A vague, inaccurate and widely discussed news release published this month by Dietitians of Canada and the Canadian Paediatric Society, claiming "Soy, rice, or other plant-based beverages, whether or not they are fortified, are inappropriate alternatives to cow milk in the first two years," now has other nutrition experts, animal advocates and plant-based parents questioning the motives behind the publication and promotion of such misinformation.
Toronto-based registered dietician, Dr. Pamela Fergusson, who holds a PHD in nutrition, says she disagrees with the news release, adding that the information provided makes her uncomfortable. "Babies and children absolutely do not require dairy milk to grow and thrive," she asserts, and says that concerns regarding levels of protein in plant-based milks are unfounded.
Dr. Fergusson explains the discrepancy in the release's take on protein, stating that while one cup of whole cows' milk contains 8 grams of protein, the same amount of human milk, which is unequivocally considered the perfect, customized food for growing infants and toddlers, contains only 2.5 grams of protein. "How come this is suddenly not enough protein?" (Note that dairy milk is in fact meant to grow a 65-pound calf into a 1000-pound cow.)
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Dr. Fergusson goes on to discuss how it is actually misleading and "inappropriate for us to lean solely on any beverage for protein intake," pointing out that protein, along with other essentials such as fat, calcium and iron are widely available in a variety of more nutrient dense, plant-based foods.
"It is very easy for a child to exceed protein requirements even on a vegan diet," she says. "Almost every food that a child eats, a slice of whole wheat bread, a tablespoon of peanut butter, a quarter cup of hummus, even an apple will have protein, and it adds up throughout the day."
The American Dietetic Association agrees.
In a position paper published in the Journal of The American Dietetic Association, it is stated that a well planned vegan or vegetarian diet can be "appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes."
The key is "well planned." And that is where much discontent with the recent news release stems. It is widely discussed in vegan and vegetarian circles that not all plant-based milks are created equal, and that only human milk or commercial formula (dairy or soy-based) is to be the exclusive sustenance for babies under six months, after which complimentary food is to be added, with human milk preferably continued for up to two years or more.
Cows' milk or unsweetened fortified soy milk (meaning with added essentials Vit. D, B12 & calcium, available in nearly every brand of plant-based milk nationwide) are only to be introduced at one year. "This is well known in the vegan and vegetarian community," says Dr. Fergusson, "and I think people are already making good choices. This is not news."
The issue of uninformed parents providing inadequate nutrition to children is not a problem exclusive to vegans, though it is often portrayed that way in the media. And this most recent zeroing in on plant-based parents has many questioning the underlying motivation. Offering no new information or scientific findings, only vague anecdotal statements, the release comes off as suspiciously promotional of dairy products.
Related: How Breastfeeding Turned Me Off Dairy For Good
Health Canada recently announced it will be removing dairy as food group from the next Canada Food Guide guide, leaving lobby groups for the dairy sector reportedly up in arms.
But as more and more information comes to light regarding the detrimental environmental effects of industrialized animal farming, along with growing evidence that consuming animal products may be harmful to human health, on top of frequently released footage showing the inherent cruelty involved in animal farming, demand for plant based products, particularly dairy-alternatives continues to grow.
While dairy milk may be considered safe by some to offer children as a source of protein and other essential nutrients, it is inaccurate and potentially harmful to assert it as the only appropriate choice.
Efforts to inform parents on childhood nutrition would be better spent educating from a more inclusive position, by offering support to those wishing to properly raise children without meat or dairy products, rather than simply dismissing them from the conversation.