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Dairy Nutrition

Whole milk, whole-milk dairy foods are making a comeback

Amy DeLisio

Amy DeLisio is CEO of the Dairy Council of California. She is a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in public health from the University of Southern California and earned her bachelor’s degree in dietetics at Youngstown State University. She contributes this column exclusively for Cheese Market News®.

For decades, dietary recommendations have focused on decreasing intake of dietary fat to reduce obesity, heart disease, diabetes and many other chronic diseases that impact health in the United States. As a result, dietary guidelines and recommendations adopted lowfat dietary patterns, yet chronic disease rates continued to grow at alarming rates. Now perceptions are changing as research shows fat consumption alone is an insufficient metric of diet quality, not all dietary fats are equal and some fats may even provide benefits.

Whole-milk dairy foods, which contain saturated and other fat types, are showing positive impacts on chronic disease risk. For example, dietary patterns higher in fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, fish and whole-milk dairy have been associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Cheese and yogurt, specifically, are not associated with adverse effects on cardiometabolic health regardless of saturated fat and sodium content. What’s more, a recent large cohort study looked at the relationship between dairy consumption, including different types of dairy products, and risk of Type 2 diabetes and found protective associations for dairy foods with higher fat, whereas neutral associations were seen for lowfat dairy types.

Fermented dairy foods such as yogurt and certain cheeses also contain probiotics that are gaining attention for their positive impact on health. Eating fermented foods that include probiotics may also improve gut health, which research shows may help improve immunity and reduce inflammation.

• It’s all about the dairy matrix

Misconceptions often stem from people evaluating the healthfulness of dairy foods based on single nutrients or components such as fat or sugar content, but that logic is flawed. Single nutrients do not work in isolation. Rather, all foods — including dairy foods — should be viewed through the lens of the food matrix.

A food matrix refers to the relationships between the nutrient and non-nutrient components of a food, including vitamins, minerals and bioactive components as well as physical structure, texture and form. This concept can explain how a food’s nutrient and non-nutrient interactions impact digestion, absorption and physiological functions important for health.

Dairy foods contain nutrients and bioactive components that vary in amount and macro and micronutrient structure. These differences can change the way nutrients are absorbed and their health effects within the body. For example, cheese has been associated with lower levels of blood cholesterol when compared to other saturated fat-containing dairy foods. This difference may be because the physical structure of nutrients in cheese, particularly harder types of cheese, is more resistant to being broken down compared to other matrices, which impacts the way fat is digested and absorbed in the body. Furthermore, many cheeses are fermented products, which may provide additional protective benefits, in addition to containing beneficial nutrients such as calcium and protein.

It is also important to look at overall food groups and diet quality. Eating a variety of high-quality foods from different food groups will have a greater impact on health than any one food has alone.

• Whole milk back in schools?

The growing understanding of the dairy matrix and health benefits of dairy foods, regardless of fat content, is gaining traction among consumers, health professionals and public health officials. In fact, schools across the country could soon be serving whole milk again to children, should the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act, passed by the House of Representatives in December 2023, become law. The bill modifies existing fat level restrictions for milk in the National School Lunch Program and would allow schools to offer students whole milk as well as reduced-fat, lowfat, fat-free flavored and unflavored milk.

In 2012, USDA updated school meal requirements to reflect the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans at that time. The update included limiting school milk choices to unflavored lowfat, flavored fat-free and unflavored fat-free.

All milk contains the same 13 essential nutrients. Milk, cheese and yogurt are important sources of essential nutrients that contribute to overall health in children’s eating patterns, but by age 6 most children are not meeting the recommended daily servings from the dairy food group. Poor eating patterns, especially in early childhood and adolescence, can continue into adulthood, increasing the risk of becoming overweight and developing chronic conditions such as heart disease. Consuming the recommended daily servings of dairy foods can help close the gap on some nutrient intakes, including under-consumed nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, magnesium and vitamin A.

• The future of full-fat dairy

Beyond schools, dairy is being recognized for its role in a critical growth and development period by supporting the unique dietary needs of the first 1,000 days of life, a key life stage that includes pregnancy, birth and baby until age 2. Milk provides seven nutrients identified by the American Academy of Pediatrics as important for fetal brain development, as well as key nutrients such as high-quality protein, calcium, vitamin D, zinc and vitamin B12 that support bone and immune development to meet increased needs during this period of rapid growth.

Consumers and the dairy community may also benefit from increased focus on Food is Medicine interventions, which advocate a connection between diet and disease treatment, management and prevention. Interventions are evolving and include everything from community pilot projects to public health programs and for-profit investments that provide healthy food or nutrition prescriptions as part of intervention plans. Whole-milk dairy foods may have the opportunity to be a part of such programs as new research continues to emerge.

In addition, shifts in nutrition recommendations are on the horizon. The current 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends lowfat and fat-free dairy foods. Emerging evidence is being evaluated for more flexibility in future dietary guidelines which may include dairy products at all fat levels to support health and provide options for honoring cultural foodways and personal preferences.

The dairy community continues to work together to educate about the role of dairy foods in healthy, sustainable eating patterns in schools, through Food is Medicine programs and as part of recommended guidelines for public health. To learn how you can support these and other efforts aimed at improving community health, visit DairyCouncilofCa.org.

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The views expressed by CMN’s guest columnists are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Market News®.

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