Lactose intolerance is, in a very real sense, simply a part of the human condition.
In fact, the American Dietetic Association estimates that 75 percent of people worldwide are lactose intolerant to some degree after infancy. The fact that the condition is so common as to be almost “normal” does not mean that we have to give in and live with it, especially when there are alternatives that give children the benefits of milk without the symptoms of lactose intolerance.
How Lactose Intolerance Happens
Like all mammals, we begin life on a diet of milk. We tolerate it well because we are blessed with an abundance of the digestive enzyme lactase at birth, and lactase is necessary to break down lactose, a sugar found in milk. If there is not enough lactase, however, and the milk sugar is never digested, the result is a variety of gastrointestinal problems that are the symptoms of lactose intolerance.
The condition develops because mammals are programmed to leave childish things like milk behind rather quickly. Nature assumes that we just won’t need all that lactase after a year or two and, in the normal course of development, lactase levels start to drop after infancy. As those levels decrease, it becomes more and more difficult to digest milk.
This may be the natural order of things, but that notion gives scant comfort to parents of children who are lactose intolerant. Milk is an important part of a healthy diet as a source of key vitamins and minerals, especially calcium and vitamin D. To add insult to injury, milk is one of those healthy foods that children actually like.
Short of eliminating milk and most dairy products altogether, parents have many options, from special lactose-free milk to yogurt that has been made without added milk solids. In addition to those specialized products, milk derived from plants can be an excellent alternative that provides a number of ancillary benefits. Soy milk is an especially worthy candidate.
Soy Milk Basics
Soy milk has been known for almost 2,000 years, long before it was associated with lactose intolerance. It is made by soaking dry soybeans in water and grinding them with enough additional water to reach the desired consistency. The product is then boiled and filtered to remove any insoluble fiber. The resulting soy milk can be made into tofu, just as cow’s milk can be made into cheese.
Soy milk is versatile. It can be flavored or mixed with other ingredients and, although recipes may need some tinkering, it can be substituted for cow’s milk in cooking.
Soy Milk Advantages
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the nutritional profiles of cow’s milk and soy milk are remarkably similar, with roughly equivalent calories, protein, carbohydrates, and sodium. Soy milk provides higher levels of dietary fiber, iron, and vitamins A, B-6, B-12, and C, while containing no cholesterol and, of course, no lactose.
Soy milk is lacking in two things that are abundant in cow’s milk: calcium and vitamin D. Both are particularly important for children because of their role in growing healthy bones, but fortified soy milk solves that problem and is readily available.
Soy Milk Strategies
Children are hardly known for their ready acceptance of new foods, so soy milk may not be met with immediate delight, but there are a number of ways to make the project more palatable.
Just about any flavoring can be added, so a chocolate-loving child can have chocolate soy milk made to her exact specifications.
Fruit smoothies work as well with soy milk as with cow’s milk.
Soy milk, flavored or not, goes with cereal or hot chocolate.
Soy milk does not have to be a poor substitute for cow’s milk, especially given its health benefits. It may go down more easily if the whole family makes the switch, and it does not have to be a sacrifice. After all, in many parts of the world, the grownups drink soy milk and leave cow’s milk to the babies.