Nutrition Tips for Dairy Month
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National Dairy Month in June celebrates the many contributions of the dairy industry to our health and economy. While dairy products contribute to our health in many beneficial ways, not everyone can consume dairy. For those who are allergic to cow’s milk or follow a vegan eating pattern, there are many alternatives from which to choose. You may have noticed that the “dairy” aisle of your grocery store has grown in recent years, yet not all of the products in the dairy case are actually dairy foods. These non-dairy options are derived from plants, but they vary widely in their nutritional value in comparison to dairy milk.
Plant-based dairy alternatives are certainly nothing new. Soy “milk,” for example, has been available commercially for years. What is new in recent years is the high interest on the part of consumers in such alternatives. To gain a better understanding, let’s compare animal-based (dairy) and plant-based (non-dairy) products.
The dairy food group includes milk, yogurt, and cheese. The main nutrient supplied by dairy foods is calcium. Cream, cream cheese, and sour cream are not part of the dairy food group due to their low calcium content. In order to obtain the daily recommended intake of calcium, the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends 3 servings of dairy each day for people ages 9 to adult. One serving equals 1 cup of milk or yogurt, or 1.5 ounces of hard cheese.
About 90 percent of the U.S. population does not meet dairy recommendations. The percent of Americans who drink milk as a beverage on a given day is 65 percent among young children, 34 percent in adolescents, and about 20 percent for adults. Dairy is generally consumed in forms with higher amounts of sodium (e.g., cheeses, sandwiches, pizza, and pasta) and saturated fat (e.g., higher fat milks and yogurts) and can be a source of added sugars such as flavored milk, ice cream, and sweetened yogurts.
Low-fat and fat-free dairy products are the best choices. In terms of the differences among nonfat (skim), 1 percent, 2 percent, and whole milk, the only nutrient variance is in the amount of fat, and therefore calories. The amount of protein, calcium, and other nutrients is the same. As already mentioned, choosing low-fat milk and yogurt more often than cheese is recommended. Milk and yogurt have more potassium and less sodium than most cheeses and almost all milk and many yogurts are fortified with vitamin D which aids in the absorption of calcium. Flavored milks, fruit yogurts, frozen yogurt, and puddings contain a lot of added sugars. These added sugars are empty calories; you need the nutrients in dairy foods, not the empty calories. So choose plain, low-fat versions of dairy foods whenever possible. When recipes such as dips call for sour cream, substitute plain yogurt; use fat-free evaporated milk instead of cream; and try ricotta cheese as a substitute for cream cheese.
Non-dairy milk substitutes are made from plants and are not included as part of the dairy food group since their overall nutritional content is not similar to dairy milk. Therefore, consuming these beverages does not contribute to meeting the dairy group recommendations. Does this mean you should not consume plant-based dairy foods? The answer is no. However, it is important that you understand the differences in products.
Plant-based dairy alternatives are fluids that result from the breakdown (i.e. size reduction) of plant material extracted in water and further homogenization that results in a fluid similar to cow’s milk in appearance and consistency. Although there is no stated definition of plant-based milk alternatives, a general classification could be stated as follows:
- Cereal-based: Oat milk, Rice milk, Corn milk, Spelt milk.
- Legume-based: Soy milk, Peanut milk, Lupin milk, Cowpea milk.
- Nut-based: Almond milk, Coconut milk, Hazelnut milk, Pistachio milk, Walnut milk.
- Seed-based: Sesame milk, Flax milk, Hemp milk, Sunflower milk.
- Pseudo-cereal based: Quinoa milk, Teff milk, Amaranth milk.
It is important to note that the FDA and USDA publish legal definitions of foods called “standards of identity”. Cow’s milk and other dairy products have standards of identity. Non-dairy milk alternatives do not currently have a defined standard of identity, nor do they meet the standards of identify for milk. This fact makes the use of the term “milk” a bit confusing, but for now, this is the term used by manufacturers for naming and marketing these products.
Besides the origins of dairy and non-dairy foods, what are some other differences? A close comparison of the Nutrition Facts Label and the ingredients list between dairy and plant-based alternatives reveals the answer.
Dairy milk contains 8 grams of protein per 8-ounce serving, fortified soy milk contains about six grams of protein, while many coconut, rice, and almond milks contain only one gram of protein. Dairy milk is the top food source for calcium, as well as vitamin D and potassium, in the American diet. Calcium occurs naturally in milk while non-dairy milk alternatives contain minimal amounts of naturally-occurring calcium. Calcium is an essential mineral that the human body needs to function properly. Adults ages 19 to 50 need 1,000 milligrams of calcium each day. Milk naturally provides 300 milligrams of calcium, or about 30 percent of your daily requirement in one, eight-ounce serving. The amount of calcium in milk remains the same, regardless of the variety of milk you select such as low-fat or fat-free. Food manufacturers fortify or add a form of calcium to non-dairy milk products to increase the levels of calcium per serving.
Regular white dairy milk has no added sugar. It contains lactose, which is a naturally-occurring sugar. Added sugar will likely be in a milk alternative which means the calories will vary substantially. Ingredients like cane sugar or cane juice on the ingredient list indicate that sugar has been added. Also, a rice beverage has nearly double the carbohydrates of cow’s milk, which is significant if you have diabetes.
Another way to compare products is by reading the ingredient list. Real dairy milk’s ingredient list is short—simply milk and vitamins D and A. Compare milk with some non-dairy milks and the list can be much longer. In fact, many non-dairy milk options have 10 or more added ingredients. These can include salt, thickeners, stabilizers, gum, and emulsifiers in addition to vitamins and minerals added for supplementation.
One last difference between real dairy and non-dairy milk options is price. Dairy-free milk options do not provide the same package of thirteen essential nutrients for the same price as dairy milk. At just about 25 cents per glass, milk offers more nutritional bang for your buck than just about any other beverage you can buy.
Even though non-dairy milk alternatives are not the nutrition powerhouses of real dairy, these foods have their place in the kitchen and at the table. For those who have allergies to dairy products and consumers who follow a vegan lifestyle, these products are a good option. For those who are “dairy-free curious” (a phrase coined by Alden’s Organic), it’s fun to experiment with the variety of flavors and texture profiles of non-diary milks and yogurts and the frozen desserts that serve as ice cream alternatives. A little oat milk in your coffee or almond milk with your cereal can be a nice treat. And for many people who find it more difficult to digest dairy products as they get older, a newer product on the market, A2 Milk, may be beneficial. Watch for my article next month to learn more about A2 Milk.
Again, it is important to compare and discern which product best supplies your individual nutrient needs and fits your food budget. Thoroughly reading the Nutrition Facts Label and ingredient list continues to be the best method to understand more about the foods you eat and the beverages you drink.