dairy milk being poured from a bottle into a cup

Dairy is a really interesting food group. Global nutritionists have given it its own slice of the balanced plate because it offers an amazing array of nutrients and is a really good natural food source.

So – unless you’re a vegan – this is a lovely area. Milk, yoghurt, cheese, butter, cream – sounds good to me. Though of course, it’s worth remembering that it’s milk, yoghurt and small amounts of cheese we should be favouring as the portion of dairy in our meals – butter and cream are very high in fat and saturated fat and don’t provide the full package of nutrients milk, yoghurt and cheese give us so, butter and cream don’t count towards our dairy portion.

What is dairy?

Produced primarily by cows, dairy products can also come from sheep, goats and even buffalo. Being just a small part of the balanced plate, around one-sixth of our meals should be made up of dairy.

Easy dairy choices

Embracing the balanced-plate philosophy, you’ll find a little bit of dairy in the majority of meals in my new book. The easiest way to add dairy is to serve your meals with a dollop of yoghurt, or a little bit of cheese. As well as Parmesan and ricotta, you’ll see me using a lot of feta and cottage cheese because not only are they great carriers of flavour, but they can be used in really diverse ways and are much lower in fat than most other cheeses. If you’ve got a meal that doesn’t contain dairy, why not have a little glass of milk with or after it to supplement it, or have some yoghurt and fruit as a snack to get your balance back on track.

Why do we need dairy?

It contains key nutrients to keep us strong and healthy:

  • Protein – crucial for growth and repair
  • Calcium – for strong bones and healthy teeth (especially during childhood and our teenage years, while our bones are still growing and developing)
  • Vitamin A – for good eye health (this is only found in dairy products that also contain fat)
  • Riboflavin – for healthy skin and helping us digest carbs (milk is the main source in our diets)
  • Iodine – helps to regulate our metabolism so our thyroid gland can function efficiently

In order to efficiently absorb calcium from the food we eat, we need vitamin D – we get this naturally from sunlight, and can top up with oily fish and eggs, or even mushrooms that have been left near a window to soak up a couple of hours of sunshine (believe me!).

Trading up to organic

With those dairy products that we use as staple ingredients – milk, yoghurt, butter – I honestly couldn’t endorse more the trade up to organic. It is slightly more expensive, but not vastly so, and every time you buy organic you vote for a better food system. In the EU, organic means that the cows have grazed on grass free from chemical fertilisers, pesticides and agrochemicals. They won’t have been routinely fed antibiotics, and will have lived a better life with the best welfare standards, meaning they live an average of two years longer! I like the sound of that. It’s better for the environment, too. In some parts of the world, non-organic cows may never even get to step on to grass and are kept indoors within ‘mega-dairies’. Sad but true.

Dairy intolerance

Around 3% of people in the UK have a food allergy or intolerance, and dairy intolerance has become more common in recent years. It’s caused when our bodies lack an enzyme called lactase, which breaks down the natural sugar found in dairy foods. An intolerance to a certain type of protein found in cow’s milk also exists. If you think you have an intolerance, chat to your GP or a dietician. As we get better at diagnosis, the number of dairy alternatives in the shops is rising. Even if you’re not lactose intolerant, it’s nice to mix up your choices to take advantage of the different flavours on offer (see below) – this is something we do in the Oliver household.

Milk is incredible

It has a super-high nutrient density for most of the key nutrients and, in the grand scheme of things, is pretty low in fat. Milk is actually better at hydrating the body than water or sports drinks after exercise.

Types of dairy milk

  • Cow’s milk – whether you enjoy whole, semi-skimmed or skimmed is down to personal preference. All are great choices nutrient-wise, but the calorie and sat fat levels are higher in whole, so watch your consumption
  • Goat’s milk – it tastes a little funkier than cow’s milk and has similar lactose levels, but the fat globules are typically smaller, so are easier for us to digest

Alternatives to dairy milk

Most alternative milks are fortified with calcium, B vitamins (including B12, which we can’t get from plant-based foods), vitamin D2 and E, to mirror the benefits of dairy milk. All those listed here are good for veggies and vegans, too. Choose unsweetened, when you can.

  • Organic soya milk – high in protein and low in sat fat, plus widely available, this is great for all-round use
  • Almond milk – subtly nutty and light in texture, this is great for breakfasts, such as pancakes, porridge and smoothies. It’s low in fat, sat fat and sugar
  • Hazelnut milk – with a wonderful nutty flavour this is perfect for smoothies and even baking
  • Oat milk – great for breakfast recipes and naturally low in fat and sat fat, mighty oats are proven to lower blood cholesterol if consumed regularly

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Everyday Super Food by Jamie Oliver is published by Penguin Random House ⓒ Jamie Oliver Enterprises Limited (2015 Everyday Super Food) Photographer: Jamie Oliver