this age group, a full-fat fortified soy milk may still be the best choice as it is higher in protein and calories and iron than other plant-based milks, especially if your child is on the leaner side and is not eating a lot of protein-rich solid foods on a daily basis. Depending on your child’s age, just 2 cups (8 ounces each) of a full-fat fortified soy milk beverage would meet most, if not all, of your child’s daily protein needs. However, if an alternative plant-based milk is used, this child would still need to eat adequate amounts of a protein-rich plant source such as two daily servings of cooked lentils (1/2 cup each) or two daily servings (¾ cup each) of cooked or canned beans (e.g., black beans, kidney beans, white navy beans, chickpeas).
For 9 – 13 year old children, estimated protein requirements jump to an estimated 34 grams of protein a day. However, children in this age group are older with generally larger appetites and can therefore eat more. They are most likely able to meet most of their calorie and protein needs through the solid foods that they eat, so it becomes more of a preference in terms of which fortified plant-based milk they would like to consume on a daily basis.
If your child has an allergy to soy, talk to a registered dietitian to determine the best plant-based milk appropriate for your child’s age, growth and development to meet his or her nutrient and growth requirements.