Nearly every day I am anxiously asked whether or not our young patients can have rice “milk,” almond “milk,” soy “milk” or coconut “milk” instead of the whole milk that is on our menu. These inaptly named “milks” are about as related to milk as cheese whiz is to cheese, and although not harmful (and even delicious), should not be mistaken for the white beverage given to early mankind by dairy animals as a source of protein, fat, calcium and vitamins. They are perhaps more properly called soy, rice, almond or coconut “drinks.” What’s in a name? Well, ask the marketers. By labeling them “milk,” parents think they are giving their child a more healthful version of the drink-food that has sustained children the world over. It says it’s milk, right? It must be good for children.
Not all of us carry the genes to split milk sugar (lactose), however, and may need supplements of that enzyme (lactase) to do so. Milk protein allergies do exist, but are thankfully rare. Many populations have solved the lactose problem naturally by pre-fermenting milk before ingesting it, giving us the world of yogurts, kefirs, quarks and cheese, among others.
The New York Times recently ran an article comparing the various plant-based “milks” nutritionally. They are not one size fits all. They say: “…in terms of nutritional content, a recent study in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition confirmed that plant-based beverages vary widely in their nutritional profiles, and the authors recommended that young children drink cow’s milk unless there is a medical reason they cannot.”
The Cliff notes are these: 8 oz of cow’s milk has 8 grams of protein and lots of calcium (in a form that is more easily digested than the calcium added to the plant-based drinks to level the playing field). Coconut milk, for example, has less than a gram of protein and only added calcium. And then some nut or legume-based beverages have been fortified with Xanthan gums and other thickeners to give them a mouth-feel similar to cow’s milk and make them seem less thin and watery. I urge you to read the New York Times summary article or, better still, the study in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition and judge for yourself. We already know pediatric patients do not need to be afraid of the fat.
Oh and by the way, my current favorite myth-challenging article is one looking at the nearly ubiquitous belief that milk causes mucus or phlegm. My mother insisted it did, her mother insisted it did. Well, milk drinkers and dairy product lovers everywhere, I guess we can rest easy.