What’s the Deal With Dairy?

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The topic of dairy and health has become quite debatable over the last few years. It seems when one research article comes out with a conclusion that dairy is harmful to our health, another concludes the opposite right away. If you grew up in America, you most likely were given milk from the time you were born and continued the consumption well through childhood. Milk has always been found in every school cafeteria and is often emphasized over water. The rationale for childhood consumption has always been that it is necessary for growth. Well, this is true for infants drinking their mother’s milk, but questionable after this phase of life. The argument is that adults’ digestive systems are naturally unable to process dairy, although this continues to be a topic of ongoing research.

Healthful Nutrients

The most common nutrient dairy products are known for is calcium. Calcium is known to be essential to good bone health, but according to research, it is unclear whether or not we need as much as the recommended daily value states and if dairy sources are actually the best choice. Dairy products, especially milk, contain a good amount of saturated fats and Vitamin A, which has been shown to weaken bones, so it may be a better option to choose from other calcium-rich sources such as vegetables.

A large percentage of the milk-drinking population opts for low fat or skim milk to help with weight loss or for a calorie-restricted diet. This may seem like the healthier option if you want to keep milk in your diet, but research has shown that whole milk is much better for you that most people think. Just one cup supplies an abundance of nutrients besides calcium, such as Vitamin D, B12, Phosphorus, Potassium, and Riboflavin. The low fat and skim versions of milk are often stripped of the majority of these nutrients and are loaded with sugars to make up for the taste.

As far as fat goes, the best versions of milk come from grass-fed cows, as they contain more Omega-3 fatty acids, which are the healthiest fats for our bodies. Fat-soluble vitamins are also found in grass-fed cow milk, which is essential for the metabolism of calcium. In order for calcium to do its job and provide health benefits, a proper amount of these vitamins such as Vitamin K and Vitamin D need to be abundant. Saturated fats are also essential for calcium absorption—another reason to choose whole milk. Keep in mind that this nutrient structure is quite different in other fatty dairy products such as butter and cheese.

Lactose Intolerance

Research shows that approximately 75% of the world’s population loses the ability to digest lactose at some point in their lives, usually before adulthood. This large proportion of an allergy to a food group may suggest that the body may not be naturally prepared to digest the consumption, or at least in large amounts. This is also true of the food group of grains, since Celiac Disease is also quite common. On the contrary, it is knowingly uncommon to find many people allergic to vegetables and meat. Just as with wheat, many people are unaware of their insensitivity to dairy because they get used to the symptoms of intolerance.

Pasteurized or Unpasteurized?

When reading the label of milk or other dairy products, you have most likely noticed the term “pasteurized”. This process basically strips the milk of harmful bacteria and other contaminants by heating the product up for a certain amount of time. This generally creates a safer product for consumers, but some have argued that this process also destroys many of the healthy nutrients as well as the good bacteria our bodies can benefit from. This controversy makes it confusing for the consumer—if you care more about staying away from any food borne illness, and you choose pasteurized milk, then you are missing out on a more abundant vitamin and mineral source; if you want to drink milk with the highest level of healthful nutrients, and you choose raw milk, then you put yourself at risk for acquiring a food borne illness. Neither seems like a good choice!

The ongoing research is stating that it is always safest to opt for raw milk from grass-fed cows. It is important to choose dairy products that do not come from cows that have been injected with hormones. The presence of the cow’s own hormones in the milk are of a concern with the link to certain cancers, so injecting more hormones just for the sake of a higher production of milk in the farms, is only adding on to this risk. As mentioned earlier grass-fed cows have a higher percentage of healthy essential fatty acids. They also offer a big advantage to the environment by reducing water pollution and erosion.

Non-Dairy Alternatives

If you are practicing a non-dairy diet, whether it be for health reasons, allergies, or veganism, it is important to make sure the choices you make to replace dairy are providing you with the nutrients you are missing out on. Including vegetables and healthy fat sources should be a staple, while making sure to avoid overly processed packaged foods. Many non-dairy alternatives are loaded with other preservatives and excess sugars to make up for poor flavor. There are several options for milk and yogurt made from soy, almonds, coconut, and cashews that are nutrient-fortified, but it is important to choose those with the least amount of ingredients and if possible, all-natural varieties.

Dairy products have gotten criticized over the years, but it shouldn’t stop its consumers from avoiding it completely without knowing the facts. As with all other food groups, it is important to choose products that are in their most natural state—whether pure dairy products or non-dairy alternatives. Many times we think we are consuming healthier alternatives by choosing “non-fat” or “low-sugar”, but these choices may be loaded with other unhealthy ingredients to make up for flavor. In the case of milk, whole milk in moderation is a better choice than its lower fat versions. Although the make-up of nutrients in cheese and butter is completely different than in milk, they all come from the same source—cows. If you are unsure of what the right dairy choice is, as most people are these days from all of the conflicting information, make sure to consume everything in moderation.


  1. Rejane Mattar, Daniel Ferraz de Campos Mazo, and Flair José Carrilho, Lactose Intolerance: Diagnosis, Genetic, and Clinical Factors, Journal
  2. Frederick J. Angulo Jeffrey T. LeJeune Päivi J. Rajala-Schultz, Unpasteurized Milk: A Continued Public Health Threat, Journal
  3. Serge Rozenberg, Jean-Jacques Body, Olivier Bruyère, Pierre Bergmann, Maria Luisa Brandi, Cyrus Cooper, Jean-Pierre Devogelaer, Evelien Gielen, Stefan Goemaere, Jean-Marc Kaufman, René Rizzoli, and Jean-Yves Reginster, Effects of Dairy Products Consumption on Health: Benefits and Beliefs—A Commentary from the Belgian Bone Club and the European Society for Clinical and Economic Aspects of Osteoporosis, Osteoarthritis and Musculoskeletal Diseases, Journal