Kerryn Boogaard Kerryn Boogaard
Beverly Goldsmith Beverly Goldsmith
Zoe Bingley-Pullin Zoe Bingley-Pullin

Milk-off for kids!:

What are the best dairy alternatives for calcium between soy, rice, almond and coconut milks?
By Kerryn Boogaard
Date: September 17 2014
Editor Rating:
two-children-drinking-milk-low

Lately I have had babies on the brain – and no, this is not a pregnancy announcement. I know it's Spring, but everywhere I look I see pregnant women and newborn babies (not just limited to the human variety), and now Kate and Wills have announced that their second baby is on the way!

I have also had more friends and clients asking me for nutrition advice to help their babies and children grow and develop. Questions frequent around milk consumption and the different types of milk available these days. Although hyped-up in the media and touted by certain celebs, are common cow's milk alternatives really good for our kids?

The most popular cow's milk alternatives appear to be soy, rice, coconut and the ever-popular almond milks, especially with the boom of recent dietary trends. You may prefer these alternatives for your kids because of a cow's milk allergy, lactose intolerance or personal dietary preference. Or you may be trialing an alternative based on contemporary nutrition messages in the media.

Whatever your reasons, I think its important that we highlight the differences in nutrition composition between these foods so you know what your children are getting, and what they may be lacking.

Cow's milk provides many vitamins and minerals that alternatives do not, but let's take a look at how these popular cow's milk alternatives differ in the key nutrients calcium, protein and fat.

Soy milk

We all know that calcium is important for many body functions (including building healthy bones and teeth) and milk is an important source of calcium in our diets.

So if you prefer soy milk for your child, first of all it’s important to choose the calcium-fortified stuff (added calcium). They will have similar calcium, fat and protein contents per serve to cows milk, making fortified soy an ideal alternative.

There is still a lot to learn about the long term safety of soy in children beyond infancy due to limited research (the same can be said for many foods in our supply). However, certain populations have been consuming large amounts of soy throughout the life span for centuries, without any adverse effects.

I don't think soy is something children need to avoid but like all things nutrition, moderation is the key, with the Harvard Medical School suggesting children drink one or two glasses of soy milk a day if soy is their preference.

Almond & Rice milks

A handful of almonds provides a boost of many essential nutrients including protein, fibre and healthy fats.

However, when we grind them down and add water to make almond milk, these nutritional qualities do not translate. Just like rice milk, almond milk pretty much has no natural calcium and not all almond and rice products are fortified. Even if they are, they are generally much lower in calcium than cow and soy milks with the absorption calcium being questioned.

The bottom line? If your children do choose almond and rice milks look for different ways to get more calcium.

Protein is another important nutrient lacking in almond and rice milks compared with cow and soy milks. Although most adults generally consume more than enough protein via a healthy balanced diet (even those who do not achieve the recommended intakes for dairy), children may be at a higher risk of an inadequate protein intake when they rely on almond and rice milks.

This will impact on their growth and development; and for this reason I would not recommended them as a cow's milk alternatives. If your child does predominantly have these milks, chat to an Accredited Practising Dietitian to ensure that they are getting enough protein from their whole diet.

Athletes may also have to assess this to ensure they are getting enough protein to meet increased needs and timing the protein right for optimal muscle recovery.

Coconut milk

Although coconut milk is great to use in cooking, just like rice and almond milks, it should not be used as a cow’s milk alternative in your child’s diet. Coconut milk is low in protein and calcium and high in kilojoules. Save it for those nourishing curries or as an occasional snack.

In summary

Soy milk can be a great cow’s milk alternative for kids, but rice, almond and coconut milks are not. If your child still includes these milks in their diet just ensure that they are receiving adequate amounts of protein, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and riboflavin elsewhere.

Here is a comparison of the key nutrients between cow, soy, almond, rice and coconut milks for your ready reference. 

Milk/250ml

Kilojoules

Protein

Fat

Calcium

Cow (full fat)

738

9

9

270

Cow (2% fat)

495

9

4

315

Soy (full fat - calcium fortified)

682

8

9

400

Soy (fat free - calcium fortified)

368

8

0.2

300

Almond (calcium fortified)

315

1.5

 

3

 

180

Rice (calcium fortified)

544

1.2

 

2

 

200

Coconut

1650

4

40

10

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