Dairy products are produced primarily from cows’ milk; but also from animals such as sheep, goats and even buffalo. The main foods in this group are milk, yoghurt and cheese.
It’s recommended that we eat 2 to 3 portions of dairy foods a day – this should make up just under one-eighth of our balanced diet.
Dairy is an important source of a number of nutrients that help to keep us healthy and strong:
• Protein: crucial for muscle growth and repair.
• Calcium: for strong bones and healthy teeth – especially during childhood and teenage years when bones are developing.
• Vitamin A: helps to keep our eyes healthy so we can see properly.
• Vitamin B12: helps us to be energised and alert.
• Iodine: helps to maintain a steady metabolism and nervous system, and is particularly important for healthy growth in children
Although dairy is a great source of protein, calcium and other vitamins and minerals; certain types can be high in saturated fat – see the table on page 13. Choose lower-fat or fat-free plain milk and yoghurt, and be aware that fat-free flavoured yoghurts often contain added sugar to boost flavour. Stick to natural yoghurt where possible, and add your own fruit, if you like.
Cheese is a great source of protein, phosphorous and calcium, but it’s also high in saturated fat. Choose cheeses such as mozzarella, ricotta and cottage cheese as these will be lower in saturated fat. The recommended portion size for cheese is 30g.
If you’re allergic or intolerant to dairy, there are alternatives that you can use, for example, soy, nut, oat or rice drinks. If you are choosing plant-based drinks, look for those that are unsweetened and fortified with the vitamins and minerals usually found in animal milks, e.g. calcium, vitamin B12 and iodine.
It is also important to understand which dairy choices are naturally lower in fat and whether clever swaps can be made to make them healthier, e.g. swapping soured cream for yoghurt when making dips or dressings.
Instead of using cheese as a central ingredient to a recipe, use it as a seasoning to accent dishes. Aged cheeses, such as Parmesan, are a good option as they tend to have more flavour, so while they are still high in fat and salt, you won’t need to use as much.