Are plant-based milks a suitable alternative for children?

Plant-based products used to just target vegans, but now the industry has become more mainstream.

An increasing number of big companies are creating food and drinks that don't use animal by-products, from the vegan Trumpet to cashew-based cream and dairy-free UP&GO.

When it comes to milk, more parents who've eliminated dairy from their diets are also opting to give their children plant and nut-based milk. But do they contain the nutrients growing children need?

Dietitian Rebecca Bruce is seeing more adults and children who are plant-based and dairy-free.

"There's definitely a use for plant-based milks in certain situations where you need them due to intolerance, allergy, if you're following a vegan diet," she tells Newshub. "But I think it's really important to realise the choice you're making and read the label."

She's adamant they're not suitable as alternatives to breast milk or formula for babies under one year old. As for toddlers and preschoolers, some plant-based milks do have warnings that they're not suitable as a complete milk food for children under five years of age. Bruce says that's because plant-based milks are nutritionally not the same as cow's milk.

"Cow's milk is a good source of calcium, a good source of protein. It also has other vitamins like riboflavin, B12, whereas plant-based milks don't contain these vitamins and minerals unless they are fortified. and tend to be lower in calorie, lower in protein."

She says parents need to make up for any shortfall through other sources.

The Ministry of Health says evidence shows a well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet can adequately meet nutritional needs in all stages of life including infancy and early childhood.

Christchurch resident Flip Grater is raising her five-year-old daughter Anaïs as a vegan.

"There are so many plant-based ways to get calcium in our diets. Everything from nuts and seeds right through to green vegetables, which we all know we need to be eating anyway," she tells Newshub.

Grater owns a vegan deli in Christchurch and believes she's made the right choice for Anaïs.

"She's a perfectly growing young girl. She is super healthy. Her whole life she's been the healthiest kid that I've known," she says.

Are plant-based milks a suitable alternative for children?
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Bruce says parents need to do their research about alternative milk ingredients.

"If we look at this particular carton of rice milk for example, if we look to the sugars there is nine grams of sugar per cup, so that's equivalent to about two teaspoons of sugar," she says.

"I guess you need to think about whether you would be happy adding two teaspoons of sugar to your child's drink."

If worried, many brands offer an unsweetened version. 

And when it comes to almond milk, be aware there are not actually a lot of almonds in it.

"Whole almonds - minimum 3.8 percent," Bruce says, referring to the ingredients listed on a particular carton.

Jessica Vredenburg, a senior marketing lecturer at Auckland University of Technology, says branding plays a huge part in the sale of non-dairy replacements.

"When you think of the word 'plant' you might think of green, natural, healthy, it's coming off the ground or off a tree."

She says while it used to be small start-ups making these products, more big companies are now realising there's money to be made.

"It's become less of a sort of niche 'I'm a vegan' to you can make these choices regardless of your overall diet," she says.

With tens of millions of plant-based posts on Instagram alone, many wellness influencers heavily promote a vegan lifestyle. But all three of the women in this story agree on one takeaway message - alternative milk for you or your family is a personal or a health choice, but make it an informed choice.