Let’s talk about milk and babies.
Thanks to the highly effective marketing of the dairy industry, we have come to the societal conclusion that when humans are no longer reliant upon breast milk, the automatic next step is to introduce cow’s milk. Without a second thought, we continue to drink milk, sometimes in multiple glasses-full daily, until we die. That’s just how it is.
Cow’s milk has, without a doubt, been ingrained in us as a certain cultural standard for good nutrition. It represents strong bones and teeth, the infamous celebrity milk mustache, the perfect pair to America’s favorite cookies, and victory at the Indy 500.
But why is it that, in a society that openly criticizes mothers for breastfeeding their children after the politically-correct age of one, it is normal and expected that we continue to drink breast milk from another species for the remaining duration of our life?
Humans are the only species that drinks milk from another mammal, and believes that doing so is a requirement for proper nutrition. We’re conditioned to go into panic mode when our kid develops a milk allergy or we become lactose intolerant, at a loss for how we’re possibly going to deal with such a crisis.
This sounds really simple, but we so easily forget: cow’s milk is cow breast milk for cow babies (…and eggs are a chicken’s period, but that’s an article for another time).
As not to go entirely off into a rabbit hole here, if you’re interested in reading more of my perspective about why mothers should absolutely be first in line to ditch dairy, read this blog post.
Dairy is praised as a gold standard in childhood nutrition, for its protein, fat, and calcium content. Yes, all of these nutrients are essential for the proper growth and development of our children, but all animal welfare perspectives aside, is cow’s milk really the best place to be getting them?
Below are a few reasons you may choose to consider finding an alternative to cow’s milk as a primary nutrition staple in your household:
- Dairy does not appear to be as protective against bone fractures as we think, which was demonstrated by the 18-year long Harvard Nurses’ Health Study. Furthermore, osteoporosis appears to be more prevalent in developed countries where dairy consumption is very high, suggesting that high dairy calcium intake alone is not the answer. This is likely due to multiple factors, including inadequate vitamin D status and poor calcium absorption from dairy sources. The Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine notes that a 2005 study in Pediatrics concluded that milk consumption does not improve bone integrity in kids. Instead, calcium is better optimized and absorbed through green leafy vegetables (which also supply vitamin K), beans, and fortified foods; bone density can effectively be improved and maintained through regular, weight-bearing exercise and maintaining adequate vitamin D stores.
- Testing has found that cow’s milk often contains contaminants of public health concern. Hormone disruptors, like phthalates, appear to be present in the milk even when it is not stored and served in plastic containers, likely because soft plastic tubing is used in the warm milk collection process. Other studies have found that milk frequently contains chemicals and veterinary drugs such as antimicrobials, antibiotics, and pesticides.
- Cow’s milk can increase risk for iron-deficiency anemia in infancy, primarily due to inhibition of iron absorption by its concentrated calcium and casein content, the occult intestinal blood loss that occurs in 40% of otherwise healthy infants who drink cow’s milk, and naturally low iron content in milk. This is why it is strongly advised for babies under the age of 12 months to avoid cow’s milk altogether.
- Components in cow’s milk may play a role in an increased risk for developing insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus in children, something that has been studied for several decades. The American Academy of Pediatrics saw up to a 30% reduction in type 1 diabetes incidence in infants who did not consume cow’s milk for at least the first three months of life.
- The relationship between cow’s milk and recurrent ear infections in infancy has been studied since the 1960s, the primary link between the two hypothesized to be related to milk allergies, though Dr. Michael Greger notes that studies have suggested up to 1 in 500 children could experience delayed speech as a result of chronic inner ear inflammation.
- Cow’s milk has been found to contain bodily fluids, such as pus. This appears to be a side effect of the disinfectants used on cow udders that are infected with staph. Seeing as 1 in 6 cows in the US are affected with clinical mastitis, it’s not really surprising that evidence of the infections end up in the end product.
- Steroid hormones, such as estrogens, are very potent in dairy products and can have significant biological effects when consumed even in small amounts. This is an especially important public health concern to pay attention to in children during sensitive times of growth and development. Increased rates of breast and prostate cancers in correlation with increased consumption of dairy from US and Japanese cows have been recorded around the world. According to Mother Jones, this is thought to be because “In Japan and the United States, the typical dairy cow is milked for 10 months a year, which is only possible because she is impregnated by artificial insemination while still secreting milk from her previous pregnancy. Milk from pregnant cows contains far higher hormone levels than milk from nonpregnant ones—five times the estrogen during the first two months of pregnancy, according to one study, and a whopping 33 times as much estrogen as the cow gets closer to term.”
- Studies suggest that there is an increased risk for certain cancers later in life, such as prostate cancer, as a result of consuming high amounts of serum insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I) in dairy products. Alternatively, evidence from international studies suggest that men who avoid dairy products are at lower risk for developing prostate cancer in their lifetime.
Plant-based milks — in conjunction with a wide variety of nutritious solid foods — are an easy way for your children to get the nutrition they need as they grow and develop.
Each type of plant-based milk has a slightly unique flavor, so even if your child doesn’t like to drink certain kinds, they can all be easily incorporated into things like smoothies, soups, sauces, and baked goods. It’s as simple as substituting an unflavored non-dairy milk for cow’s milk in recipes. You can even use non-dairy milk to make buttermilk, by adding 1 Tbsp lemon juice to 1 cup of milk.
In my house, we regularly rotate five different types of plain, unsweetened non-dairy milks to ensure that my son is receiving a well-rounded variety of liquid nutrients along with his solid foods. At any given time, we have at least three types of milk in the refrigerator for him to take to daycare or drink at home.
This is because different sources of plant-derived milks have varying nutritional composition. For instance, some are high in calcium but low in protein and calories. Others may be high in protein but low in vitamin B12. Plant-based milks are typically all low in fat (and calories if unsweetened), but that’s okay – you can easily get additional fat from other plant sources, such as nuts/seeds and their butters, vegetable oils (hemp, flax, coconut), avocados, vegan butter, hummus, and algae-derived DHA supplements.
Below is a nutritional breakdown* of whole cow’s milk followed by that of some popular plain non-dairy milks per 1 cup serving**. Note that the last three are sweetened because I was unable to find unsweetened versions of these types.
Brands surveyed: Silk (almond, cashew, soy, coconut); Tempt (hemp); Ripple (pea); Suzie’s (quinoa); Pacific (hazelnut, rice, oat)
*Percentages are based on daily values for typical adults. Only some nutrients are highlighted in this table.
**Note that different brands may have slightly different values than what is presented here. Always review the labels when deciding which product best meets the nutritional requirements you are seeking.
A few tips to consider when implementing non-dairy milk in your household:
- Introduce your child to one type of non-dairy milk at a time and monitor for any intolerances or adverse reactions before introducing the next one.
- Even though plant-based milk is an excellent, easy and convenient vehicle for nutrition, don’t rely on it to provide the majority of your child’s nutrition. No milk (animal or plant) is a 1:1 replacement for breastmilk, and the importance of integrating a wide variety of solid foods to provide adequate nutrition cannot be emphasized enough. Milk is intended to complement, not replace, nutrition from solid food.
- Choose plain, unsweetened versions as to reduce sugar consumption.
- Work with your pediatrician to monitor your child’s health and nutritional status through routine blood work. I would suggest having iron, vitamin D, and vitamin B12 levels checked if your child is vegan, as this will tell you if and when any special attention to or supplementation of these nutrients is needed.
- Work with a registered dietitian if you have questions about your child’s nutrition, or how to use non-dairy milks and plant foods to optimize the nutrition in your home.
All in all, plant-derived milk is an excellent way to provide the nutrition your child needs to grow, without the need for dairy. With the growing consumer demand for these products, more variety is becoming readily available to us, so I encourage you to check this section out at your local grocery store and give them a shot.
If you’re looking for suggestions of plant-based sources for specific nutrients, such as protein, iron or calcium, check out my growing list of free downloadable one-pagers here. If you have a request for what nutrient should be covered next, leave a comment and let me know!
What is your favorite non-dairy milk and how do you prefer using it in your household?