Navigating Alternative Milk – for you and your Toddler

NOTICE: Breastfeeding is the gold standard in infant feeding and recommended exclusively for the first six months of life, and then alongside complementary feeding until a year old. This article is aimed at parents with babies and toddlers over the age of one year.

I was pleasantly surprised and amused when I looked on the cow’s milk allergy guidelines for Somerset and noted that ‘Alpro Growing up milk or Oatly barista’ was noted as supplementary milk to give to toddlers 1-3 years. But why these two? What is the nutritional profile of these milks and what other ones are out there? 

Under one year of age, babies need initial all, then after six months a decreasing amount of their nutrition from milk. And although these milk alternatives are called ‘milk’ or ‘mylk’ more commonly now, these are not nutritionally adequate to provide most or sole nourishment for babies and toddlers. 

I hate the taste of cow’s milk, so naturally as these milks have come to market over the last several years I have tried pretty much anything and everything, from supermarkets own brand to the luxury brands, and making my own almond, cashew and oat milk. I’ve tried them all. 

I thought I would take it upon myself, to cross-compare a selection of these milks available on the market, analyse the nutritional content of them, and see how they work in some common weaning and first recipes in terms of similarity to cows milk, taste, and texture.

Now, I know how to navigate the ‘alternative milks’ aisle as it’s a part of the supermarket I am very familiar with. I have watched it massively expand for about 10 years now since I discovered I don’t HAVE to tolerate cows milk in my coffee! But for those of you who are new to it or have a baby or toddler that you’re going to supplement their feeding using alternative milks… this could be quite daunting. 

The chilled alternative milk fridge in Tesco Extra
and…. even more in the ambient section!

These are the aisles in my local supermarket and the range is astronomical. There is literally ‘milk’ made out of anything you could think of.. and they’re all claiming benefits for a variety of added or naturally occurring micronutrients, healthy fats, etc etc…

I ended up walking away with these four products (below)… now, I have chosen these four not at random but for specific reasons. Oatly Barista and Alpro growing up milk because these are actually written into the local guidelines… Almond milk because everyone’s heard of it, and Hemp milk… due to some interesting benefits claimed on the packaging that I wanted to discuss.

The four milks I walked away with

I mean you could spend hours and hours reading the back of EVERY tetra pack in Tescos, but hopefully you wont have to after reading this. Firstly i tasted all 4 milks straight, out of a glass, as if your one or two year old isn’t having breast milk or follow on milk, they may well be sampling alternative milks this way as well.

  1. Alpro ‘Growing Up’ Soya Milk: once poured out this had a creamier colour than regular cows milk. It was extremely palatable, sweet and smooth. With none of that ‘beany’ bitter aftertaste that soy milk sometimes has. Would probably be a total winner with your little one.
  2. Good Hemp Seed M*lk- Much whiter in appearance, this ‘milk’ wasn’t nearly as sweet as the Soy-based one, although it does state no sugar on the front of the pack. It has an earthy slightly bitter taste to it.
  3. Oat-Ly Barista Edition- This ‘milk’ is one I use frequently myself for coffee as it froths beautifully. It has a rich creamy colour and a subtly sweet flavour, although not as sweet as Alpro Growing up Soy.
  4. Unsweetened almond milk – this is the own brand, most budget-friendly option (Plant milks do tend to cost more than cow’s milk- due to demand but this changing!) Unsweetened almond milk has a slightly bitter taste and isn’t as rich as the other alternatives I chose. Most nut milks are similar in composition we only needed to represent one!

Composition

All four of these milks have different added and naturally occurring micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), I must stress added micronutrients are better than NO micronutrients but it’s always best to get vitamins and minerals (you and your little one) from naturally occurring dietary sources. This is due to what’s called bioavailability, naturally occurring vitamins and minerals are more bioavailable to your body than synthetic fortified ones. This essentially means you get more bang for your buck from natural sources. However, if you cannot get all your micronutrients from your diet, then supplementation is still a good idea as its better than nothing at all!

Above we can see nutrition information for the Alpro Growing Up Milk. Of the four milks this one contains the most added vitamins and minerals.

we can see vitamin D first on the list. Vitamin D is essential for the absorption of calcium and in the UK, we could all benefit from a little supplementary vitamin D because of the lack of sunshine! (our primary source of Vitamin D). Vitamin D3 is the most beneficial form to take as a supplement and as you can see here this is not specified, so despite providing 30% of intake/100ml, this is not guaranteed in terms of absorption.

B12 is another vitamin that we struggle to get in a modern, western diet. B12 can be found in soil and river water… which doesn’t feature highly in our sterile world (particularly now in covid times!). So adding this to milk and supplementing with this is a very good idea well done Alpro!

This is the back of the Good Hemp milk. With its headline claim being that this is a Vegan source of Omega 3 and Omega 6. If you have read my article on Omega 3 and 6 this should already be ringing alarm bells. whilst this is non-disputably a source of Omega 3- you can see on the label that it says as ‘ALA’ ALA is alpha-linolenic acid. whilst this is a form of Omega 3, it is not the form that’s useful to humans (great for growing toddler brains!).

It’s not all bad news, whilst this isn’t the useful form our bodies CAN convert it into the useful form… but it’s a lengthy process that isn’t very efficient. You’re much better off eating 2-3 portions of fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines) every week. Or supplementing with marine algae which is vegan friendly. Check labels to make sure the supplement contains Omega 3 as DHA.

Next up we have the Almond milk, the information about Vitamin D and B12 I am not going to comment on because we have already covered it, and this is more of the same in terms of fortification. Let’s look at the energy and macros (Protein, Fat, Carbs) to see why it’s so dangerous to treat these as milk alternatives for babies under 1-year-old. As you can see this milk is 18 Kcal/100ml. This is minuscule, which is great news for weight loss for grown-ups if you’re having it on your cereal. But isn’t going to offer much in terms of energy to an under 1-year-old. It’s almost void of fats and protein as well. So when offering this to toddler, you might as well just offer water, to be honest!

There have been cases in the media of babies and toddlers with severe malnutrition due to parents unknowingly swapping cows milk, breast milk, or cows milk formula for milk like this. It’s important to be aware of alternative milk and their uses but also be able to identify those that are not appropriate!

Finally, we have Oat-Ly Barista, I must stress it is only the Barista blend that is featured in the local Somerset CCG guidelines, not the other varieties of Oat-Ly. This is due to the higher calorie content in this variety, meaning that per 100ml 59kcal of energy is provided, along with 3g of fat and 6.6.g of Carbohydrate. The good thing about Oat-Ly for toddlers is that it is Soy Free, so if you have a cluster of allergies that includes dairy and soy, Oat-Ly can still be used.

I hope this has provided some clarity on the alternative milk world, why all alternative milk are not created equally! And how to navigate the nutrition labelling on the packages. The take away is it’s important to recognise that they look like milk, they’re called ‘milk/mylk/m*ilk’ but they’re not. Whilst some fortified milk are suitable for substitution of breast or cow’s milk. Some most certainly are not!