Skip to main content

Today's Family Magazine

Milk aisle madness

Aug 12, 2016 07:37PM ● By Today's Family
By Mary Flenner

You've probably noticed how the milk section at the grocery store has slowly grown over the last few years to include more and more options. While in the past you may have contemplated choosing 1% or 2% milk, now there's everything from vanilla soy milk to coconut milk, and choosing the right milk for your children can be overwhelming.

We've consulted with dietician Rachel Sray MS RD LD, to put together this quick overview of the most common milk options to compare their advantages and disadvantages for children.

Is milk really necessary for kids?
For children over age one, the primary need for milk is the healthy fat for developing brains. Protein and calcium are also crucial for bone development and general growth.

If your child does not drink milk, whether because they simply do not like it or for personal reasons, be sure his or her diet is providing enough healthy fat, vitamin D and calcium from other sources.

Whichever milk your family prefers, experts suggest avoiding chocolate milk because of the high added sugar—some have as much sugar as a candy bar!

How much milk do kids need?
Toddler age children, ages one to three, need about two cups (or 16 oz.) of milk per day. Any small children drinking more than three cups (or 24 oz.) could be at risk for iron deficiency. This is because calcium can lower iron levels, as it competes with iron for absorption.

Cow's milk
Pros: Cow's milk is high in protein, vitamins A, D, and B12. It also contains phosphorus, which is key in bone and teeth formation, as well as muscle, kidney and nerve function. For children ages one and two, whole milk is best, then transitioning to 2% milk for children at a healthy weight.

Dairy cows raised on grass pastures have been shown to produce more nutritious milk than factory-farmed cows. Pasture raised cows produce milk that is higher in omega-3, vitamin E and beta-carotene, and conjugated linoleic acid—another beneficial fatty acid.

Cons: There is some research beginning to link high dairy consumption with chronic disease and certain forms of cancer, driving some parents to try alternatives or lower their children's dairy food intake as a balance. Dairy milk can also contain growth hormones; so if possible, buy organic and local cow milk.

Soy milk
Pros: Soy milk is a good lactose-free substitute for cow's milk, as it has the closest nutrient profile to cow’s milk. Soy milk is rich in fat, protein, calcium, vitamin B-6, magnesium, phosphorous and riboflavin.

Cons: Like most non-dairy milk options, many flavored varieties contain added sugars. Opt for unsweetened and full fat versions, versus "light" varieties.

Almond & cashew milk
Pros: Almond milk is generally the most nutritionally well-rounded nut milk option. Almonds provide healthy fats, vitamin E, riboflavin and magnesium.

Cons: Nut milks are generally lower in protein and deficient in B12. Because nuts are expensive, most nut milk is made primarily of water. As with soy milk, be sure to look for unsweetened options, but not “light,” so children receive the full healthy fats.

Rice milk
Pros: Rice milk contains similar amounts of vitamin D, calcium and phosphorus as cow milk.

Cons: Rice milk is generally low in protein, with just about 1 gram per cup.

Coconut milk
Pros: Coconut milk is very high in fat.

Cons: Coconut milk offers little nutrition. It is low in protein and can be very high in calories and saturated fat.

Key take away
Because every company supplements nutrients differently, reading labels is essential. Key nutritional information to look for: fat, protein, calcium, vitamin D, iron, and vitamin B12.

Getting enough healthy fat, calcium and vitamin D can be difficult without dairy or dairy alternatives, especially for children who are picky eaters. While having organic, pasture-raised cow's milk from a local source would be fantastic for our health, that’s often not realistic for families.

Fortunately, there are a variety of options available for those who are looking for an alternative to dairy, whether due to allergies, personal beliefs or taste aversions from kids.