Dairy products add health benefits and flavor to diets

Will Hehemann School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences

P2QSUXKCN5June is National Dairy Month, and while cow’s milk is not an essential food for adults and children past the age of weaning, it is a convenient source of some essential nutrients that is readily available in the U.S., says Kay Dutram, registered dietitian nutritionist, assistant professor and director of the Nutrition and Dietetics Program at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB).

“The nation’s farmers produce, market and sell a lot of dairy products, which are good sources of calcium, potassium, phosphorus, protein, vitamins A, D and B12, riboflavin and niacin,” Dutram said.

Also, people generally like the taste of dairy foods, she said. From milk straight up in a glass to cheeses and yogurts, people can integrate dairy into their diets in a number of ways.

“Yogurt, a fermented product made of milk and bacteria cultures, is a versatile dairy product that can be eaten as a part of breakfast, a snack or dessert,” Dutram said. “Regular yogurt can be made from whole fat (3.25 percent), reduced fat (2 percent) or nonfat milk. The variety allows you to decide how much saturated fat you want to consume in your yogurt.”

Greek, Icelandic and Aussie yogurts are flavorful varieties common on grocery store shelves, she said. These yogurts are made with strained milk; the water is strained from the milk, then cultures and flavors are added.

“These varieties contain more protein than regular yogurt, as well as more carbohydrate and fat content if made with anything but nonfat milk,” Dutram said. “You might consider trying these varieties if you want to have a thicker yogurt and don’t mind the extra calories.”

Yogurt with live or active cultures is a popular choice for those who want to reestablish beneficial gut bacteria, she said.

Cheese is one of the most popular dairy products and is used in countless food combinations, Dutram said. When adding cheese to their diets, people should experiment with different types of cheeses.

“Classic flavor combinations are blue cheese, walnuts and pears; and brie and fruit,” she said. “Add a glass of fruit juice or sweet wine such as a Moscato to either of those combinations and it’s a meal unto itself.”

For a classic combination, feta, a well-known Greek cheese that is salty, can be added to green salads that include cucumbers, which balance the saltiness of the feta, Dutram said. Combine fresh mozzarella with tomatoes, olive oil and basil for a traditional Italian caprese salad.

“Nuts and fruits – including dried fruit such as raisins, apricots cranberries – can be paired with just about any cheese for a good snack or appetizer,” she said. “For lunch, even a grilled cheese sandwich can have a touch of gourmet depending on the cheese you use.”

Rather than use American cheese or processed cheese food, which isn’t even considered real cheese by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, consumers can choose a more flavorful cheese for their sandwiches, Dutram said. Gouda, provolone and cheddar are good options for sandwiches as they all have bold flavors. Cheese should be shredded before being placed on bread, as this will help distribute the cheese evenly, especially if it is melted for a grilled cheese sandwich.

“If you’ve expanded your breakfast repertoire to have the occasional smoothie, then use milk as a base,” Dutram said. “An easy smoothie can be made by blending a two-thirds cup of milk, one banana, a half teaspoon of vanilla and half a cup of any other fruit of your choice. No additional sugar is needed for this slightly sweet breakfast or snack concoction.”

Those who are lactose intolerant or just don’t enjoy the taste of milk but still want to get its nutrients may be able to have a small portion of yogurt or cheese without experiencing any symptoms, she said.

“While not essential to human health, dairy products can provide consumers with protein and important minerals and vitamins,” Dutram said. “With their wide range of flavors and textures, they can add interest and character as part of a healthy diet.”

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