Dairy products have an undeservedly bad reputation. If you need a reminder of why dairy is good for you, carry on reading.

Dairy is an important part of the human diet and Australia’s dairy manufacturing and exporting industry is one of the biggest in the world, with an estimated value of $13 billion.

Approximately 6,700 dairy farmers produce around 9.5 billion litres of milk a year, with the industry itself directly employing 43 000 Australians on farms and in factories – while more than 100 000 Australians are indirectly employed in related service industries.

And yet, the question whether dairy products are indeed a healthy addition to our diet is a constant topic of discussion.

Confused? We give you the lowdown and the heads-up on the latest, evidence-based research, and offer a number of alternatives for those who are lactose-intolerant.

Breaking down dairy
The facts around dairy’s nutritional make-up are as follows: milk is an excellent source of protein (80% casein and 20% whey), with lactose (milk sugar) as its principal carbohydrate. It contains high levels of the B vitamins as well as the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. It’s also an excellent source of potassium – a nutrient of which many of us consume too little. The salt (sodium) content of milk is relatively low.

The reason why dieticians worldwide recommend a daily intake of dairy products is because dairy is such an excellent source of calcium. Humans need plenty of calcium to ensure that we develop strong bones and teeth during childhood and adolescence, and that we maintain this strength throughout our lives to prevent osteoporosis. The calcium in milk has also been linked to better weight control and a lower risk for high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

In addition, the so-called bioactive peptides in milk have been shown to have a protective effect on elevated blood pressure, while the complex combination of fatty acids may protect us against non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes.

How much dairy do we need?
Milk and dairy products are derived from animals. These foods are just as essential as fruit and vegetables, grains and cereals. Although we generally don't need to eat as much food from the animal food groups as from the plant-based ones (e.g. red meat), dairy products should be consumed regularly.

Milk, yoghurt and cheese are all excellent sources of calcium. One glass of milk can supply 300mg or more calcium to the body, which represents a third of the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) – 1,000mg calcium per day for adults.

We all need to drink about two glasses of low-fat or fat-free milk a day (over cereal at breakfast and in hot beverages), and one portion of low-fat yoghurt or low-fat cottage cheese.

The fat controversy
Teenagers and women in particular tend to avoid milk and dairy products because they believe these foods contain too much fat.

Yes, full-cream milk and yoghurt, and many cheeses, do contain animal fat, which can contribute to heart disease, obesity and some types of cancer, but there are fat-free and low-fat varieties available, which you can use with total confidence. They’ll supply you with all the calcium you require – without the fat.

For example, a 300ml glass of full-cream milk contains 10g of fat of which 6,3g is saturated fat (the type of fat that can cause diseases). You’ll get about 770kJ of energy from this portion. In contrast, a 300ml glass of skim milk contains 0,6g of fat (a reduction of 94%), 0,3g of saturated fat (a reduction of 95%), and 440kJ (a reduction of 43%).

Lactose intolerance and other allergies
In any social setting with a group of ten or more people from diverse backgrounds, you can bet that at least one person will be battling with what’s commonly referred to as lactose intolerance – the inability to digest the sugar in milk and dairy products.

These people cannot digest lactose in the small intestine, which results in fermentation of lactose by bacteria in the large intestine. Flatulence, bloating, diarrhoea and pain usually follow.

Cow’s milk allergy is very common in children. Children with a milk allergy should have soy or rice milk instead of cow’s milk.

A few tips
If you have an intolerance, or if you just want to make the most of this food group, you can benefit from these tips:

    • Choose fermented dairy products often, for example kefir, cottage cheese and yoghurt. These foods are usually better tolerated by people with lactose intolerance and assist in the delivery of beneficial bacteria to the gut to activate your immune system.

    • Look out for “active cultures” or “live yoghurt cultures” on yoghurt labels. This indicates the presence of gut-friendly bacteria in the product.

    • Avoid yoghurt and milk with flavourants and sweeteners; rather opt for the plain version that has less sugar.

    • Make sure the dairy products you purchase are fresh (remember to check sell-by dates), and seal containers so that they don’t absorb odours and turn sour quickly.

    • Limit the amount of hard cheese you eat as it contains high amounts of fat and salt.

Real alternatives to dairy
Cow’s milk can, of course, also be replaced by other kinds of milk. Nutritional therapist Andrea Jenkins gives us the lowdown on the available dairy alternatives:

Goat’s milk
Worldwide, more goat’s milk is consumed than cow’s milk. Despite having more or less the same characteristics as cow’s milk, goat’s milk is also a good source of pantothenic acid and vitamin D, with a lower level of lactose than cow’s milk. This slightly sweet and salty milk makes it a great alternative and replacement for those people who cannot tolerate cow’s milk.

Oat and rice milk
Oat and rice milk are good carbohydrate-based alternatives to cow’s milk. Oat milk contains gluten but is rich in soluble fibre and B vitamins. Rice milk is gluten-free and easy to digest.

Nut/seed milks
Combine your choice of soaked sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, almonds, cashews, macadamia, hemp or Brazil nuts. Blend with some clean filtered water. Add a few dates, raisins, honey or Xylitol for sweetness, then strain and drink. Add cocoa powder or coconut milk to the formula for a nutritional natural milk drink.

Almond milk is particularly balancing, nourishing and tasty. Nut/seed milks make a great addition to berry or banana smoothies. Try it!


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