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What’s The Best Milk-Alternative For Young Kids?

Unsplash / Providence Doucet

A genetic change 8,000 years ago allowed humans to start drinking milk. But how they figured it out remains an unsolved historical mystery. What was that process exactly? Did they see a calf going to town on a heifer and just shoulder that sucker out of the way to get in on the goodness? And once they discovered the bovine delight, did they just offer their kid a cow teat? Probably not. That would be udderly ridiculous.

While this genetic change persists in many Europeans, the majority of humans around the world cannot digest the milk sugar called lactose. That’s why we’ve got a wide variety of alternative “milks.” Or alterna-milks, if you want to be all goth about it. But are alterna-milks good for kids? And which one tops the list?

Alterna-Milk Varieties

First, it’s grossly inappropriate to call many of these “milk,” because grains and nuts lack nipples. That said, they do look like milk, so whatever.

There are 3 main types of plant-based alterna-milk. There are also a couple animal-based offerings that you’ll probably pay a premium for at your local holistic hipster market. They are:

Soy Milk

Processed from the soybean, the resulting liquid has about as much protein as regular cow milk. That said, it contains less iron and no calcium unless fortified. Soy crops are also often heavily treated with pesticides. So maybe organic is a good way to go here.

A Note On Soy And Hormones: Soy contains phytoestrogens that mimic estrogen in the body. Some research suggests this can throw off the human system in some not too pleasant ways. Others suggest it could have beneficial effects in lowering risk of reproductive system cancers.

Almond Milk

Currently pitched by a snarky talking almond on television (you’re drinking his juices! Gross, dude!), the almond liquid is good for vitamin E. That said, it has less protein than soy or cow milk and lacks vitamin B12. Other nut milks don’t really stack up to almond.

Grain Milks

Rice milk is the biggest player in this category – although hemp milk has been catching on in newly gentrified regions of Brooklyn and Portlandia. Of the 2, rice milk is the less nutrient rich option, but is the least likely to cause allergic reaction. Hemp milk, however, has a ton of good stuff going on including high-levels of protein, vitamins, minerals and good omega fats. And zero levels of high.

Animal Alternatives

Goat milk has the goodness of the bovine stuff, but you need to get past the goatiness of it. It does contain lactose, so if your kid can’t do cow, they will be SOL with goat.

Kefir, however, is a yogurt-like milk alternative that’s been around forever. It has good protein, minerals and vitamins. It’s also a good probiotic, comes in a variety of flavors, and is naturally light on lactose (but, unfortunately, heavy on price).

The Bottom Line

First, the bad news: “alterna-milks,” whether they’re from soy, nut or goat, don’t have the same nutritional composition of cow’s milk. If you’re considering any of them as a replacement, you’ll need to make sure your kid still gets the calcium, iron, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and fat that they need from somewhere else (although some alterna-milks are fortified with supplements).

Now, the good news: toddlers don’t really need cow’s milk to get all that good stuff anymore – a healthy diet should contain plenty of other sources for all of it. According to Dr. Natasha Burgert, whatever kind of milk you choose should just be considered a healthy drink to accompany a healthy meal; for the rest of the day, your kid should just be drinking water. The bottom line is there are plenty of good options, so don’t have a cow about it.