Milk and dairy products

Milk and dairy products, such as cheese and yoghurt, are great sources of protein and calcium. This page includes information on making healthy choices, what pregnant women and children should eat and avoid, and also health and allergy advice.

Source of protein and calcium

Our bodies need protein to work properly and to grow or repair themselves. Calcium helps to keep our bones strong. The calcium in dairy foods is particularly good for us because our bodies absorb it easily.

Milk and dairy products are good sources of both protein and calcium and form part of a healthy diet. However, whole milk and many dairy products can be high in saturated fat. Choose lower-fat dairy foods where possible because these are healthier choices.

Healthy choices for adults

The total fat content of dairy products can vary a lot. Fat in milk provides calories for young children and also contains essential vitamins such as vitamins A and D.

You can check the amount of fat, salt and sugar in most dairy foods by looking at the nutrition information on the label. If you compare similar products you will be able to make healthier choices.

A recommended portion of a dairy product includes:

  • 200ml glass of milk
  • 1 yoghurt pot (120g)
  • 30g of cheese (matchbox size)

Cheese

Cheese can form part of a healthy diet however, it’s a good idea to keep track of how much you eat and how often.

Most cheeses – including Brie, Stilton, cheddar, Lancashire and Double Gloucester – contain between 20g and 40g of fat per 100g. Foods that contain more than 20g of fat per 100g are high in fat.

Some cheeses can also be high in salt. Eating too much salt can contribute towards high blood pressure.

If you're using cheese to flavour a dish or a sauce, you could try using a more strongly flavoured cheese such as mature cheddar or blue cheese because then you'll need less.

Another option is to choose reduced-fat hard cheeses which usually contain between 10g and 16g fat per 100g. A few cheeses are even lower in fat (3g fat per 100g or less) including reduced-fat cottage cheese and quark.

Other dairy foods

Butter is high in fat, so try to use it sparingly. Low-fat spreads can be used instead of butter.

Cream is also high in fat so use this sparingly too. You can use plain yoghurt and fromage frais instead of cream, soured cream or crème fraîche in recipes.

When eating yoghurts or fromage frais, you can choose low-fat varieties. These products contain at least the same amount of protein, calcium and some other vitamins and minerals – such as B vitamins and magnesium – as full-fat versions. They just contain less fat.

Advice for children and pregnant women

Dairy foods are important both in pregnancy and for children. Calcium helps your unborn baby's developing bones to form properly. But when pregnant, there are some cheeses and other dairy products that you should avoid as they may make you ill or harm your baby.

Pregnant women

Pregnant women should drink only pasteurised milk. Most cow's milk found in shops is pasteurised though you should check the label if you are unsure. If only unpasteurised milk is available, boil it first.

Pregnant women should not drink unpasteurised goat's or sheep’s milk, or eat foods that are made with them, such as soft goat's cheese.

Pregnant women should also avoid soft blue cheeses and soft cheeses such as brie and camembert and others with a similar rind, whether pasteurised or unpasteurised.

This is because they can contain high levels of Listeria, a bacteria that can cause miscarriage, stillbirth or severe illness in a newborn baby.

There is no Listeria risk with cottage cheese, processed cheese or hard cheeses such as cheddar or parmesan, even if they are unpasteurised, so there is no need to avoid these.

Babies and children under five

Milk and dairy products are an important part of a child's diet. They are a good source of energy and protein and contain a wide range of vitamins and minerals.

They are rich in calcium which growing children and young people need to build healthy bones and teeth.

Breast milk is the best drink for babies for the first year and beyond. The only alternative to breast milk in the first six months is infant formula.

Choose an infant formula based on cow's milk unless you have been advised differently by your health professional. You should continue to give your baby breast milk or formula milk until he or she is at least a year old.

Cow’s milk should not be given as a drink until a baby is a year old. This is because it doesn't contain the right balance of nutrients to meet your baby’s needs.

Full-fat cow's milk can be used in small amounts for cooking in foods such as cheese sauce and custard from six months.

Babies under one year old should not be given condensed milk, evaporated milk, dried milk, or any other type of drinks often known as milks, such as rice, oat or almond drinks.

Children should drink full-fat milk until they are at least two years old because they may not get the calories or essential vitamins they need from lower-fat milks.

After the age of two, children can gradually move to semi-skimmed milk as a main drink as long as they are eating a varied and balanced diet and growing well.

Don't give skimmed or one per cent fat milk to children as a main drink until they're at least five years old, because neither of these contains enough vitamin A and skimmed milk doesn't contain enough calories.

Children between the ages of one and three need to have around 350mg of calcium a day. About 300ml milk (just over half a pint) would provide this.

Goat's and sheep's milk

Like cow's milk, goat's and sheep's milk are not suitable as drinks for babies under a year old because they don't contain the right balance of nutrients.

Providing they are pasteurised, ordinary full-fat goat and sheep milk can be used as drinks once a baby is a year old. They can be used for cooking in foods such as cheese sauce and custard from the age of six months.

Health and allergy advice

If you're trying to cut down on fat, it's a good idea to go for lower-fat milks. Semi-skimmed, one per cent fat and skimmed milks contain all the important nutritional benefits of milk, but are lower in fat. Some people are also allergic to, or have an intolerance of, milk and dairy products.

Pasteurisation

Pasteurisation is a process of heat treatment intended to kill bacteria and prevent food poisoning. Most milk and cream is pasteurised.

If milk is unpasteurised, it is often called 'raw milk'. This must carry a warning saying that it has not been pasteurised and may contain harmful bacteria.

You can sometimes buy unpasteurised milk and cream. However, these could be harmful because they may contain bacteria that can cause food poisoning.

If you choose unpasteurised milk or cream, make sure they are kept properly refrigerated because they have a short shelf-life.

Some other dairy products are made with unpasteurised milk. These include some cheeses such as stilton and camembert, brie and goat's cheese.

Children, people who are unwell, pregnant women and older people are particularly vulnerable to food poisoning and so should not have unpasteurised milk or cream, or dairy products made with unpasteurised milk.

Milk allergy and intolerance

There are three conditions involving reactions to milk.

Milk and dairy foods are good sources of important nutrients, so don’t cut them out of your (or your child’s) diet without first speaking to your GP or a dietitian.

Lactose intolerance

Some people cannot digest the special type of sugar found in milk called lactose. This is also called 'lactose intolerance'. Lactose intolerance can cause symptoms such as bloating and diarrhoea. It does not cause severe reactions.

Milk allergy

Milk allergy can cause severe reactions but usually the symptoms are mild.

They can affect any part of the body and can include:

  • rashes or hives
  • diarrhoea
  • vomiting
  • stomach cramps
  • difficulty in breathing

In some cases milk allergy can cause anaphylaxis. This is a life-threatening allergic reaction which involves difficulty in breathing, swollen lips or mouth, and collapse.

If this happens call 999 immediately and describe to the operator what is happening.

Cow's milk protein intolerance

Cow's milk protein intolerance (also known as milk intolerance) is different from milk allergy and lactose intolerance. It can occur in adults and children but is more common in babies and children.

Children with this intolerance can experience symptoms the first time they drink cow's milk. The symptoms include:

  • eczema
  • vomiting
  • diarrhoea
  • stomach cramps

They do not include hives, or breathing problems - these are symptoms of milk allergy.

Children who have cow's milk protein intolerance often grow out of it by the time they go to school, but on rare occasions it can persist into adulthood.

As with all food allergies and intolerances, if you think you or your baby has a milk intolerance, make an appointment to talk to your GP or other health professional.

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