Milk and dairy products, such as cheese and yoghurt, are great sources of protein and calcium. To make healthier choices, go for lower-fat milk and dairy foods.
Because they're good sources of protein and calcium, milk and dairy products form part of a healthy diet.
Our bodies need protein to work properly and to grow or repair themselves. Calcium helps to keep our bones and teeth strong. The calcium in dairy foods is particularly good for us because our bodies absorb it easily.
Unsweetened, calcium-fortified dairy alternatives like soya milks, soya yoghurts and soya cheeses also count as part of this food group and can make good alternatives to dairy products.
Healthy dairy 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 vitamin B2 and vitamin B12.
However, much of the fat in milk and dairy foods is saturated fat. For older children and adults, eating too much fat can contribute to excess energy intakes, leading to becoming overweight. A diet high in saturated fat can also lead to raised levels of cholesterol in the blood, and this can put you at increased risk of a heart attack or stroke.
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. Learn more in Food labels.
For more information on different fats, see Fat: the facts.
Choose lower-fat milk
If you're trying to cut down on fat it's a good idea to go for lower-fat milks.
Semi-skimmed, 1% fat and skimmed milks contain all the important nutritional benefits of milk, but are lower in fat. Of these options, skimmed milk is the lowest in fat.
Cheese can be high in fat and salt
Cheese can form part of a healthy diet, but 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 17.5g of fat per 100g are considered high in fat.
Some cheeses can also be high in salt (more than 1.5g salt per 100g is considered high). Eating too much salt can contribute to 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 of fat per 100g. A few cheeses are even lower in fat (3g of 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, choose lower-fat varieties, but check that they're not high in added sugar (plain lower-fat yoghurts are a good choice as they usually don't contain added sugars). 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. You can also get reduced-fat soured cream and half-fat crème fraîche instead of full-fat versions.
Dairy intake for pregnant women
Dairy foods are good sources of calcium, which is important in pregnancy because it helps your unborn baby's developing bones to form properly.
But there are some cheeses and other dairy products that you should avoid during pregnancy, as they may make you ill or harm your baby.
During pregnancy, milk should only be drunk if it's been pasteurised. Cows' milk that is sold in shops is pasteurised. However, you can still find unpasteurised or 'raw' milk for sale from farms, in farm shops and at farmers' markets. Check the label if you are unsure. If only unpasteurised milk is available, boil it first.
Pregnant women should not drink unpasteurised goats' or sheep's milk, or eat some foods that are made with them, such as soft goats' cheese. Find out more about pasteurisation.
Pregnant women should 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, which is a bacteria that can cause miscarriage, stillbirth or severe illness in a newborn baby.
Cottage cheese, processed cheese, feta, mozzarella or hard cheeses, such as cheddar or parmesan, are considered safe to eat while pregnant, so there is no need to avoid these. Learn more about what foods to avoid if you're pregnant.
Dairy intake for babies and children under five
Milk and dairy products are an important part of a young child's diet.
They are a good source of energy and protein, and contain a wide range of vitamins and minerals, including calcium, which growing children and young people need to build healthy bones and teeth.
The Department of Health recommends exclusive breastfeeding (giving your baby breast milk only) for around the first six months of your baby's life. Find out more in Feeding your baby.
If you are not breastfeeding, you can use infant formula instead. Find out more in Types of infant formula.
Cows' milk should not be given as a drink until a baby is a year old. This is because it doesn't contain the balance of nutrients a baby needs.
However, babies who are around six months old can eat foods that use full-fat cows' milk as an ingredient. Examples include cheese sauce and custard.
Babies under a year old should not be given condensed milk, evaporated milk, dried milk or any other drinks referred to as milk, such as rice, oat or almond drinks. Infant formula is the only suitable alternative to breast milk for the first 12 months of a baby's life.
Children should be given whole milk and dairy products until they are 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 drink, as long as they are eating a varied and balanced diet and growing well.
Don't give skimmed or 1% fat milk to children as a drink until they're at least five years old. Skimmed or 1% fat milk doesn't contain enough vitamin A and skimmed milk doesn't contain enough calories for young children.
Children between the ages of one and three need to have around 350mg of calcium a day. About 300ml of milk (just over half a pint) would provide this.
Goats' and sheep's milk in your baby's diet
Like cows' milk, goats' and sheep's milk aren't suitable as drinks for babies under a year old because they don't contain the right balance of nutrients.
As long as they are pasteurised, ordinary full-fat goats' and sheep's milk can be used as drinks once a baby is one year old. They can be given to babies from the age of six months in cooked foods such as cheese sauce and custard.
What is 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 from farms, farm shops and farmers' markets. 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 go off quickly.
Some other dairy products are made with unpasteurised milk, including some cheeses. For example, some makers of camembert, brie and goat's cheese may use unpasteurised milk, so check the label.
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 some dairy products made with unpasteurised milk.
However, pregnant women can eat hard cheeses such as cheddar, parmesan and stilton, even if they're made with unpasteurised milk.
Milk allergy and intolerance
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 a GP or dietitian.
There are three conditions that cause a reaction to milk:
Lactose intolerance is a common digestive problem where the body is unable to digest lactose, a type of sugar mainly found in milk and dairy products.
Lactose intolerance can cause symptoms such as bloating and diarrhoea. It does not cause severe reactions.
IgE-mediated milk allergy
One type of milk allergy is known as IgE-mediated milk allergy. This can cause reactions that usually occur within a few minutes of having cows' milk. It can cause severe reactions, but more often the symptoms are mild.
Symptoms can include rashes (hives), swollen lips, diarrhoea, vomiting, stomach cramps and difficulty breathing.
In some cases milk allergy can cause anaphylaxis. This is a life-threatening allergic reaction that results in difficulty breathing, swollen lips or mouth, and collapse. If this happens, call 999 immediately and describe to the operator what is happening.
Learn more in Food allergy.
Non-IgE-mediated milk allergy
Another type of milk allergy is known as non-IgE-mediated cows' milk protein allergy. This has previously been referred to as cows' milk protein intolerance.
This type of allergy is distinct from IgE-mediated milk allergy and lactose intolerance. It can occur in adults, but is more common in babies and children.
Children with this allergy can experience symptoms the first time they drink cows' milk. The symptoms include eczema, vomiting, diarrhoea and stomach cramps. Rashes (hives) and breathing problems do not occur. These are symptoms of IgE-mediated milk allergy.
Symptoms take longer to occur than in IgE-mediated milk allergy. They can occur from between a few hours and a few days after having milk. Because the symptoms are delayed, it may take some time for this allergy to be discovered. There is no easy test for the allergy.
Children who have non-IgE-mediated cows' milk protein allergy often grow out of it by the time they go to school. In rare cases it can persist into adulthood.
As with all food allergies and intolerances, if you think you or your baby have a milk allergy or intolerance, make an appointment to talk to your GP or other health professional.