Plant-based drinks for vegetarian or vegan toddlers: Nutritional evaluation of commercial products, and review of health benefits and potential concerns

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There is an increasing trend today towards plant-based diets in western society, often resulting in milk restriction. In the case of very young children, the direct substitution of milk by other foods, without proper nutritional advice, may lead to a lack of nutrients and hence to growth and development alterations. This study focuses on the nutritional assessment of various commercially available plant-based drinks, to determine their adequacy as alternatives to ruminant milk, in relation to the nutritional requirements of toddlers (1–3 years old), and to establish whether other sources of nutrient supplementation may be needed, as well as any other possible positive and /or negative health effects associated to their consumption. A sample of 179 commercial plant-based drinks (almond, coconut, hemp, oat, rice, soy, tigernut) were chosen and their nutrient contents were compared to the EFSA nutrient reference values for toddlers. The scientific literature on the presence of bioactive and/or undesirable compounds was reviewed. None of the plant-based drinks studied should be considered as a milk substitute, since they are different food products with a different composition. However, from the results obtained, the best choice for toddlers who do not consume milk would be to consume at least 250 mL/day of fortified soy drink (for its higher amount and quality of protein, polyunsaturated fatty acids and phytosterols), and always in the context of a carefullybalanced diet. Almond, hemp or oat drinks are other alternatives that can be used in combination or for soyallergic toddlers. The key nutrients that should be fortified in plant-based drinks are: vitamins A and B12, calcium, zinc and iodine, as they represent the most significant nutritional differences with milk; vitamin D would also be desirable. Of these, vitamins A, B12, D and calcium, are easily found in many commercial plant-based drinks on the Spanish market (most frequently in soy drinks), unlike iodine and zinc, which were not added to any. Given the fish restriction in vegetarians/vegans and the fact that plant-based drinks provide high amounts of phytates and tannins, which act as antinutrients, a good strategy for the industry would be to fortify plant-based drinks with iodine and zinc to improve the nutritional value of products aimed to vegetarians/vegans.
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