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Dairy products like milk, cheese and yogurt contribute to the daily nutrient needs of the majority of people in the UK. However, in health circles, nothing divides opinions like milk and dairy. This may be partly explained by worries over inflammation, dairy production and because more and more of us suspect we’re intolerant to lactose – the sugars found in milk, even though lactofree milk is available.
Milk and other dairy products are nutrient-dense. Most of us know that they’re a source of bone-building calcium. They’re also rich in protein and B vitamins, and dairy is often a vegetarians’ main source of vitamin B12. These nutrients are important for building and repairing muscles, energy production and immunity - but, dairy is not the only source. Indeed, as Dr Mark Hyman explains in his stance against the consumption of dairy, those countries with the lowest intake of dairy also have the lowest incidence of osteoporosis.
If you are moving, as many are, to non-dairy milk alternatives then you have plenty of choice - including almond, rice, oat, coconut and soy alternatives. If you switch to one of these, be aware that although they taste similar, they can be very different nutritionally.
Most contain less protein than dairy, but you can get plenty of that from beans, nuts and grains. One of the main difference relates to their calcium content so pick the option that has the highest calcium levels if that’s a concern for you. Beware of added sugars too. Always opt for an unsweetened variety. Lastly, terminology for milk vs. non-dairy milk alternatives is a little tricky - they are no longer allowed to be called milk so look out for the terms milk alternative, mylk or ‘drink’ when shopping around.
What about choosing organic milk over non-organic milk?
Research into the nutritional value of organic v non-organic food is mixed. Many claim the increase in nutrient value is small, if any. However, personally I think the investment is worth it.
Organic food is more ethically produced - especially when it comes to the rearing of animals for meat and dairy produce. Any increase in the nutrient value of a daily staple such as milk really adds up - it’s what you do the majority of the time that matters, not the odd extreme. However, it is important to recognise that it both organic and non-organically reared dairy cows are given antibiotics to treat disease.
Although there’s a huge amount of work being done to reduce and monitor use, in RUMA’s (Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture) report it was stated that it is "difficult to ascertain a true and accurate picture" of use of these medicines. The use of growth hormones (bovine somatotropin (BST) is used to stimulate higher milk yields in some countries, but it is no longer allowed in the EU.
Is dairy linked to inflammation and cancer?
A systematic review investigating inflammatory markers in relation to dairy product consumption was contradictory, but again I personally err on the side of caution and moderate my intake, balancing dairy in coffee or tea with plant-based alternatives in smoothies or on (healthy) cereals and porridge. The cancer risk issue is often raised too. Research appears to link certain types of cancer with lactose intolerant individuals only. However, in my practice if there’s a history of cancer in the family, I would recommend at least reducing dairy intake.