Are these products really an alternative to dairy milk? The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition recently published a study in June 2017 that showed children that consumed non-dairy milk were shorter than their peers who drank cow’s milk. The study included over 5,000 children in Canada from 2 to 6 years of age and showed that a 3-year-old child that consumed 3 cups of non-dairy milk was 1.5cm shorter than a 3 year- old that consumed 3 cups of dairy milk daily. The surprising thing here is that it is based on how much non-dairy the child is consuming. The more cups of non-dairy milk the child consumes, the shorter they are. One of the big questions is whether this correlates to adulthood- just because a 3 year old is 1.5cm shorter, will they be shorter as an adult? Also, while there appears to be an association, this study doesn't necessarily prove that non-dairy causes the height discrepancy. We don’t know- this study was only conducted in children and we don’t presently have data to support height differences in adulthood.
What would explain this discrepancy in height? Dairy milk products tend to have 8g of protein per cup, while most non-dairy milk products tend to have only about 1g of protein per cup (they all vary so you must look at each products’ nutritional label). In addition, a lot of the non-dairy alternatives are sweetened or flavored and so they may have extra calories and sugar. Also, many of the non-dairy options don’t naturally have calcium and vitamin D: They are fortified and if you do not shake the container, it will settle to the bottom. It is very important when purchasing these alternatives, you carefully look at the nutritional information to ensure that it has protein, calcium and vitamin D, and is low in added sugar.
It is important that you scrutinize the nutrition labels on food for you and your children. Just because a product is marketed as healthier, does not mean it has the appropriate nutritional content for your family. For instance, many lower-fat alternatives may actually have more sugar and overall calories than their replacements. Many times, there are so many additives that these options may end up being nutritionally poor for a growing child. That being said, the very best resource for information about your child's health is your pediatrician. Be sure to ask him/her if you have any nutritional questions for your growing child :)