In the spirit of National Dairy Month, I’m tackling dairy myths.
There’s a lot of misinformation about dairy food and dairy farming. But when you look beyond the fear mongering and (sadly) hate messaging, and closer to the science or the perspective of a farmer, you can gain an appreciation for the nutritional value of dairy foods and impressive innovation of dairy farms.
So, whether dairy is a part of your diet or not, I hope this article shines some light on common misconceptions.
Top 5 Misconceptions
1. Dairy is bad for your health
Let me start with my favorite myth. Unless you have a cow’s milk allergy, dairy foods offer many health benefits.
- One glass of milk packs 13 essential nutrients (that provide at least 10% of your daily needs), including 3 of the 4 nutrients of public health concern for Americans.
- Dairy food consumption, as a part of a healthy diet, is linked to decreased risk of chronic disease like obesity, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.1-5
- Contrary to popular belief, dairy does NOT cause inflammation, but can be linked to lower inflammation.6,7
- For pregnant/lactating women, dairy foods are one of the few food groups that offer iodine – a nutrient that is essential to baby’s cognitive development (FYI – iodine needs increase by more than 50% during pregnancy and lactation).8-10
- For infants, toddlers and children, dairy foods offer 7 of the 14 nutrients important for early brain development.11
- As we get older, dairy’s protein along with calcium and vitamin D can help prevent sarcopenia (muscle loss) as well as fracture risk and falls.12,13
- For athletes and active folks, dairy offers high-quality whey protein, specifically leucine – a branched chain amino acid linked to muscle mass growth.14
- Paired with nutritious plant foods, dairy nicely complements plant-based diets, filling in nutrient gaps with each serving.
So, next time you see a recipe titled as “healthy” due to being “dairy-free,” I encourage you to join me in raising an eyebrow.
2. Dairy alternatives are healthier
Dairy alternatives are different. They offer another category of milk-like beverages and can be helpful for families with a cow’s milk allergy. However, claiming one is healthier than the other is challenging. How do you define healthy? Lower calorie, lower carb, lower fat, nutrition profile? Because non-dairy “milks” are most prevalent, I’ll focus on this category.
- Fortified soy beverage is the only non-dairy alternative recommended by the US Dietary Guidelines. That doesn’t mean other options are bad or can’t fit into a balanced diet, it just means their nutritional profile doesn’t match that of dairy’s.
- Nut varieties like almond and cashew beverage are often fortified with calcium and vitamin D, and are lower in calories/carbohydrates than cow’s milk. However, they fall short in the other essential nutrients cow’s milk offers like protein, B vitamins, phosphorous, iodine, zinc, and potassium.
- For children in particular, cow’s milk offers an affordable and accessible source of vital energy, fat, and nutrients important for physical growth and cognitive development. That’s why expert organizations like the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Heart Association recognize milk as a “critical component of a healthy diet” for infants/young children and note that plant-based alternatives (except soy beverage) are “not nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk.” 15
3. Lactose intolerance means no more dairy
Some of us don’t have enough of the lactase enzyme to digest the lactose found in dairy products, which leads to annoying GI symptoms like cramps, bloating, and diarrhea. Luckily, lactose intolerance does not have to mean dairy avoidance!
- Most dairy products come in lactose-free forms. It’s still real cow’s milk and offers the same taste and nutritional benefits, just without the lactose.
- Milks that are ultra-filtered offer higher protein and lower lactose options that are easier for many folks to digest.
- Research shows that most people with lactose intolerance can tolerate up to 12 grams of lactose at a time (about the amount found in a glass of milk) – this means many dairy products like cheese and yogurt (under 5g lactose) can still fit in their diet.16
- The active live cultures in products like kefir and yogurt help digest some of the lactose, making them more tolerable.
4. Dairy farmers treat cows poorly
Animal abuse is a serious problem and, quite frankly, a disgusting form of cruelty. Unfortunately, there will always be bad apples that mistreat undeserving animals from dogs to livestock to zoo mammals. Fortunately, there are many programs in place to prevent, detect and report such maltreatment. The majority of US dairy farmers not only participate in these programs, but take pride in keeping their cows happy and healthy.
- More than 99% of the US milk supply comes from farms participating in the FARM Animal Care Program – a national program that holds high standards regarding cow health, hygiene, facilities, handling, and veterinarian oversight.
- Farmers ensure their cows are comfortable, happy and healthy. In fact, they want their cows to be happy! If dairy cows are stressed, it can negatively affect their milk production.17,18 Cow’s have access to:
- Fresh food and water all day
- Shelter that keeps them warm in the winter and cool in the summer
- Soft and clean bedding
- Veterinarians to prevent and treat infections and disease
- Many live in free stall barns, where they can choose to walk in or out of the open shelter at their leisure.
People may envision “Big Dairy” as a factory-farm, profit-focused industry. But in reality, more than 97% of US dairy farms are family owned! Farmers are incredible. They work 365 days a year to support our food system. To learn more about farmers, I encourage you to visit a local farm, ask questions and follow educational (and very entertaining) farmers on social media like Farm Babe or Iowa Dairy Farmer
5. Dairy is bad for the environment
Dairy cows and food processing do contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. You know who else does? You and me – via transportation, electricity, heat, and food waste. And just like the strides we take to reduce our impact (energy-efficient appliances, electric vehicles, recycling), the dairy industry is no different. Here are some facts:
- US dairy’s greenhouse gas footprint is less than 2% of the US total.19
- Cow burps contribute significantly to methane emissions. While this is important, remember that methane makes up 11% of US greenhouse gases, while CO2 (fossil fuels) makes up 79%. Furthermore, methane lives in the atmosphere for about 12 years, while CO2 can remain for 100’s to 1000’s of years.20,21
- US dairy has committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
- Producing a gallon of milk used 90% less land and 65% less water, with a 63% smaller carbon footprint in 2007 than in 1944.22
- Due to sustainability efforts like regenerative agriculture practices, producing a gallon of milk in 2017 required 30% less water, 21% less land and a 19% smaller carbon footprint than it did in 2007.23
- Cows are great upcyclers and consume about 27 pounds of byproducts (food leftovers that humans cannot eat) each day, resulting in less methane and nitrous oxide emission from landfills. 24
- Technological advances like methane digestors (a machine that converts methane into renewable energy) are exciting innovations to support dairy sustainability efforts.
- When considering sustainable diets, nutritional quality plays a role. Cow’s milk and soy beverage have a better protein quality to carbon footprint ratio compared to oat, almond, coconut, and rice beverages.25
Is there more work to be done for dairy regarding environmental progress? Yes, as there is for all of us. Should dairy farmers be vilified as careless contributors to climate change? Absolutely not.
Honorable mentions (just for fun)
- Dairy is high in sugar – the sugar you see on the nutrition label is simply the natural lactose sugars (it’s just like the lactose found in breastmilk and even helps us absorb more calcium) – not to be confused with refined added sugar.
- Raw milk is better – raw milk is not pasteurized (heated to kill pathogens), therefore it contains harmful bacteria like E. coli, listeria, and salmonella – not to be confused with healthy probiotics found in kefir and yogurt.
- Milk is full of antibiotics – unless farmers want to pay a hefty fine, milk cannot contain any trace levels of antibiotics. Sick cows need medicine too. If they’re treated with antibiotics, their milk is not used until the medicine is completely out of their system.
- Milk is full of puss – ew and no. Unless a cow is sick with infection, there is no pus in milk (and remember milk is rigorously tested for any traces of unwanted material).
- It’s unnatural to drink another animal’s milk – not sure how you define natural, but it makes me wonder if it’s natural that humans cook eggs, take vitamins/supplements, ferment beer, or eat tofurkey? Milk and dairy products have been consumed for thousands of years. If it ain’t broke …
- Organic milk is better – if you mean more nutritious or safer? Nope – see my deep dive on organic here.
- Milk causes phlegm – no scientific link here, however the sensory feeling of milk coating the mouth and throat may be mistaken for phlegm.
So, let’s raise a glass of milk and make a toast to the natural nutritional goodness of dairy foods and the hardworking farmers who care for these animals to feed our country.
Megan proudly works for National Dairy Council to support America’s dairy farmers. However, all views in this blog are her own.
- Bhavadharini B, Dehghan M, Mente A, et al. Association of dairy consumption with metabolic syndrome, hypertension and diabetes in 147 812 individuals from 21 countries. BMJ Open Diabetes Res Care. 2020;8(1):e000826. doi:10.1136/bmjdrc-2019-000826
- Dehghan M, Mente A, Rangarajan S, Sheridan P, Mohan V, Iqbal R, Gupta R, Lear S, Wentzel-Viljoen E, Avezum A, et al: Association of dairy intake with cardiovascular disease and mortality in 21 countries from five continents (PURE): a prospective cohort study. The Lancet 2018, 392:2288-2297.
- Mozaffarian D: Dairy Foods, Obesity, and Metabolic Health: The Role of the Food Matrix Compared with Single Nutrients. Advances in Nutrition 2019, 10:917S-923S.
- Bhavadharini B, Dehghan M, Mente A, Rangarajan S, Sheridan P, Mohan V, Iqbal R, Gupta R, Lear S, Wentzel-Viljoen E, et al: Association of dairy consumption with metabolic syndrome, hypertension and diabetes in 147 812 individuals from 21 countries. BMJ Open Diabetes Research & Care 2020, 8:e000826.
- National Dairy Council. Science Summary: Dairy and Blood Pressure. 2021.
- Bordoni A, Danesi F, Dardevet D, et al. Dairy products and inflammation: A review of the clinical evidence. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2017;57(12):2497-2525. doi:10.1080/10408398.2014.967385
- Nieman KM, Anderson BD, Cifelli CJ. The Effects of Dairy Product and Dairy Protein Intake on Inflammation: A Systematic Review of the Literature. J Am Coll Nutr. 2021;40(6):571-582. doi:10.1080/07315724.2020.1800532
- Cria G. Perrine, Kirsten Herrick, Mary K. Serdula, Kevin M. Sullivan, Some Subgroups of Reproductive Age Women in the United States May Be at Risk for Iodine Deficiency, The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 140, Issue 8, August 2010, Pages 1489–1494, https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.109.120147
- Adalsteinsdottir S, Tryggvadottir EA, Hrolfsdottir L, et al. Insufficient iodine status in pregnant women as a consequence of dietary changes. Food Nutr Res. 2020;64:10.29219/fnr.v64.3653. Published 2020 Jan 6. doi:10.29219/fnr.v64.3653
- Bath SC. The effect of iodine deficiency during pregnancy on child development. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 2019;78(2):150-160. doi:10.1017/S0029665118002835
- Schwarzenberg SJ, Georgieff MK; COMMITTEE ON NUTRITION. Advocacy for Improving Nutrition in the First 1000 Days to Support Childhood Development and Adult Health. Pediatrics. 2018;141(2):e20173716. doi:10.1542/peds.2017-3716
- Du Y, Oh C, No J. Advantage of Dairy for Improving Aging Muscle. J Obes Metab Syndr. 2019;28(3):167-174. doi:10.7570/jomes.2019.28.3.167
- Iuliano S, Poon S, Robbins J, et al. Effect of dietary sources of calcium and protein on hip fractures and falls in older adults in residential care: cluster randomised controlled trial. BMJ. 2021;375:n2364.
- Phillips, S.M. The impact of protein quality on the promotion of resistance exercise-induced changes in muscle mass. Nutr Metab (Lond) 13, 64 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12986-016-0124-8
- Lott M, Callahan E, Welker Duffy E, Story M, Daniels S. Healthy Beverage Consumption in Early Childhood: Recommendations from Key National Health and Nutrition Organizations. Consensus Statement. Durham, NC; 2019.
- Bailey RK, Fileti CP, Keith J, Tropez-Sims S, Price W, Allison-Ottey SD. Lactose intolerance and health disparities among African Americans and Hispanic Americans: an updated consensus statement. J Nat Med Assoc. 2013;105(2):112-127.
- Broucek J, Uhrincat M, Mihina S, Soch M, Mrekajova A, Hanus A. Dairy Cows Produce Less Milk and Modify Their Behaviour during the Transition between Tie-Stall to Free-Stall. Animals (Basel). 2017;7(3):16. Published 2017 Mar 3. doi:10.3390/ani7030016
- Hedlund L, Løvlie H: Personality and production: Nervous cows produce less milk. Journal of Dairy Science 2015, 98:5819-5828.
- Thoma G, Popp J, Nutter D, Shonnard D, Ulrich R, Matlock M, Kim DS, Neiderman Z, Kemper N, East C, Adom F: Greenhouse gas emissions from milk production and consumption in the United States: A cradle-to-grave life cycle assessment circa 2008. International Dairy Journal 2013, 31:S3-S14.
- US Environmental Protection Agency. Overview of Greenhouse Gases.
- UC Davis Clarity and Leadership for Environmental Awareness and Research. Why methane from cattle warms the climate differently than CO2 from fossil fuels. 2020.
- J. L. Capper, R. A. Cady, D. E. Bauman, The environmental impact of dairy production: 1944 compared with 2007, Journal of Animal Science, Volume 87, Issue 6, June 2009, Pages 2160–2167, https://doi.org/10.2527/jas.2009-1781
- Judith L Capper, Roger A Cady, The effects of improved performance in the U.S. dairy cattle industry on environmental impacts between 2007 and 2017, Journal of Animal Science, Volume 98, Issue 1, January 2020, skz291, https://doi.org/10.1093/jas/skz291
- de Ondarza MB, Tricarico JM: Nutritional contributions and non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions from human-inedible byproduct feeds consumed by dairy cows in the United States. Journal of Cleaner Production 2021, 315:128125.
- Singh-Povel CM, van Gool MP, Gual Rojas AP, Bragt MCE, Kleinnijenhuis AJ, Hettinga KA. Nutritional content, protein quantity, protein quality and carbon footprint of plant-based drinks and semi-skimmed milk in the Netherlands and Europe [published online ahead of print, 2022 Feb 23]. Public Health Nutr. 2022;1-35. doi:10.1017/S1368980022000453