Milk Alternatives and Iodine: What You Need to Know

While cows’ milk was once a dietary staple for many, a significant proportion of the population now use alternatives in the form of nut, oat, soy and even banana milk.

These dairy-free drinks offer a number of health benefits and support animal welfare, but a new warning highlights one area where milk alternatives may be falling short: iodine.

A University of Surrey study compared the iodine content of 47 milk alternatives — including soya, almond, coconut, oat, rice, hazelnut and hemp — to that of cows’ milk. On average, these milk replacements had just 2 percent of the iodine found in regular milk.

Cows’ milk is the main source of iodine in the UK, so this presents a significant health challenge.

Margaret Rayman, Professor of Nutritional Medicine at the University of Surrey, explained:

Many people are unaware of the need for this vital dietary mineral and it is important that people who consume milk-alternative drinks realise that they will not be replacing the iodine from cows’ milk which is the main UK source of iodine. This is particularly important for pregnant women and those planning a pregnancy. A glass of a milk-alternative drink would only provide around 2 mcg of iodine which is a very small proportion of the adult recommended iodine intake of 150 mcg/day. In pregnancy, that recommendation goes up to 200 mcg/day.

Iodine is an important dietary component because it allows the body to produce hormones that regulate thyroid function. According to the British Thyroid Foundation, most people will find it easy to get their iodine requirement from fish, milk and other dairy products, as well as eggs. Seafood can be another source of iodine, but it comes with a number of caveats.

Iodine deficiency can impair thyroid function, leading to weight management problems and other issues with regulating the body’s systems. In pregnant women, iodine deficiency can impact newborns, leaving them with lower IQ expectancy and reduced chances of thriving.

Unlike the UK, the U.S. and Canada run an iodized salt program, meaning that over 90 percent of households in North and South America get an added does of iodine. A number of grains in the US.. are also fortified with iodine, meaning that many Americans have additional sources of iodine that are not routinely available to Europeans.

But given that many people wish to reduce their sodium intake, it’s not wise to start adding a lot of iodine-fortified salt to one’s diet.

Fortified milk alternatives

While this study points out that milk alternatives in the UK aren’t usually fortified with iodine, it’s possible to find some milks that are — just remember to check product labeling.

At the same time, this research illuminates the fact that milk alternatives are not a straight replacement for cows’ milk — and this is an issue that the industry should take action on.

Seafood

If you choose to avoid dairy products, you can still get a good supply of iodine from seafood. Fish like cod and tuna, as well as seaweed and shrimp, are all rich in iodine.

But, there’s a reason to be cautious about relying solely on these products for iodine intake.

Iodine in kelp and other products

Many people who avoid fish may still eat seaweed or even supplement with kelp. But the iodine content of these products can vary dramatically. It is quite possible to follow the guidance on the supplement label and actually not get enough iodine.

It’s also possible to consume too much iodine because kelp, in particular, is so rich in this particular mineral. This can then present a significant health worry, leading to thyroid inflammation — and, in some circumstances, it may increase the risk of thyroid cancer. Therefore, kelp is not recommended as a source of iodine.

Vegan sources of iodine

If you reside in the Americas, it’s likely that you’re already getting a good dose of iodine through salt and fortified products. By eating a diet rich in vegetables, you will also get a dose of iodine. While broccoli and  soy products can actually impair iodine uptake, you’d have to consume a lot of them.

The University of Surrey’s fact sheet on this issue recommends that vegetarians and vegans looking to up their iodine levels take a potassium iodide supplement that “should not exceed the daily adult requirement of 150 mcg.” This, of course, should only be done under the guidance of a doctor.

As with other dietary health issues, it’s important to be aware of any potential deficiencies and to then take the necessary steps to resolve the problem, relying on a doctor’s expertise for guidance. The good news is, iodine deficiency is relatively easy to manage once you become aware of the risk.

Photo Credit: Frank Luca/Unsplash

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