You wouldn’t guess from its wholesome reputation, but that gallon of milk in your refrigerator has sparked a frothy debate among so-called health advocates, food activists and mommy bloggers.
Maybe you’ve seen or heard the dairy debate on Facebook, talk shows or 24-hour news channels. A self-proclaimed nutrition expert will claim that drinking milk is unhealthy for you, that it causes obesity, food allergies or heart disease.
So I decided to call a few nutrition experts at Iowa State University (ISU) to help clear up confusion over milk’s role in a healthy diet. I discovered that a cold glass of milk is also a hot topic among ISU dietetic students.
Ruth Litchfield, an ISU state nutrition specialist who is teaching a spring class on communicating nutrition messages, said her students picked milk as their semester research project.
“Just like you, they have seen a lot in social media right now about milk, so they wanted to address that topic,” Litchfield explained.
Over the last 40 years, fluid milk sales have continued to decline, particularly among children and teens, as more non-dairy beverages compete for a place at the table.
As a result, Americans now consume 1.5 cups of milk per capita each day, well below the 3 cups recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Children, in particular, should consume milk and dairy products each day for bone strength and growth, Litchfield said.
Stephanie Clark, associate professor of food science and human nutrition, said milk isn't as trendy as some of the other beverages available today, such as almond milk or energy drinks, which might be why Americans are skipping milk.
"So many people don't drink milk because it's not 'sexy,' it's not interesting, it's not exciting, it's just something we're so used to," Clark said.
Clark and Litchfield both agreed that there are a lot of dairy myths and misconceptions floating around on the Internet that may scare people away from milk.
Yet as dieticians, they know that milk offers a powerful nutrition package that many other beverages don't provide.
“The Dietary Guidelines for Americans has identified four nutrients of concern, and those are the nutrients that Americans are most likely to be deficient in,” Litchfield said. “Three of those four nutrients are found in milk: calcium, potassium and vitamin D. So (milk) is contributing some important nutrients that most of us are not getting recommended amounts of.”
Litchfield also noted that, food-safety wise, milk is one of the most thoroughly tested items in the grocery store. For example, all milk delivered to U.S. dairy-processing plants is tested for antibiotic residues.
“Any dairy farmer will tell you, they are not going to (milk) an animal that is being treated for an infection or disease; that milk will not go into the tank,” Litchfield said. “Because if that milk tests positive (for antibiotics), that entire batch of milk gets thrown out.”
Litchfield said her students are creating a VEISHEA display that will compare the nutrition and cost differences between milk and non-dairy alternatives, including almond milk, coconut water and soy milk. The students want to help consumers make more informed choices when shopping at the grocery store.
Reading nutrition labels can help in making healthy choices, Clark noted. Often, juice drinks contain more sugar than milk and aren't a good source of calcium, vitamin D or calcium.
“Make the choice based on fact. Don’t make your choice on fear,” Litchfield said. “Make the choice that suits your preference as far as flavor, cost and nutrition, because you’re going to find some differences between the non-dairy and the dairy products.”