Plant Milk: The Perfect one for Little Vegans

Kids (and adults too) all love cookies and milk before bed. Like many, as a child I was given cow’s milk, because that’s the only option, right? Well, not anymore! If you are planning to give your children plant milk, you may be wondering which one is the best compared to cow’s milk. Well wonder no more! We’ve done all the leg work for you, so carry on reading to see why you don’t need to give your nippers another species’ milk for them to get everything they need.

What are plant milks?

In case you are a complete newbie to plant milks, I thought I’d just quickly explain what they are and how they are made. Plant milks are made from nuts, grains or seeds. There are many different types, including almond, oat, soy and coconut. They are often used as a substitute for dairy milks, and are big in the plant-based and dairy free world.

To make a plant milk, you have to soak your chosen nut, seed or grain in water. Each variety will have a different soak time, so if it’s something you are interested in doing I’d advise giving it a google!

Once you’re all soaked, it’s time to blend with some water. You can then sweeten your milk if you want to, and some will need straining to ensure you have a smooth liquid with no bits.

That’s it – you can now enjoy your plant milk!

Examples of plant milks: Oat milk  and Almond milk

From what age can my child drink plant milk?

The NHS advises that a child can drink milk as a “main drink” from 12 months onwards. This goes for cow’s milk and plant milks, and of course they must be used as part of a healthy and balanced diet. After the 12-month mark, it is recommended to use an unsweetened plant milk which has been fortified with calcium. If you have any queries about this, please do have a chat with a doctor or nutritionist who can point you in the right direction.

For kiddies below 12 months (particularly under 6 months), the NHS do recommend breastfeeding as it contains all the nutrients your baby needs. There are many different reasons why breastfeeding may not be an option for you (we just believe fed is best here – no judgement whatsoever!), so you’ll be pleased to know there are some soy-based formulas and follow-ons on the market too. I’ll be honest, they aren’t as easy to find as the ones which are chock-a-block with dairy, but they are out there! Some brands such as Alpro do offer ‘growing-up milk’ that’s specially formulated for children over the age of 1 year, so it’s the perfect bridge for the gap after breastfeeding/formula!

In England, Scotland and Wales, any child under the age of 5 who is in day care or primary education qualifies for the government school milk subsidy scheme. In case you’ve not heard of this before, it basically gives children free milk whilst they are at school or nursery. Similar schemes have been in place for almost 100 years; since 1924! It was revised in 1977 and hasn’t changed all that much since then. It was brought in at that time to encourage children to drink more milk, and is run by the government along with the dairy industry.

Sadly, to this day the scheme remains outdated, and plant milks are not covered by this scheme (only cow, sheep and goat milk). In recent years there has been an outcry from plant-based parents to include non-dairy options here to ensure no child is being left out. So far it’s been swept under the rug, but maybe if all of you lot make a fuss it won’t go unheard forever! Fingers crossed one day soon the government will include non-dairy options too…

I understand how this could be slightly off-putting if you’re on the fence about turning your little one plant based, but I’d advise having a chat with your child’s school or nursery to see if they could provide anything. If all else fails, and you really would like your child to have milk with their classmates, perhaps you could pack some in their lunchbox or give some to the school to keep in their fridge. Unfortunately this would mean you’d have to purchase it yourself, but it may be worth it to save them feeling left out – or from taking the cow’s milk without knowing the difference! 

How do they compare to cow’s milk?

We’ve all been told from a young age that drinking cow’s milk will give us strong bones (I can still hear the Petit Filous advert). This is because calcium is a key building block of a mineral that makes up the majority of bone tissue. Whilst it’s true that cow’s milk contains calcium, it’s not the only place you can get it. Calcium can also be found in many different foods including tofu and leafy greens, but we’ll focus on the milks for this post, and delve into that at a later date.

Plant milks also contain calcium naturally, but unfortunately, it is generally at a lower quantity than dairy milk. To combat this, some brands have fortified their plant milks with added calcium. The fortified plant milks generally contain the same amount of calcium per 100g that semi-skimmed dairy does!

The table below (sourced here) shows a few different factors to compare the different types of milk. As you can see, overall, plant milks contain less fat, and sugar than dairy milk. They also contain more fibre, and soya milk has a similar amount of protein to semi-skimmed.

Nutritional value of dairy milk and plant milks

Cow’s milk is designed to sustain growth and development for a calf in its first few months of life, so it naturally contains the vitamins and minerals needed to do this job. These include:

  • Vitamin B12
  • Vitamin B2 (Also known as Riboflavin)
  • Phosphorus
  • Vitamin D

As with calcium, some plant milks are fortified with vitamins which aren’t naturally found in there. I’d advise checking the nutritional information on the milk you are planning to give your little ones, as well as ensuring you provide a healthy and balanced diet. Remember, milk isn’t the only place to get these goodies, there are plenty of food products and supplements that can give you a helping hand.

Since we are chatting about the next generation here, it’s also important to think about the environmental impacts of the dairy industry, as your kiddies are the ones who will be around to deal with the damage. Sure, plant milk isn’t innocent on that front either, but there is far less of an impact on our environment to make a glass of soya than dairy.

(Photo sourced here)

As you can see from the graph above, 1 glass of cow’s milk uses around 120 litres of water. It’s not that cows are super thirsty, in fact most of this water would be used to grow crops to feed them. Rice milk and almond milk use a fair amount of water too, but not nearly as much as the dairy version. Soy wins the crown here, closely followed by oat, as they use much smaller amounts of our precious water.

It’s also interesting to note that cow’s milk has a larger carbon footprint – for 1 cup, 400 grams of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. Soya milk halves this, coming in at 200 grams per cup, and almond is even lower at 174 grams. Cow’s also release lots of harmful methane into our atmosphere (yes… cow farts). It’s easy to see that the demand for their milk is harming our fragile planet. 

Which plant milk is best for my child?

There’s no perfect choice for milk, so here are a few things I’d take into consideration when choosing what your kids are going to be drinking:

  • Choose fortified milks – preferably with calcium and vitamins D and B12
  • Avoid rice milk for anyone under 5 – this is due to levels of arsenic in the milk
  • Try to choose a more environmentally friendly option
  • The plant milk with the most similar nutritional value to dairy is soya
  • Try a few varieties to see which one your child likes the taste of most

If you are considering bringing your child up plant based, or if they have a dairy intolerance, I hope this has helped answer a few questions you may have. It’s easy to feel lost with the dairy industry telling you cow’s milk is best, but there are many children around the world being brought up without dairy who are thriving. Plant milks are kinder to the planet, and kinder to the cows, so it’s an easy swap definitely worth trying.