Healthy living

Milk

Jug of milk
Milk is an excellent source of vitamins and minerals

Milk has been a staple of the human diet since the dawn of time, first through breast feeding and then, as agriculture and farming evolved, from animals which were found to have a ready supply such as cows and goats.

Health benefits of milk

Milk is an excellent source of vitamins and minerals, particularly calcium, and has long been recognised for its important role in bone health. Nutritionists recommend milk and other dairy products such as yoghurt and cheese be consumed on a daily basis as part of a balanced diet.

Milk and milk products are a very important source of essential nutrients, including:

  • calcium
  • riboflavin
  • phosphorous
  • vitamins A, and B12
  • potassium
  • magnesium
  • zinc.

Milk and health conditions

Many people cut down on dairy foods when they try to lose weight, believing them to be fattening. Dairy foods contain saturated fats, which have been associated with increased blood cholesterol levels.

However, when consumed in moderation as part of a well-balanced nutritious diet, dairy foods like milk, yoghurt and cheese (particularly low-fat products) are not a threat to good health.

Some research findings include:

  • Osteoporosis: if milk and milk products are removed from the diet, it can lead to an inadequate intake of calcium. This is of particular concern for women over the age of 50 and the elderly, who have high calcium needs. Calcium deficiency may lead to disorders like osteoporosis (a disease characterised by a loss of bone).
  • Colorectal cancer: according to the Australian Dietary Guidelines recent evidence suggests people who regularly eat more than one serving of dairy products each day (particularly milk) have a reduced risk of developing colon cancer.
  • Blood pressure: research in the US found that a high intake of fruits and vegetables, combined with low-fat dairy foods, will lower blood pressure more than fruits and vegetables alone.
  • Type 2 diabetes: a 10 year study of 3,000 overweight adults found that consuming milk and other milk products instead of refined sugars and carbohydrates may protect overweight young adults from developing type 2 diabetes.
  • Tooth decay: milk and milk products are thought to protect against tooth decay. Eating cheese and other dairy products:
    • reduces oral acidity (which causes decay)
    • stimulates saliva flow
    • decreases plaque formation
    • decreases the incidence of dental caries (tooth decay).

Types of milk

There are now a range of different types of milk widely available, depending on personal preference or dietary needs.

  • Cow and goat milk: Some people choose to drink only goat’s milk because of a perceived sensitivity to cow’s milk. If a person has an allergic sensitivity it is usually due to one or more of the proteins in milk. The proteins in goat’s milk are closely related to those in cow’s milk, so replacing one type of milk with the other usually doesn’t make any difference. Milk allergies are more common in very young children and most tend to grow out of them or build up a tolerance to milk.
  • Lactose free milk: Lactose is a type of carbohydrate or sugar that naturally occurs in milk from any mammal, including humans. Normally, an enzyme in the small intestine called lactase breaks down lactose so it can be absorbed into the bloodstream. Some people don’t produce enough lactase and so undigested lactose is broken up by the bacteria in their large intestine causing gas, bloating, pain and diarrhoea. This condition is called ‘lactose intolerance’.
    You can be born lactose intolerant or develop it later in life.

    Milk and milk products are highly nutritious, so people who suffer from lactose intolerance should not give them up entirely. You can still consume milk in moderate quantities. You can also buy lactose-free milk. 
  • Rice milk: Rice milk is made from boiled rice, brown rice syrup and brown rice starch. Manufacturers often add thickening agents to commercial rice milk. Rice milk may be sweetened with sugar and some manufacturers use vanilla to make rice milk taste more like cow's milk. Rice milk is popular with vegetarians and vegans because it contains no animal products or by-products. Rice milk is also good for people who are lactose intolerant.
  • Almond milk: Popular on Paleo regimes and for those who which to avoid animal milks, unsweetened almond milk contains few calories per serve and no sugars. Almond milk is also a good source of the key nutrient vitamin E, which helps with cell regeneration in the body. The biggest issue with almond milk is that it is naturally low in protein and calcium, so always choose almond milk that contains added calcium, to reap the bone health benefits and be careful of almond milk that contains added sugars, as this bumps up sugar and calorie content of almond milk significantly.
  • Soy milk: Soy foods are lactose free and a good substitute for milk or milk products if fortified with calcium.
  • Oat milk: Made from a mix of oats, water and oat flour, oat milk is slightly higher in protein than almond and rice milk and much lower in sugars. Oat milk also contains the added benefit of dietary fibre, which may help to lower blood cholesterol levels. While lower in sugars, oat milk remains relatively high in total energy and carbohydrates with up to 30g total carbohydrates per 250ml serve and for this reason is best for individuals who may want to lower their cholesterol levels but who do not have weight or blood glucose issues.

Health concerns surrounding the consumption of milk

Some people believe milk encourages extra mucous production but there is no scientific basis to the theory.

Unpasteurised or raw milk should never be consumed, as you have an increased risk of gastrointestinal illness from pathogens (bugs, germs, bacteria).

More information

Western Australian Department of Agriculture and Food (external site)

Remember

  • Milk is an excellent source of calcium and other essential nutrients.
  • There are many modified milks available.
  • Lactose intolerance is caused by an inability to digest the natural sugar in milk, but most people can tolerate small amounts of milk.
  • Flavoured milks (reduced fat varieties, for children over two years) are preferable to soft drinks and fruit drinks but should be consumed in small amounts.