Got milk? Experts say young children should avoid plant-based milks

BOSTON — It's a debate that's been going around since the only other alternative to cow's milk was soy milk - are non-dairy alternatives safe for children?

Experts say no.

New health guidelines say most children younger than five years old should avoid plant-based milks, such as almond, cashew, coconut and even hemp milk.

The recommendations, which come from a group of experts from several organizations, say non-dairy alternatives do not have the same nutrients cow's milk does - like vitamin D and calcium. The only exception being soy milk and other fortified varieties.

According to Dr. Joan Salge Blake, a professor of nutrition at Boston University, unless there's an allergy, cow's milk is the best alternative for children under five.

While the recommendations also advise parents that flavored milk should be avoided, Dr. Salge Blake says there can be exceptions to that rule.

"So we have these other plant alternative-type milks, but we have to make sure that they are giving the same nutrients that cow's milk are giving, or fortified soy milk," said Dr. Salge Blake. "[It's] very, very important because you know this a time in their lives when they have to get these key nutrients."

Some parents say cow's milk is what they grew up on and there's no reason to change something that's always worked.

"Two percent, basic milk," said Barry Madden, of Roslindale, "I have three sons all grown up, they are all in great shape and that's how they grew up."

Others, however, say they worry too much about the hormones found in dairy overall.

"I just prefer almond milk for my children, we do vitamins to replace what they say they are supposed to get in whole milk," said Tiffany Andrade.

Health officials say children should stay away from beverages that are sources of added sugars, such as flavored milks and sugar- and low-calorie sweetened beverages, along with a wide variety of beverages targeted to children such as toddler formulas, caffeinated beverages and plant-based and non-dairy milks, which provide no unique nutritional value.

Dr. Salge Blake, on the other hand, says plant-based and non-dairy milks could be a good alternative for children, provided they get the nutrients they need elsewhere and parents watch out for their sugar consumption.

"If you're having a vegan diet - and vegan diets can be quite healthy if they are well planned - but you have to have a milk substitute so in the case of going back years upon years you had soy milk and soy milk is typically fortified with the nutrients that are in cow's milk vitamin, such as B12, Vitamin D and Calcium."

You can find more information here.

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