The consumption of vegetable drinks as a substitute for cow’s milk has increased greatly in recent years. Lactose intolerance as well as the increase in vegan diets are behind this trend. However, these drinks are not recommended if what we are looking for is to obtain the same nutrients as with cow’s milk, whose major attributes are its high content of easily assimilated calcium and high biological value proteins.
It is not that vegetable drinks are more or less healthy than cow’s milk, but that they are not replaceable because their nutritional composition is very different, in addition to the fact that these drinks, since they come from different types of food are also very different from each other.
Milk is a very rich food especially in two essential nutrients, which are calcium and vitamin D, which are essential for good bone health, among other things. If we compare the amount of calcium and vitamin D in milk with that contained in drinks of vegetable origin, the differences are very clear, as the content of these drinks, unless they are enriched, is minimal. In addition, the calcium in milk is more bioavailable than that found in vegetable drinks, even those that are fortified.
As for the amount of proteins, those in milk are of high biological value, that is, they contain all the essential amino acids and about 3.5 grams per 100 ml. In the case of vegetable drinks, although there are exceptions, such as soya, which has a similar amount, the normal is that with more than two grams, and the usual, especially in drinks from cereals, does not reach even 1%.
An advantage of vegetable drinks before cow’s milk is the amount of fat, because, except for coconut, all of them have less amount of fat (less than two grams), and they are also unsaturated fats. If we opt for skimmed milk, this amount of fat disappears, and if we choose the semi, the content is reduced by half and the fat content is closer to that of the vegetable drink. Something similar happens with calories. Although it depends on what the drink is made of, in general, vegetables have fewer calories than whole milk, and the energy they provide is closer to that of semi-skimmed and even skimmed milks, such as oat, almond or light soy versions.
Cow’s milk also “wins” in terms of sugar content, since some of them -even those to which it is not added- contain more than five grams of sugar per 100 grams. The ones that have more sugar are oat milk and rice milk.
In addition, milk contains other micronutrients, such as phosphorus, zinc, potassium and selenium, substances that are not present, or in a very residual way, in vegetable drinks, which are mostly, more than 85%, water.
As far as digestibility is concerned, it is true that milk is more difficult to digest, and if we also have lactose intolerance or allergy to milk protein, it will give us even more trouble. In this case, it is enough to opt for lactose-free milks.
Since they are not nutritionally comparable, we should not expect a vegetable drink to replace milk consumption. In case of not taking milky, we will have to look for in other foods the nutrients that contribute us. Only the soy drink could be compared in quantity of complete proteins, fats and sugar to the milk of cows, but we should always choose it enriched in calcium and vitamin D to be a good substitute.
It depends on the child’s age, but, in general, they are not a good option if what we look for is to substitute cow’s milk and they should never be given before the year. From the year, they can be given, but always as a complementary food, not as an alternative to cow’s milk. These vegetable drinks cannot be compared to cow’s milk neither in their protein content nor in their mineral and vitamin content, so they should not substitute milk drinks as the main source of calcium and phosphorus among other nutrients.
Other organizations, such as the Healthy Eating Research Foundation, go further and completely discourage their use until the age of five because they do not contain enough nutrients to meet the needs of children’s early development.
In case of not tolerating the milk, it will be necessary to consult the pediatrician on the alternatives that exist, and, always following his indications, it will be possible to choose him for drink of enriched soybean as the option more similar nutritionally to the milk. It should always be avoided at all costs, are the vegetable drinks with a high content of sugar, especially if it is added.