In the health world, few topics are trickier to get a full understanding of than dairy. Read some reports and you'll be told that cow's milk is the elixir of life, the best bone-strengthening, cancer-fighting super food found from an udder.
So what should you believe? Do you follow the advice of the “Got Milk” ad campaign and focus on your three full servings of dairy products a day, or do you reject their advice in favor of the growing popularity of the dairy free movement?
Frankly, when it comes to dairy there are no easy answers.
Whether or not you should consume dairy is a personal decision; as much impacted by your biology as personal taste. We aren't here to tell you whether or not you should be drinking it, but we're here to give you the facts.
Once you can understand dairy products from multiple different angles it will become much easier to understand both sides of the argument and make the dietary decision that's right for you.
Knowing whether you should consume dairy might not have an easy answer, but we've made the research process simple for you by outlining what you need to know to make up your mind about what role milk products should have in your life.
Got Milk? America Doesn't (Anymore)
What is more American than a cold glass of milk and a cookie? Most people in the states probably grew up with a gallon constantly in the fridge and a mother regularly invoking them to 'drink up for your bones'.
As Americans have grown up, they haven't fully given up their love affair with dairy products. Each year, the average American pounds through 36 pounds of cheese and 34 pounds of ice cream.
And in case they forget for a day, the famous “Got Milk?” commercials, complete with cute celebrity mustaches, will be sure to remind you to drink your glass.
This all may be true, so why are we drinking so much less milk?
In fact, for the past decade the milk consumption rates in the U.S have plummeted, as 22% of Americans now claim to be trying to drink less milk or have even given it up altogether. (American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics).
In 1978, Americans were drinking at least a cup of milk every day, but today over half the population no longer drinks milk daily in any quantity. Why are Americans so quickly abandoning their national drink?
Much of the reason can be found with the bad rap that dairy has been earning in past years. We are told that dairy is fatty and filled with one of the worse kinds of fat- saturated. The logic follows that too much saturated fat leads both to weight gain and clogged arteries that cause heart attacks.
Are these concerns worth listening to? Let's answer that question by looking at the facts about dairy, starting with its origins in the human diet.
Looking At The History Of Humans And Dairy
Milk must have been a startling discovery for the first man brave enough to taste the white creamy liquid coming out of a cow's udder, yet that discovery helped to change the trajectory of human history by jump starting the agricultural revolution
The ancient ancestor of the modern dairy cow was a creature called aurochs, a small cow that used to roam throughout Asia, Europe and North Africa before it was domesticated about 10,000 years ago in the Middle East.
This cow separated into two domesticated species, called the zebu and the European highland cattle.
Though these animals were originally raised just for their meat, it's estimated that European farmers started to try capitalizing on their milk potential about 6,000 years ago.
At this time, a genetic mutation began to spread through humanity called lactase persistence, which allowed adult humans to be able to digest milk without difficulty.
What separates cows (and goats) from other domestic animals like pigs or chickens is the fact that they are ruminants. This means they have a massive four-chambered stomach perfectly suited for digesting dry stalks and other fibrous material that is completely inedible for the human stomach.
Through enormous amounts of chewing and plenty of stomach bacteria, ruminants can digest this food and turn it into milk for their infants.
Once early humans realized they could cut off the calf from its milk and drink it themselves, they stumbled on a fantastically nutrient rich food source.
Dairy consumption exploded throughout Europe and parts of Central Asia for thousands of years with little change until the time of Louis Pasteur in the 1850s.
This French chemist was concerned with how many people were dying due to drinking spoiled milk and devised the idea of “germ theory”.
Through the process of heating milk to extremely high temperatures and then rapidly cooling it (pasteurizing), he found, he could kill all the harmful microbes in milk and render it safe for much longer than before.
Thanks to Louis, milk could be transported and stored safely with less risk of spoilage, which made it easier than ever for people without their own cows to drink milk. His pasteurization technique was the final step for getting milk on the menu for families around the world.
Is Dairy “Natural” For Humans To Eat?
Though it's true that humans have been drinking dairy for thousands of years, the question remains whether it's actually “natural” for full grown humans to drink milk.
After all, no other adult mammal does...especially not from another animal. However, we are also the only species to cook our food and few people seem to take issue with that.
The fact that there are genetic mutations in the population to make it easy for humans to digest milk is all the proof that many people need that dairy products can be a healthy part of a balanced diet.
Even so, some food trends vehemently oppose the consumption of dairy, including strict followers of the paleo diet.
The Truth Behind Lactose Intolerance
Another reason that many people are wary about consuming dairy is because of lactose intolerance. Though its true that a good portion of people have a genetic mutation to allow them to drink milk, over 75% of the world's population doesn't. Some have a very mild version, and can have a little bit of milk, as long as they're very careful with their portions.
This means that though everyone is born with a digestive enzyme called lactase that helps them break down lactose (milk sugar) from their mother's milk, lactose intolerant people lose this ability as they enter adulthood.
When people that are intolerant try to eat dairy products, they tend to experience nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and other digestion-related symptoms.
However, many of these people can safely eat fermented forms of dairy, like yogurt or aged cheeses, because the fermentation bacteria breaks down and eats much of the lactose sugars.
It's also possible to get your body to slowly adjust to dairy by eating small amounts at a time.
This gives your gut bacteria time to adjust and develop the lactase enzyme that's needed.
That being said, there are plenty of people on the planet who can't adjust to dairy no matter how hard they try.
Though lactose intolerance is relatively rare in North America, Europe and Australia, it's extremely common throughout Africa, South America and Asia.
Types Of Dairy
Dairy can be made into a wide variety of products to excite your palette. Some of the most popular ways that people like to eat this unique animal product are described below.
As the pale, creamy liquid formed in the mammary glands of all mammals, milk is the crucial ingredient for all other dairy products.
Though milk is specially designed to be a nourishing food source for infants, over thousands of years humans have adjusted to drinking milk from cows, goats and sheep.
Around the world, about six billion people regularly consume some sort of milk-based product, and over 750 million people live in households with a dairy animal.
Just as soon as humans learned that milk is an excellent source of nutrition, they were faced with the problem of keeping it from spoiling and going sour.
The obvious solution was to process it into different forms that are far more stable, helping to dramatically increase the shelf life of these valuable nutrients. Some of those time tested milk products are listed below.
By adding an enzyme to milk and getting it to coagulate, early farmers learned they could store their milk in the form of curds.
Cheese has been made since the early neolithic ages and has long been an easy way to reduce the lactose content in dairy.
Today, cheese is made around the world in hundreds of different varieties, creating dozens of distinct flavors that can be used from everything from baking to enjoying on crackers.
Though not popular in North America, kefir is a unique dairy product made through the fermentation of milk with kefir “grains” that turn the milk into a drinkable yogurt.
This process originated in the Caucasus Mountains as a way to naturally increase pro biotic bacteria levels and provide superior health benefits and nutrition, including vitamin B12, calcium, enzymes, magnesium and others.
Kefir has been used in European and Asian folk medicine for centuries as an all natural cure-all for various ailments like leaky gut.
A staple food item around the world for centuries.
Though butter is often vilified as a source of saturated fats, it can be an important part of a healthy diet when eaten in moderation.
Butter was likely created through the early agrarian process of carrying milk around in sheep or goat skin bags. After sitting in these bags all day and being shaken around, cream would rise to the top and the milk solids would form into butter.
This serendipitous discovery allowed the full nutritional value of milk to be saved for weeks at a time, rather than hours in milk.
American health food crazes have raised the popularity of yogurt and turned it into a dairy staple item.
Best of all, many lactose intolerant people can still handle yogurt because of the lactase present in the bacteria responsible for fermenting it.
Just like butter, yogurt was also probably discovered by accident.
Milk warmed by the hot Middle Eastern sun would turn acidic, ferment, and curdle into a plain yogurt.
This tangy product has even been used as a health product and even purported solved a 16th century French King's stomach troubles.
If you think your own gut needs a boost of beneficial bacteria, consider scooping out some plain yogurt to help you out.
Health Benefits Of Dairy
Until recent years, there was little controversy about dairy. In fact, dairy has been lauded has a health food for decades. Much of this reputation comes from the number of nutrients it contains.
At 142 calories, whole milk is actually very nutritious and full of what your body needs to function.
A single cup of milk contains 28% of your daily value of calcium, 24% for vitamin D, 26% for vitamin B2, 18% for vitamin B12 and dozens others.
At 1.5 grams per cup, milk is high in saturated fats. Though conventional wisdom tells us that saturated fats raise the risk of heart disease, recent scientific evidence is revealing the opposite.
The Controversy Of Dairy (Is It Healthy Or Not?)
So far, we have established that certain populations around the world slowly evolved to be able to eat dairy products as adults, and we've noted ways that even lactose intolerant people can incorporate some dairy products into their lives.
However, we have been avoiding the biggest question of all - is dairy even worth eating?
Yes, it was an essential food source for early civilizations that were limited in the types of calories they had access to, but now that we have longer lifespans and live in a world with more food options, can dairy be justified as part of a modern healthy diet?
Let's look at the facts.
As stated earlier, the merits of eating dairy is one of the most contentious issues in the world of nutrition. Mega health platforms like Choose My Plate celebrate the benefits of milk products and claim that they are essential for healthy bone growth.
These organisms encourage us to eat at least 3 servings of dairy every day in order to get enough calcium to prevent inferior bone growth and fractures.
There's just one problem.
Numerous studies have actually shown that the OPPOSITE is true. Countries that consume little dairy actually have low rates of osteoporosis and bone breakage, while countries with high dairy consumption levels (like the United States) have much higher rates of osteoporosis!
To be clear, no one is stating that dairy causes osteoporosis, only that there is no clear evidence that dairy makes a difference for bone health.
After all, just because dairy contains calcium doesn't mean that calcium will make its way into your bones. There are far too many factors involved to make such simplistic claims.
In truth, there is too wide of a range in the benefits of different types of dairy products and the overall impacts of how the animals were raised to be able to make blanket statements about whether or not dairy is 'good' for you.
To understand some of the nuances in the differences between various forms of dairy, read on.
Quality Difference In Different Types Of Dairy
The nutritional content of dairy depends greatly on how it is produced and processed. Below you can learn about the differences between CAFO, pasture raised, homogenized, pasteurized and raw dairy products and what they mean for your health.
Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) Dairy
The vast majority of the milk produced in the United States today comes from CAFOs, which are essentially monstrous factories that churn out animal products like meat, milk or eggs.
Though CAFOs are incredibly efficient and are responsible for the rock bottom prices of dairy products in the grocery store today, they also come with an inherent set of risks for the consumer.
Because animals are crowded into impossibly tiny spaces in CAFOs, their risk of getting sick is high. Because of this, farmers must pump their cows full of antibiotics to keep them healthy.
These antibiotics increase the risk of the development of a superbug and often end up in the milk in trace amounts, where they get passed on to the you when you drink it. In order to increase their bottom line, CAFO cows are also often injected with bovine growth hormones in order to get them to grow faster and produce more milk.
Once again, these drugs can get passed down to the consumer, posing health risks that are still not understood.
Finally, CAFO cows are fed an unnatural diet of corn which prevents them from getting the nutrition that a grass diet gives them. These nutritional deficiencies get passed onto the consumer, meaning that milk from a CAFO cow won't be as nutritional as more natural varieties.
Pasture raised dairy means that cows lived outside and were allowed to forage for their natural diet of herbaceous grasses. It's less efficient to raise cows out on pasture, but the health benefits often make up for the higher cost.
In fact, an Australian study found that people that drank full fat dairy milk from pasture-raised cows had a 69% lower risk of developing heart disease.
Pasture-raised dairy is a smart choice if you want to feed your body with healthy dairy, but keep in mind that fat-soluble vitamins won't be present in low fat varieties, meaning you'll need to drink whole to enjoy the benefits.
Homogenization in milk refers to the process of extracting out some of the fat molecules in order to lower the overall calorie count. The nutritional views on homogenization are mixed.
Though reducing fat content in milk can help you lose weight, it also makes it extremely difficult for your body to absorb the fat soluble vitamins and nutrients it contains, meaning you miss out on much of the nutrition.
Also, most low fat and skim milk products are loaded with sugar in order to make up for the loss of flavor from pulling out the fat.
Since the time of Louis Pasteur, pasteurization has been required for any dairy products you buy in stores. This process of killing bacteria through high heat allows milk to last longer on the shelf, but it comes at the expense of many beneficial nutrients and bacteria.
The pasteurization process kills both harmful and beneficial microbes alike, ruining the probiotic potential of dairy. It also reduces the vitamin content present and limits the amount of calcium available for absorption.
Raw dairy is dairy that hasn't been pasteurized or had any of the fat content removed. Though this is the way that dairy was consumed for most of human history, the US government sees it as a threat to public safety and even outlaws its sale in many states.
Though drinking raw dairy does increase your risk of getting sick from pathegons that contaminate it, proponents believe that the health risks are greatly overstated and that the nutritional benefits of raw milk make it well worth the risk.
Best Types Of Dairy To Eat
The type of dairy you choose to consume is a personal decision based on your nutritional values and beliefs about the safety of raw milk.
However, it's generally a good idea to stay far away from CAFO milk and to try to buy pasture-raised milk from the grocery store, or even better, from a local farmer you can trust.
Easy Ways To Add More Dairy To Your Diet
If you decide that dairy is a healthy food option for you and you want to find ways to add more of it to your diet, here are some tips to help you do so.
Below are some of the common questions that people have about dairy.
Is Chocolate Milk A Smart Post-Workout Food?
Because milk has 8 grams of protein, it's considered a smart way to rebuild muscle fibers after a tough workout and the high sugar levels help replenish your fuel storage.
However, chocolate milk also contains a lot of calories (226 per cup) that might negate the efforts of your workout. In short, only drink chocolate milk after workouts where you worked hard enough to need it.
Is Milk The Best Source Of Calcium?
Milk is a great source of calcium, but it's certainly not the only one.
You can also replenish your stores through a diet filled with kale, beans, tofu, nuts and even calcium-fortified orange juice.
In short, a well-balanced diet with plenty of whole foods will give you all the calcium you need.
Will Dairy Make You Fat?
Since the low-fat craze of the 90s, Americans have had a rather unfounded fear of dietary fats. In fact, there is little evidence that saturated fat (the kind found in animal products like dairy) will cause you to gain weight.
Low-fat dairy items lose flavor when the fat is pulled out, meaning that sugar is added instead, which HAS been proven to lead to weight gain.
However, more important than fat and sugar content is the amount of dairy you consume and whether you are burning enough calories throughout the day to balance it out.
A bowl of Haagen Daz is not equivalent to a cup of cottage cheese. Yes, dairy can make you fat, but it all depends on the type and amount you eat.
Is Dairy A Good Source Of Probiotics?
Absolutely! Many processed dairy products like soft cheeses and yogurts are filled with beneficial bacteria that help you your gut running smoothly.
Eating these products will help ensure you have regular bowel movements and keep you from feeling bloated and full of gas.
It's hard to come to an overall consensus on the role that dairy has in a healthy diet because much of the scientific evidence can be interpreted either way.
Though dairy is a perfect food source for much of the world's population, other populations find that it makes them desperately sick. Deciding whether or not dairy is right for you will depend on how your body reacts to it and the quality of dairy you are willing to commit to.
Our overall consensus is that dairy is perfectly fine to eat if your body can handle it, though it's always better to choose dairy products that are as close to their natural state as possible.
Whether you choose to consume pasteurized or raw, homogenized or whole is a personal decision, but if nothing else strive to make sure that the milk you buy comes from healthy cows fed a natural diet.
Now it's time for us to hear from you! What do you think about dairy? Do you think it makes you healthier?
How much is a good amount for you? You can contribute to the ongoing conversation about the health benefits of dairy by commenting below. We'd love to hear your insights and feedback.