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 strong. The calcium in dairy foods is particularly good for us because our bodies absorb it easily.
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 A and vitamin D.
However, much of the fat in milk and dairy foods is saturated fat. For older children and adults, eating too much saturated fat can contribute to becoming overweight. It can also cause 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.
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 20g of fat per 100g are high in fat.
Some cheeses can also be high in salt. 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. You can also get reduced-fat soured cream and half-fat crème fraîche instead of full-fat versions.
When eating yoghurts or fromage frais, 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.
Pregnancy and babies: dairy intake
Dairy foods are important in pregnancy because 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 harm your baby or make you ill.
Pregnant women should drink only pasteurised milk. 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. See below for more on 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.
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.
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 formula milk 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 your baby needs.
Foods that use full-fat cows' milk as an ingredient, such as cheese sauce and custard, can be given to your baby from the age of six months.
Babies under a year old should not be given condensed milk, evaporated milk, dried milk or any other drink referred to as milk, such as rice, oat or almond drinks.
Children should be given full-fat milk 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 long 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 long 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.
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
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.
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. These include some cheeses, such as stilton and camembert, brie and goats' 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 some dairy products made with unpasteurised milk.
Milk allergy and intolerance
There are three conditions that cause a reaction 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 a GP or dietitian.
Some people can't digest the special type of sugar found in milk, called lactose. Being unable to digest this sugar is known as lactose intolerance.
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.