More Than Milk: Get to Know the Dairy Food Group

Stroll your local grocery store and you may notice that the dairy section now stretches beyond the confines of a single aisle. Besides various milk and milk products, this section now includes plant-based milk alternatives, lactose-free options, creams, cheeses, and butters. With all those options, you might assume most Americans are consuming the daily recommended amount of dairy (for a typical adult, that’s about three, one-cup [or one-cup equivalent] servings). However, 90 percent of Americans aren’t meeting these recommendations.

We examine these options to help you better understand the dairy food group and how to best meet your consumption goals.

Dairy Packs a Punch

Foods in the Dairy Group, as with other food groups, together offer a unique nutrient package.  For instance, a one-cup serving of milk is a good source of calcium, potassium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and protein.

Calcium is best known for maintaining bone health and staving off osteoporosis. Vitamin D, which is a nutrient most Americans lack, helps our body better absorb calcium, which is why it’s added to milk. (Fun fact: you can also get vitamin D from sun exposure, since the sun converts a form of cholesterol in our bodies into an active form of this vitamin. Not-so-fun fact: as individuals get older, many become vitamin D deficient.) Potassium, another mineral many aren’t getting enough of, helps counter sodium’s effects on the body and keeps blood pressure in check. Vitamin B12 is only found in animal or animal byproduct foods and, in part, participates in DNA synthesis. For those that are lactose intolerant, there’s good news: lactose-free milk varieties and products offer the same vitamins and minerals without the gastrointestinal upset. 

These nutrients are crucial for optimal health, but milk isn’t the only option for getting them. A cup of yogurt counts toward your recommended daily intake and offers probiotics in the form of those “live and active cultures” you may see listed on the packaging. Probiotics are healthy forms of bacteria that aid gut health. A cup of soy milk fortified with calcium is another option, as are certain milk or soy-based desserts, including a cup of milk-made pudding or frozen yogurt or a one-and-a-half cup portion of ice cream. Certain cheeses are also welcomed members of the Dairy Group, including cottage, ricotta, and some hard varieties (cheddar, mozzarella, parmesan, and Swiss).

When examining options for getting your Dairy Food servings, check the label to make sure that they give you the good stuff you need with less of the extras you don’t. For instance, opt for nonfat or low-fat versions, check for added sugars, and always be aware of the serving size. There are also higher saturated fat options that are typically found in the dairy section but are not members of the Dairy Group. These include butter, cream cheese, light and heavy creams, and sour creams. Try to consume these foods sparingly.  

Know Your Options

Milk alternatives derived from plants might be marketed as synonymous to cow’s milk, but many are not considered members of the Dairy Group. Some could be fortified with calcium, vitamin D, potassium, and/or vitamin B12—all found in cow’s milk—but may be missing some of these nutrients and/or protein (for instance, almond, rice, coconut, oat, and hemp varieties). If you’re looking to up your calcium content, these alternatives are an option. Other calcium-rich foods include canned sardines, calcium-fortified juices, and leafy-green vegetables including spinach, kale, and collards.  

Check the MyPlate website to see what counts as a cup-equivalent of different foods in the Dairy Group. Important tip: the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends introducing cheese, yogurt, and soy-based yogurt to infants between the ages of 6 and 12 months but discourages giving them cow or soy milk at this age. Human milk or iron-fortified formula is best. Whole (cow’s) milk can be introduced after a year of age; while toddlers should consume lower fat options, gradually switch to two-percent, low-fat, or skim varieties.

—Fred Durso, Jr., is a Nutrition On Demand intern currently pursuing a master’s degree in food and nutrition and the necessary requirements to become a registered dietitian nutritionist. Prior to heading back to school, he spent more than a decade as a journalist/communications specialist.

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