The news is now official. Milk is good for you. After years of being linked to many unpleasant diseases and illnesses, health experts have changed their minds. Milk and the products it is used to create can have a vital role to play in keeping us properly nourished and healthy.
But processing can be a problem. Some treatments are necessary to kill bacteria, but whenever possible it is best to choose milk and dairy products that are as whole and pure as possible.
With all milk-based products, it is particularly important to consider organic options. Modern industrial feeding programmes often feature high-protein, soy-based feeds rather than the fresh green grass that most milk producing animals naturally prefer. The result is cows which are capable of producing three times more milk than their old-fashioned relatives. These animals are especially vulnerable to disease, often needing large doses of antibiotics which are then passed on to the human food chain. Taking the organic option a stage further, why not opt for milk from grass-fed cows which also typically has a higher content of health-giving Omega-3 fats?
Usually, the milk and dairy products we consume are derived from cows. But in many parts of the world it is more common to drink milk from other animals. Who knows that buffalo, camels and even reindeer are also kept by humans to supply milk? For most of us though, it is cow´s milk that typically finds its way into the shopping trolley.
Bursting with protein, familiar cow's milk is an excellent natural source of calcium for building strong bones and has many important vitamins and minerals. With other dairy products such as cheese and yogurt, the health benefits may be slightly different. For example, in yogurt the water in milk is taken away so you get possibly more protein per serving. But you may also get more fat and salt depending on how it is made.
Some people have a problem absorbing lactose, a type of sugar that is found in cow´s milk. It may be necessary to switch to goat´s milk, which is lower in lactose or to a non-dairy alternative.
Don´t forget that the term milk is also used to describe other white liquids that may look like milk but are of vegetable origin, like soy milk, rice and almond milk or coconut milk. These too can have excellent health-giving properties.
Whole cow´s milk
Never feel guilty about enjoying a big glass of creamy, delicious whole milk. This wholesome and healthy drink is a great source of vitamins A, D, E and K as well as calcium and phosphorus, the minerals that work with vitamin D for build strong bones. But did you know that all of these nutrients are fat-soluble?
This means that these vitamins need to be delivered in or with fat for the nutrients to be available to the body. If the fat is removed by processing then it becomes difficult or even impossible to absorb these vitamins. Our bodies lose out on a simple way to strengthen our immunity to infections, neutralize the effects of damaging free radicals and keep bones strong and healthy.
A common myth about whole milk is that it is full of fat. But typically cows’ milk only contains between 3.7 per cent and 5 per cent fat. Because of this, switching to semi-skimmed or skimmed milk is unlikely to make any a big difference to the success of your diet.
Semi-skimmed cow´s milk
Semi-skimmed milk is made by removing the cream from the whole milk, producing a more watery liquid. Some vitamins like Vitamin A and Vitamin D are to be found mainly in the cream so will not be present in the same quantity in semi-skimmed milk. But just like whole milk, the semi-skimmed variety offers important amounts of all the B vitamins, as well as phosphorous and zinc.
Skimmed cow´s milk
Skimmed milk contains almost no fat at all and has about half the calories of the full-fat version. But even when the fat is removed, it still retains many nutrients. Skimmed cow's milk even contains slightly more calcium than whole milk because this mineral is found in the thin watery part of the milk, not in the cream.
Because of this, skimmed milk may be the best option for women who have gone through the menopause or who have a family history of osteoporosis, a dangerous disease that makes the bones brittle and fragile.
It is also a good alternative to whole milk for people who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, since fat-rich foods are believed to make the condition worse.
Milk can be processed into a huge variety of dairy products such as cream, butter, yogurt, kefir, ice cream, and cheese. Milk is also used to produce casein, whey protein, lactose, condensed milk, powdered milk, and many other food-additives.
However, apart from yoghurt and kefir, most other dairy products like butter and cream really are high in fat and should be eaten in small quantities. Heavily processed foods like condensed milk also tend to have lots of added sugar, another reason why they are best avoided.
What can you have when milk is out of your diet? There are milk substitutes.
Rice milk is a popular drink with vegans and those who are lactose intolerant. It is typically usually made from filtered water, brown rice syrup and brown rice starch, with the addition of thickening agents. It is sweeter in taste than cow´s milk, but low in fat so it can be a good alternative to use in recipes.
But be aware that you may need to take extra calcium, vitamin D and vitamin A in your diet.
Coconut milk is high in saturated fat and so could contribute to high cholesterol or even heart disease if you relied on it all the time.
It is a sweet-tasting milk made by squeezing liquid from grated coconuts which is then diluted with water. It is used less as a drink and more as an ingredient in Asian recipes like curry or in sweets and cakes. A very thick version which can be cut like a block of butter is called coconut cream.
Soya milk has long recommended as the healthiest option to those who are intolerant to lactose, or the sugar found in cow's milk.
Research has shown many other health benefits. These include the ability of soya products to lower blood cholesterol levels, helping to protect the heart. Soya also contains anti-oxidants called isoflavones, which are thought to protect the walls of arteries from damage from free radicals.