Cow's milk vs. rice milk

I enjoy reading your well informed answers for all nutrition questions. We have two boys (Oren and Elan) 16 months and 3 and a half year old. Both love cow's milk.

A month ago my wife switched them to Rice Dream, an organic rice based milk like substitute. They both got used to this new fluid. My wife's reason for the switch was "hormone and chemical" in cows milk.

My questions:

    • Are the boys (aseptically Oren the 16 month old) getting all the proper nutrition (Calcium, Amino acids etc.) without real milk?
    • What is the importance of milk in early brain development?
    • Are we experimenting on our kids giving them all these new fluids?


Thank you for your help.


Sue Gilbert

Sue Gilbert works as a consulting nutritionist. For many years she worked with Earth's Best Organic Baby Food, integrating nutrition and... Read more

Dear Nir,

When determining if a child is getting the proper nutrition or not, it is necessary to know the whole picture. No one food is good or bad, or adequate or inadequate, by itself. Rice milk may be a fine choice for your boy's diet if they are getting other important foods that contain the nutrients they are no longer getting because they have given up milk. Rice milk is not a nutrient for nutrient substitute for cow milk. Therefore, if in your son's diet you were depending on whole cow milk to supply them with calcium, vitamin D and protein, and you switched to rice milk without making any other adjustments in their diet, then they are most likely not getting some of the nutrition that they need.

There are some significant nutritional differences between cow and rice milk. Fortified rice milk may make up for some of those differences. You did not mention which type of Rice Dream you are serving your boys, but it should be the brand with fat (not the lite variety) and it should be calcium, vitamin A and D fortified. Compare the following nutritional content for one cup of milk vs. non fortified Rice Dream:

  Cow Milk Rice Dream
calories 150 120
protein (grams) 8 1
carbohydrate g. 11 30
fat g. 8 2
calcium mg. 291 20

As you can see, Rice Dream is largely a source of carbohydrate, whereas cow milk is a source of protein, fat, and carbohydrate. If you have eliminated cow milk from the diet, than you need to be sure they are getting a good source of complete protein. Rice Dream essentially provides no protein, and the protein it does supply is not of high quality. Eggs, soy products, and beans with grains are good sources. Calcium is another critical nutrient to be sure and find an alternative source for. Cow milk is unique in that the absorption of calcium from it is superior to other sources of calcium.

Calcium food in plant foods is less easily absorbed and so larger quantities must be eaten to get similar amounts. Particularly for your 16 month old, full fat milk is best because of its concentrated source of calories. Low fat diets are not generally recommended until after 2 years of age. Elan, being older, is ready to be on a lower fat diet. At that age kids can eat the quantity of food they need to get the necessary amount of calories. For Oren, you will have to concentrate on getting other high-fat, nutrient dense foods into his diet. Fat is critical for proper brain and nerve development. Rice milk will not provide him with adequate fat, if it is to be is only source of fat.

Milk, per se is not absolutely essential in early brain development, although human milk is superior in that department. What is important is that fat, and essential fatty acids be included in their diet. In sum, Rice Dream can be okay for your sons, just so long as you are sure they are getting in other foods what they are no longer getting from milk.

If it is chemicals and hormones you are worried about, have you considered buying organic milk? That may be the best of both worlds for you.

Thank you for writing.


Watch Video: Organic baby food right for babies?

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