WHEN IT COMES TO NUTRITION, MANY ALTERNATIVE MILKS FALL SHORT
For many Canadians who avoid cow’s milk, the alternative milk aisle appears to hold a lot of promise. With the expanding array of choices - think soy, rice, almond, cashew, and oat milk - it’s possible to find a kind of milk that everyone in a household can enjoy.
But Dr. Maguire, a pediatrician from St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto is concerned that alternative milks are often thought of as being a perfect substitute to cow’s milk, when in reality many of them are missing key nutrients.
“It takes checking the labels to figure that out,” he says, “and that’s not easy for many of us.”
Cow’s milk provides many essential nutrients to a healthy diet, but experts point to calcium, protein and vitamin D as three of the most important.
Most alternative milks have very low naturally occurring calcium and vitamin D, and therefore must be fortified. And although many alternative milks are fortified in Canada, it’s not standardized, and there can be considerable variations in nutritional value and sugar content between different brands.
And when it comes to homemade alternative milks, it becomes even trickier. Homemade milks are not fortified, so they will be low in calcium and vitamin D.
Protein content also varies widely between alternative options.
Andrea Miller, a registered dietician from Whitby, Ontario says there is a common misconception about how much protein is in alternative milks, particularly those made from nuts like almond milk.
You might think there would be high levels of protein in almond milk because almonds are high in protein, she says, “but because the almonds have to be diluted so much to make the milk, by the time they do that, there’s virtually no protein left.”
Cow’s milk typically provides 8-9g of protein per serving, whereas most almond milks have 1-2g per serving.
Dr. Maguire says that while adults have greater control over their own diets and can often adjust their food intake to meet dietary requirements, it becomes increasingly difficult to ensure kids are getting all their nutrients without having proper fluid nutrition.
He says choosing the right milk substitute for children becomes much more important.
The Canadian Paediatric Society and the Dieticians of Canada published a warning in 2017 about alternative milks. They were concerned over reports of infants and young children becoming malnourished because of insufficient nutrients from plant-based milk products.
The report urged parents to "select beverages carefully for their children" and advised that the only milk alternative that is nutritionally equivalent to dairy is fortified soy beverage.
"I just think we need to be really careful right now in making sure that whatever products you pick up contain the nutrients that you think they have," Maguire said. “Do your research.”
“I think that’s a great thing for Canadians to have options, but it also comes with responsibility when it comes to our children - that we are providing them the nourishment that we think we are.”