Scientific Research Confirms the Many Health Benefits of Milk and Dairy Foods

More Than Delicious: Health Benefits of Milk, Cheese and YogurtThrough our experiences with Trends tracking and working with health and wellness professionals and community leaders, we know that many questions arise about milk. 

Our mission is to educate consumers to make food choices for optimal health that match their individual values. We encourage nutrient-rich foods as part of healthy eating patterns, in which milk and dairy foods is a cornerstone. Our recommendations are based on the scientific research and consensus science that confirm the many health benefits that milk and dairy foods provide.

Decades of nutrition research continue to show the essential role that milk, cheese and yogurt play in a healthy diet. Summarized below are some issues of concern along with resources and links so that you can read and decide whether milk is an irreplaceable part of a healthy diet.

Milk and Dairy Products in Human Nutrition, Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2013 (PDF)

FAO Dairy Gateway This webpage is a neutral platform that provides a wide range of material about milk production and products in developing countries.  

Meeting and exceeding dairy recommendations: effects of dairy consumption on nutrient intakes and risk of chronic disease. Nutr Rev. 2013 Apr;71(4):209-23.

Major scientific advances with dairy foods in nutrition and health. J Dairy Sci.2006 Apr;89(4):1207-21.

Nutrients from dairy foods are difficult to replace in diets of Americans: food pattern modeling and an analyses of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2003-2006. Nutr Res. 2011 Oct;31(10):759-65.

Essential for Strong Bones?

Skeptics claim that milk and dairy foods are not needed for the development and maintenance of strong bones but a large body of scientific research shows otherwise. It is true that calcium without adequate protein is ineffective at building strong bones. But we also know that optimal diets are rich in protein.

Sources:

Caroli A, Poli A, Ricotta D, Banfi G, Cocchi D. J Dairy Sci. 2011 Nov;94(11):5249-62. 

Heaney RP. J Am Coll Nutr. 2009 Feb;28 Suppl 1:82S-90S.

Rice BH, Quann EE, Miller GD. Nutr Rev. 2013 Apr;71(4):209-23. 

National Calcium Recommendations: An Update for Health Professionals

Milk: A Nutrient "Heavy Lifter"

Milk and dairy foods are incredibly nutrient-rich. Studies show that if no dairy is consumed, intakes of calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, riboflavin and vitamins A and D drop substantially.1

There are other ways to get these nutrients, however, they are not as convenient nor bioavailable as milk. Research has shown that adequate intake for calcium cannot be met with dairy-free diets while meeting other nutrient recommendations2 and that although it is possible to meet calcium recommendations without dairy, calcium-replacement foods are not a nutritionally equivalent substitute.3 In addition, absorption of calcium is less efficient from plant sources. For example, to replace the calcium in 1 cup of milk, a person would need to consume 8 cups of spinach, 2.2 cups of broccoli or 9 servings of legumes4 - foods often thought to be good sources of calcium. While motivated consumers could consume this amount of food, it is not practical for most Americans.

Most milk alternatives (such as soy, rice and almond) are fortified with calcium, but absorption of calcium is less efficient from plant beverages.5 In addition, vitamin D, protein and potassium levels may or may not be similar to milk. Calorie levels also are higher for most of the plant-based alternative milk products for a given calcium intake level.1

Science is still uncovering how the multiple nutrients in whole foods like milk work together to improve health, but it is clear that milk and dairy foods have an irreplaceable package of nutrients that cannot be found in any other single food or beverage.

Sources:

1Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. USDA, Feb 2015.

2Gao X et al. J Amer Diet Assoc 2006; 106(11):1759-65.

3Fulgoni VL et al. Nutr Res 2011; 31(10):759-65.

4Weaver CM and Heaney, RP. Chapter 9: Food Sources, Supplements and Bioavailability. In: Calcium in Human Health. Humana Press, 2006.

5Heaney RP et al. Am J Clin Nutr 2000; 71(5):-9.

Lactose Intolerance

young Girl Drinking chocolate Milk at school

A National Institutes of Health (NIH) expert panel; the American Academy of Pediatrics; the National Medical Association; the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children; and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans agree that it is important for people with lactose intolerance to get the health and nutritional benefits associated with milk and dairy foods. They encourage daily consumption of dairy foods.

Tolerance of lactose in milk and dairy foods depends on the situation (empty stomach vs. full stomach) and the food consumed. In fact, many people with lactose intolerance can tolerate yogurt and hard cheese. Plus, a person’s tolerance to lactose may change over time. This handout offers specific suggestions for consumers with lactose intolerance. 

Sources:

NIH Consensus conference – Final Panel Statement

Lactose Intolerance and Health Disparities Among African Americans and Hispanic Americans: An Updated Consensus Statement

Milk and Dairy Products in Human Nutrition (FAO Report 2013) – PDF

Lactose Intolerance: Can Dairy Be Part of the Solution?

Safety of Milk

Your Milk is Safe to Drink

Milk is highly regulated to ensure its safety. Preventing chemical residues in all food products is a public health priority and one that is fully supported by the dairy industry. The presence of any residue, including antibiotics in milk, is not acceptable. A safeguard carried out on dairies every day is testing each tanker of milk before processing for the most common classes of antibiotics; and to immediately discard any milk found to be positive.

Antibiotic resistance is being studied by leading scientists, including physicians and veterinarians. The dairy industry is aware that antibiotic resistance is a serious public health concern and will continually look to improve production practices that promote public safety.

California Department of Food Ag 

Food and Drug Administration

FoodSafety.gov

In the Matter of Milk: Good Farm Management is Key in Modern Milk Production

Probiotics

Yogurt often includes probiotics for their health benefits. Some common ones are Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei and Bifidus. These probiotics can help maintain the balance of bacteria necessary for a healthy digestive system; boost the immune system, shortening the length and severity of sickness; and may reduce eczema in babies.

When taking antibiotics, many people suffer unpleasant side effects such as diarrhea or bloating. Eating foods rich in probiotics may help relieve these side effects of antibiotics.

Learn more about the most current research and health benefits of probiotics.

Protein

Milk, cheese and yogurt are convenient, high quality sources of protein. Recent research on the power of protein shows it can prevent muscle wasting in the elderly. Dairy protein is effective and inexpensive source of protein for athletes who want to build muscle. Studies have demonstrated that milk proteins —casein and whey—perform better than other sources of protein at promoting muscle growth.

Sources:

Tang JE, Phillips SM. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care Jan 2009;12(1):66-71.

McGregor RAPoppitt SD. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2013 Jul 3;10(1):46.

Whey Protein: Nutritional Powerhouse

Whey Protein: State of the Science

Popular Diets

The first thing many popular diets do is omit dairy products. These book reviews by registered dietitian nutritionist, Maureen Bligh, provide insight on why these diets come up short.

China Study

Paleo

Wheat Belly

Read Milk Myth Busters to learn research-based answers to common misconceptions about milk. 

Finding Credible Information

Consumers and health professionals are wise to consider the source of information before accepting it at face value. These references can help hone critical thinking skills needed to sort out the good science from the bad.

How to Sort the Good Science From the Bad (for health professionals)

How to Separate Fact from Fiction (for consumers)

When Science Coverage Goes Wrong