Dairy

A variety of dairy foods including milk, yogurt and various cheeses including cheddar, swiss, blue cheese, mozzarella, brie

Dairy foods include a range of food and beverage products that make up classic combinations: cereal with milk, cheese and crackers, yogurt and berries, ice cream sundaes. While, ice cream and cream cheese are examples of indulgent dairy foods that are viewed as every-so-often treats, a lack of clarity exists over other dairy foods that offer protein, calcium, vitamin D, and other healthful nutrients. Is cheese a healthy food? Is non/low-fat milk and yogurt better for the heart than full-fat versions? Traditionally, whole milk dairy products have been viewed as the less healthful choice because of their predominant type of fat—saturated fat.

Saturated fats were targeted in the 1970s and 1980s as potentially causing harm to health. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans in 1980 recommended choosing non/low-fat dairy foods in place of full-fat versions (except for young children). In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act required schools in the U.S. to replace whole milk with non/low-fat unflavored milk or non-fat flavored milk. Sales of low-fat and fat-free milks, yogurts, and cheeses skyrocketed despite complaints about their lack of flavor and satisfaction. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines recommend three 1-cup (8 ounce) servings of non/low-fat milk or similar amounts of low-fat cheese, yogurt, or other dairy foods for adults and children over 9 years old to increase calcium intake and reduce the risk of bone fractures. [1]

To the surprise of many, research in the 2000s defied these longstanding guidelines to suggest that full-fat dairy foods might be just as healthful as their lower-fat counterparts, provoking scientists to look more closely at all dairy products. Upon closer examination, they realized that dairy foods are not one in the same. The fermentation process required to make cheese and yogurt may impart unique health benefits as well as improved digestibility from a lower lactose content. That said, how people eat dairy is important to consider. Take cheese for example: is it consumed melted on fast-food burgers, pasta, and pizza that are already high in refined carbohydrate, sodium, and saturated fat? Or is it served in thin wedges, eaten with fresh fruit as a snack or dessert? Another key point is frequency and amount. If people drink several glasses of low-fat milk or snack on reduced-fat cheese throughout the day, they might end up eating as much saturated fat (or more) than if they had consumed one glass of whole milk or serving of full-fat cheese.

These questions are important to consider when reviewing scientific research on dairy foods.

Rich In

What is lactose, and what causes lactose intolerance?

Lactose is the naturally occurring sugar found in milk and all dairy products. The body breaks down the sugar molecule and digests it with the help of an enzyme called lactase. Some people have low levels of lactase due to genetics, digestive problems, or gastrointestinal surgeries that interfere with its production. Without lactase, the undigested lactose passes into the small intestine where bacteria ferment it, producing symptoms of gas, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation.

Dairy foods like milk, ice cream, cream, and soft cheeses like cottage and ricotta are high in lactose. Yogurt and aged cheeses are low in lactose because their production involves fermentation by natural bacteria that break down and consume the lactose. This is why some people with lactose intolerance may be able to safely consume some types of cheese and yogurt without side effects. Lactaid pills are a commercial product that contains the lactase enzyme that breaks down lactose, and can be taken before meals containing dairy to help reduce uncomfortable side effects. Lactaid milk is cow’s milk that contains the lactase enzyme so the product is very low in lactose.

Dairy and Health

The nutrients and types of fat in dairy are involved with bone health, cardiovascular disease, and other conditions. Calcium, vitamin D, and phosphorus are important for bone building, and the high potassium content of dairy foods can help lower blood pressure.

Studies on dairy have limitations that may be a cause of seemingly conflicting findings. In observational studies, people who consume a high amount of milk may be different from those who do not in ways that are not fully captured by statistical adjustments. Randomized clinical trials tend to be short in duration with a small number of participants, making it difficult to see possible effects of dairy intake on chronic diseases like heart disease and bone fractures that take years to develop. Thus, longer-term epidemiological studies may provide additional insights.

For Your Health and the Planet’s Health

icon of a globe with a fork and spoon on the sides of itThe production of dairy foods places considerable demand on land, water, and other natural resources, and dairy-producing ruminant animals like cattle, sheep, and goats generate methane—a powerful greenhouse gas. In identifying a dietary pattern both healthy for people and sustainable for the planet, the “planetary health diet” sets the target for dairy foods at 250 grams per day (with a range of 0 to 500 grams per day). 250 grams is about one (8-ounce) cup of milk, yogurt, or equivalent amounts of cheese (because milk is about 90% water, this amounts to about 1 oz of hard cheese). If everyone were  to consume 2 servings of dairy per day, climate change would be difficult to control. [26]

Bottom Line

Both full-fat and non/low-fat dairy foods can be good sources of protein, calcium, B vitamins, and vitamin D. Dairy foods that undergo fermentation, such as yogurt and some cheeses, are lower in lactose and contain healthful gut bacteria that may benefit digestive health. However, the nutrients in milk can be found in other foods and therefore is not an essential food even for the normal growth and development in children and for the prevention of health conditions like bone fractures.

Although full-fat dairy foods are high in saturated fat, whether full-fat dairy is more harmful (or more beneficial) to health than non/low-fat dairy will depend on the sources calories that replace the dairy fat. If this is sugar there may be little difference, but if this is unsaturated fat (such as in nuts or plant oils), the lower fat version would be better. The total amount of dairy consumption is also important; at only one serving per day, the amount of fat would not be important, whereas it would with 3 or more servings per day. Thus, while more research emerges, the type of dairy one incorporates into their dietary pattern can be a matter of personal preference. Some people enjoy using non-fat milk in their cereal or eating a low-fat Greek yogurt. Others may find that choosing a richer full-fat yogurt as an afternoon snack works well to prevent extra snacking before dinner. The overall dietary pattern is key, and creating a balanced plate allows for 0 to 2 servings daily of dairy (of any type) can be healthy.

Learn more about some specific types of dairy foods:

glass of milk against dark blue background

Milk

Research on milk and health often produces contrary findings. Some reasons may be the wide range of different nutritional qualities in milk and how milk intake is measured. Learn more about this popular beverage.
Cup of yogurt topped with blueberries

Yogurt

Did you know that references to yogurt and health date back to 6000 BCE? Learn about the history and current research surrounding this fermented food.
Wedge of cheese cut from a larger wheel; sitting on top of a wooden cutting board

Cheese

Countries around the world have experimented with cheese-making, varying the types of milk, how long the cheese is allowed to age and ripen, and using different additives like salt or acid to produce unique textures and flavors.

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