Dairy Food & Nutrition Questions
The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) recommends three servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy foods daily for those 9 years and older, 2½ cups for those 4–8 years old, and 2 cups for those 2–3 years old.
Healthy eating patterns that include low-fat or fat-free dairy foods are linked to reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and lower blood pressure among adults. Dairy foods also are linked to better bone health, especially in children and adolescents.
Learn more about dairy’s role in a healthy diet.
The Institute of Medicine recommends that for adults, 10 to 35 percent of total daily calories should come from protein. That’s about 50 to 175 grams per day for a 2,000-calorie diet.* Protein plays a big role in helping you and your family stay healthy. Protein supplies what’s needed to build and repair body tissues like muscles and bones.
Dairy foods such as milk, flavored milk, cheese, cottage cheese, yogurt, and Greek-style yogurt are good examples of high-quality protein sources. High-quality protein provides all the essential amino acids your body can’t make on its own. The high-quality protein found in foods such as dairy foods, eggs, lean beef and pork, skinless poultry, fish, and soy offer convenient options to help you meet your protein needs.
Plant proteins can help meet nutrition needs too, although perhaps not as easily, since many beans, peas, seeds, nuts, vegetables, and grain products do not provide significant amounts of the essential amino acids the body needs. Therefore, a variety of plant proteins are often needed to ensure amino acid needs are met.
* Note: Calorie needs differ per individual see choosemyplate.gov for guidelines.
Dairy foods, such as milk, yogurt and cheese, are the main food source of calcium for most people in the U.S. One 8-oz serving of milk provides 300mg of calcium, making it an excellent source.
Vegetables usually contain quite a bit less calcium per serving than milk, so if you’re relying on vegetables to meet your calcium needs, you’ll need to eat a lot of them. For example, you would need to eat about 17 cups of raw kale to get the amount of calcium in three glasses of milk as illustrated in this infographic.
Plant-based beverages made from soy, almond, rice, hemp and others are sometimes fortified with calcium, but in varying amounts. Reading labels is important to understand the nutrients provided in these products.
Discover how to make the beverage choice that is right for you and find out why real milk is a great way to get your daily calcium.
Yes. As Americans look to improve their diet, many are seeking out plant-based or plant forward diets. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) report recommended eating a more plant-based dietary pattern, but emphasized incorporating all five food groups, which includes dairy. In the three dietary patterns outlined in the Dietary Guidelines, even the vegetarian eating pattern includes dairy because of the important nutrients it provides that would be difficult to replace with other foods. In a plant-based diet, dairy can provide an important source of quality protein, as well as B12, a nutrient often lacking in plant only diets. Be cautious with diets that are only plants (or are very limiting in general) as each food group has a set of nutrients unique to those foods. Use MyPlate as a guide to help plan a balanced plant-based diet with adequate nutrients.
Milk has been a source of nutrition throughout human history and yet we are just now beginning to document the composition, physical structures, and bioactivities that make milk such a remarkable natural creation.
Nutritionally, milk is a nutrient-dense beverage that provides high-quality protein and is a good or excellent source of 13 essential nutrients. Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey demonstrates that milk is the number one food source for three of four under-consumed nutrients of public health concern identified by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans: calcium, vitamin D, and potassium. Emerging research associates consumption of dairy foods with health benefits such as lower risk for stroke, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease. As researchers seek to understand the relationship between milk and milk products, consumption, and health, there is increasing interest in the lesser known and less often discussed components that make up the immense diversity of compounds naturally found in fluid milk.
Scientists have described the intricate architecture of fluid milk in the scientific literature – the unique interactions between naturally-occurring proteins, minerals, fats, carbohydrates. There is a growing list of potentially health-promoting bioactive compounds in milk that have made their way into active research programs all over the world. The term ‘bioactive’ is an adjective meaning to have an effect on a living organism. Scientists have already identified a broad range of potentially health-promoting non-vitamin and non-mineral components present in bovine milk. These components are typically referred to in scientific literature as “milk bioactives”.
Although it only contributes about 5% of calories in the U.S. diet, cheese makes significant nutrient contributions. One serving of cheese contains many of the essential nutrients your body needs, including:
- 15% of your daily calcium
- 14% of protein
- 15% of phosphorus
- 20% of vitamin B12
- 45% of pantothenic acid
- 15% of niacin
Lactose intolerant? Cheese can still be an important source of calcium. Natural and aged cheeses such as cheddar, Monterey Jack, Parmesan, and Swiss contain minimal amounts of lactose, because most of the lactose is removed when the curds are separated from the whey in the cheese making process.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) notes moderate evidence that healthy eating patterns including low-fat or fat-free dairy foods are linked to a lower risk of Type 2 diabetes (T2D) among adults.
In addition, Joslin Diabetes Center (JDC), a leader in diabetes research and treatment, recommends dairy foods such as milk and yogurt as a source of protein for overweight and obese adults with prediabetes or T2D in its 2016 Clinical Nutrition Guidelines, and recognizes with broader language support for all fat levels of dairy products. This webinar review with Joslin experts provides an overview on the science on dairy and diabetes, in addition to meal planning guidance for incorporating dairy.
While the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends choosing low-fat or fat-free dairy foods, emerging evidence suggests that fuller fat dairy foods can fit within healthy eating patterns. Research on dairy foods and heart health have shown a neutral or beneficial association with cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk with consumption of all fat levels of dairy foods. In addition, a recent randomized controlled trial of healthy adults in Denmark found drinking about 2 cups of whole milk per day for three weeks did not negatively impact markers of CVD or Type 2 diabetes (T2D), compared to drinking fat-free milk.
When looking specifically at blood pressure, the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Diet which includes more fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy foods, whole grains, nuts and legumes has been shown to lower blood pressure, resulting in reduced CVD risk. The good news is that a recent study indicates that the DASH eating plan can be modified to include whole milk, yogurt, and cheese without sacrificing health benefits.
As the evidence continues to mount, it is good to know that there is the potential for flexibility to incorporate full-fat dairy into a heart healthy diet which can help improve diet compliance.
Fermented foods are all the rage these days (think yogurt, kefir, and kimchi). Aside from adding a unique, tangy flavor, the fermentation process may also result in the addition of “good” bacteria that support gut health.
The process of fermentation can lead to the presence of probiotics in foods (like yogurt for example), but not all fermented foods contain probiotics. Learn more about fermented foods and probiotics.
Different people can handle different amounts of lactose, and there’s a solution to meet most needs in the dairy aisle – from lactose-free milk to dairy foods that are typically easier to digest.
Whether it’s a cold glass of milk, creamy yogurt, or flavorful cheese, dairy foods taste great and offer a powerful nutritional punch that you don’t want to miss out on if not necessary.
Visit our lactose intolerance webpage for more research, information, and tips for enjoying dairy with lactose intolerance.
Questions About Milk
Milk packs in 13 essential nutrients in every serving, including, protein, zinc, selenium, vitamin A and vitamin D, which contribute to healthy immune function. Learn more about dairy’s nutrition and how it contributes to overall health.
There are no antibiotics in your milk. Farmers work with their veterinarians to provide medicines to cows only when they are sick – just like you may work with your doctor to provide medicines to treat you and your family when ill. All milk – regular and organic – is tested multiple times before it gets to you, and if it tests positive for even the slightest amount of antibiotics, it is safely discarded and never reaches the store. On a conventional farm, the cow is taken from the milking herd for treatment, and not returned to the herd until her milk tests free of antibiotics. On an organic farm, that cow permanently leaves the herd. Learn more about how milk is kept free from antibiotics.
Hormones are not added to milk. Just like you, cows need the hormones they naturally produce for proper body function. Hormones are naturally present in many foods of either plant or animal origin, including milk. Although it is very uncommon, some farmers choose to supplement their cows with rbST, an FDA-approved synthetic hormone, to help with milk production. Science shows that it is safe for cows and has no effect on humans or the hormone levels in the milk itself. In response to consumer requests, dairy farmers in New England no longer use rbST.
There are no GMOs in milk. Some cows eat feed containing bioengineered corn and soybeans, which cows digest the same way as they do non-bioengineered grains. Bioengineered DNA has never been detected in milk.
No. In terms of quality, safety, and nutrition, there’s no difference between organic and regular milk. They contain the same amount of 13 essential nutrients per serving. The difference is how they are produced on the farm.
What is different on an organic dairy farm? Learn more on the Farm FAQ section under the question: What is the difference between “Conventional” and “Organic” dairy farms?
Plant-based beverages and cow’s milk are not created equal. These beverages differ greatly in five key areas: nutrition, ingredient list, added sugars, price, and taste.
Here is important information to keep in mind as you navigate this choice for yourself or for your family:
- Cow’s milk is rich in certain nutrients such as calcium, phosphorus, riboflavin and vitamin B12. Plant-based alternatives are often fortified with nutrients they do not naturally contain.
- Cow’s milk typically delivers a higher quality of protein than some plant-based alternatives. For example, almond, cashew, coconut, and rice beverages offer little or no protein per 8-ounce serving (0-1 grams), while cow’s milk provides 8 grams of high-quality protein for the same serving size.
- The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) recommends three servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy foods per day as part of the Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern for people nine years and older. Alternative beverages, other than soy beverages fortified with calcium, vitamin A and D, are not included in the dairy group because “their overall nutritional content is not similar to dairy milk and fortified soy beverages,” the DGA states.
- The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends two servings of low-fat or fat-free milk, or fortified soy beverages for children aged 2 to 3 years, and 2 1/2 servings for children 4 to 8 years.
- The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 16-24 fl oz. of plain whole milk for children starting at one year.
- Plant-based alternatives should not be the main beverage for young children, according to an expert panel from four key national health and wellness organizations: the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), American Heart Association (AHA) and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD). A consensus recommendation “Healthy Beverage Consumption in Early Childhood” was released in September 2019.
- “In the case of allergies, or other concerns, I recommend parents speak with a dietitian to ensure all nutrient needs, including protein, fat and calories are being met with an age-appropriate diet,” says Dr. Catherine Pound, pediatrician and spokesperson for the Canadian Pediatric Society.
- An article by the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents check the labels of plant-based milk alternatives, since the amount of protein and calories vary by brand. A chart compares the nutritional content of whole cow’s milk and several plant-based alternatives.
- In adults, healthy eating patterns, which include low-fat and fat-free dairy foods, are linked to reduced risk of certain chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. Dairy consumption is also linked to improved bone health, especially in children and adolescents.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend consuming less than 10% of calories from added sugars per day, but state that you can cut down on added sugars and still enjoy the foods and beverages you love. Consuming flavored milk, which is a nutrient-dense beverage, can help children improve their diet quality and meet recommended daily servings of dairy. In fact, research shows that flavored milk contributes just 3 percent of added sugars to kids’ diets versus sodas and fruit drinks, which account for close to half of the added sugar and deliver much less, if any, nutritional value. And flavored milk contains the same essential nutrients as white milk which can help people of all ages consume essential vitamins and nutrients important for health.
In the school setting flavored milk enables school nutrition programs to address the nutrient, taste, and health needs of the students they serve. Learn more about flavored milk in schools.
Studies have shown that milk’s powerful nutrient package has several benefits for post-exercise recovery. This emerging research overview shows that drinking milk after exercise can be as effective as some sports drinks in helping the body refuel, recover, and re-hydrate. Milk is 90% water and has the electrolytes necessary for hydration. With 8 grams of high-quality protein, and with an optimal carbohydrate-protein ratio flavored milk can help the stimulation of muscle protein synthesis following exercise. Drinking milk immediately post-resistance exercise may promote greater lean body mass development than a soy protein or a carbohydrate drink.
For further information, or if working with athletes, you can download this PowerPoint presentation for educating.