CHILDREN whose parents give them alternatives to cow’s milk are twice as likely to suffer vitamin D deficiency, according to new research.
A Canadian study of almost 3,000 children aged between one and six years old discovered that those drinking non-cow’s milk, such as soya, rice, coconut or goat’s milk, had lower levels of vitamin D.
Non-cow’s milk has become increasingly popular among those who are not lactose-intolerant, due to its perceived health benefits, such as being low in fat and high in antioxidants.
However, it is not clear whether the alternatives offer health advantages over cow’s milk.
Vitamin D is an essential nutrient produced through sun exposure and found in cow’s milk, fish and other foods. It plays an important role in the development of bones – in children, low levels of vitamin D can cause bone weakness and even rickets, a condition causing the bones to become soft and weak and potentially leading to deformities.
Lead researcher Dr Jonathon Maguire, a paediatrician at St Michael’s Hospital, Toronto, said: “Children drinking only non-cow’s milk were more than twice as likely to be vitamin D deficient as children drinking only cow’s milk.
“Among children who drank non-cow’s milk, every additional cup of non-cow’s milk was associated with a 5 per cent drop in vitamin D levels per month.”
Some 87 per cent of children in the study drank mostly cow’s milk and 13 per cent drank non-cow’s milk.
Dr Maguire added: “Care-givers need to be aware of the amount of vitamin D, calcium and other nutrients in alternative milk beverages so they can make informed choices.”
More than one in ten Britons now drinks soya milk – part of a boom in alternatives to cow’s milk, which has seen consumption rise from 36 million litres in 2011 to 92 million litres in 2013.
Dr Colin Michie, chairman of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health’s nutrition committee, said: “On a national basis, we do not fortify cow’s milk with vitamin D like it is done in the US, Canada and many Scandinavian countries.
“The current UK recommendation is for all children under five years of age to receive a daily supplement containing vitamin D, irrespective of the type of milk used.
“This is likely to prevent any deficiency of vitamin D developing in British children.”
In North America, cow’s milk must legally be fortified with vitamin D. Adding vitamin D to non-cow’s milk is voluntary.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “The scientific advisory committee on nutrition is currently reviewing the recommendations on vitamin D, which includes looking at all research, and this must be allowed to run its course before we consider making any changes to the guidelines for vitamin D supplementation.”