Dairy free living is gaining in popularity with the supermarket aisles making room for many plant-based alternatives to milk. Undoubtedly beneficial to the planet but what about from a nutritional perspective when there are many mouths to feed?

You may have a child with a diagnosed cow’s milk protein allergy or lactose intolerance and be under a healthcare professional*. Or as a parent you may suffer with irritable bowel syndrome or have a sensitivity to dairy for another reason. Or dairy alternatives may have simply caught your eye and you’re wondering where they fit in. Let’s take a look.  

A glass of milk is a source of protein, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, iodine, vitamin B2, B1 and B12. So, you’re basically drinking the periodic table! A 200mls glass (or much-needed latte) provides around 30% of our calcium for the day. Interestingly this same glass will provide 40% of our iodine needs. Iodine makes our thyroid hormones which regulate our metabolism and growth. So, it’s vital for children and adults alike and worryingly, iodine deficiency has re-emerged in the UK with 15% of potentially impressionable teenagers not meeting their requirements. Pregnant women are also susceptible as needs are higher.

Plant based alternatives will usually be fortified with B2, B12, vitamin D and calcium which is great. It’s worth knowing that organic varieties cannot legally be fortified. The calcium present won’t be as available to the body so keep in mind other calcium sources in the diet – pulses and lentils, dried apricots, fortified breakfast cereals and dark green leafy vegetables, tinned fish with edible bones and of course animal dairy products if appropriate.

So, the main differences between dairy and plant-based options lie in the iodine contents, bone minerals such as phosphorus and of course protein and calorie contents. Vegans in particular need to be conscious of iodine and may benefit from a supplement, as the other main iodine source in the diet is white fish.

Protein quality is lower with plant-based milk – soya milk is the most similar to cow’s milk in terms of protein and is similar in calories to semi-skimmed milk. Sweetened varieties will have added sugar though so watch out for this.

Almond milk has become very popular although it is more of a nut water than a milk as the content of actual nuts can be as little as 2%. Protein contents are very low (0.4g/ 100g compared to 3.3g for cow’s milk). This isn’t ideal at breakfast time, where protein can play a vital role in regulating blood sugar levels and keeping you full for longer. It’s a tasty milk for flavour but I would be cautious to give this and other nut milks as a main milk drink for young children as milk is a major energy and protein source in their diets.

Rice milk is also lacking in protein and should not be given to children under 5 years of age due to its arsenic levels.

Oat milk fairs slightly better for protein and is suitable as a main milk drink aged 2 and over. It is also useful for parents with high cholesterol as it contains a third of your beta-glucan requirements which has been shown to reduce cholesterol levels.

Plant based milks are naturally lactose free so can be a good alternative for those with lactose intolerance but there are also lactose-free cow’s milk alternatives available. 1 in 20 people may suffer from lactose intolerance due to not having enough of the enzyme lactase to break it down. Undigested lactose passes into the large bowel where it becomes food for our trillions of bacteria and as they merrily digest away they release gas causing wind, bloating and diarrhoea. In IBS, lactose can contribute to the symptoms caused by other fermentable carbs in the diet (known as fodmaps) but in many cases is not the culprit at all so it’s worth seeking advice from a registered dietitian if you have IBS.

Milk purchase checklist

  • Double check plant-based milk is fortified.
  • Consider whose drinking it and therefore the importance of energy and protein contents. For comparison semi -skimmed cow’s milk contains 46 calories and 3.5g per 100mls.
  • Children need 2-3 serves of dairy or suitable plant-based alternatives per day.
  • Remember plant-based milks are not nutritionally superior but can provide a balanced nutritious addition to the diet whatever your reasons for choosing.

*The information in this article is designed for general family advice and is not intended to replace the advice given by your specialist team. Most children with diagnosed milk protein allergy or lactose intolerance will remain on specialist milks until at least 2 years of age.