December 12, 2017
How to Buy Dairy: Milk, Yogurt, Cheese

Supermarket Buying Guide

How to Buy Dairy: Milk, Yogurt, Cheese

by Edward R. Blonz, Ph.D.  |  

Dairy does a body good—or so we’ve been told. You may question that, though, because dairy foods have had both good and bad press of late. Yet dairy still gets kudos for its unique contributions to the diet, and no one is suggesting you forgo buying dairy at the supermarket, unless you are a vegan or have dairy allergies. If you have lactose (milk sugar) intolerance, you may have felt the need to stay away from dairy foods, but you can probably still eat small portions (especially of yogurt) without a problem, and lactose-free brands are now available at the supermarket.

Dairy foods are the major source of calcium in most Americans’ diets, as well as a key source of potassium (important for healthy blood pressure levels), riboflavin, B12 and zinc. Milk is fortified with vitamins A and D. Recent studies show that the calcium in dairy seems to protect bones more than the calcium in supplements, though experts don’t know why. It could be the synergistic effect of the many beneficial nutrients in dairy. Or perhaps it’s some as yet unidentified substance in dairy foods. All dairy foods also provide protein.

At least some of dairy’s drawbacks can be traced to its fat content—easily avoided by choosing nonfat or low-fat varieties. Full-fat dairy can raise total and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels, as well as contribute significantly to calorie intake, so nonfat or low-fat dairy is the way to go.

Milk and your health

Cow’s milk has been blamed for everything from excess mucus production to heart disease and cancer. For instance, dairy opponents say that milk increases the risk of breast, prostate and ovarian cancers. But there are only a few studies to support this idea, and many studies have not found any increased risk. In addition, some research suggests that milk may actually reduce the risk of colon cancer, because of its calcium and vitamin D. Arguments against milk are often highly politicized, with the dairy industry on one side and milk opponents on the other. But the body of evidence, which includes plenty of well-designed studies from both the dairy industry and independent researchers, supports few, if any, anti-milk claims. However, if you don’t drink milk, you can get the nutrients you need from other sources.

Plastic Jugs or Cardboard Cartons?

When it comes to recycling, it doesn't much matter whether you choose plastic jugs or cardboard milk cartons. But there is one important factor to consider when you are deciding which to buy.

Understanding milk products

The best milk choices in the dairy case are nonfat and low-fat (1 percent) milk. Why not buy “reduced fat” (2 percent) milk? The fat in 2 percent milk has been reduced, but not by as much as you may think. It sounds low, but the fact is, whole milk is only 3.25 percent fat to begin with (that’s by weight, with water accounting for much of the weight but none of the calories). Yet nearly half the calories in whole milk come from fat (it has a total of 150 calories and 8 grams of fat, per cup); 2 percent milk gets about one-third of its calories from fat (122 calories and 5 grams fat, per cup)—still high. By comparison, 1 percent milk gets only one-fifth of its calories from fat (100 calories and 2 grams fat, per cup). Nonfat milk has only 85 calories per cup.

Some milks are found on the store shelf, not in the dairy case. Packaged in aseptic cartons (similar to juice boxes), this milk has been heat-treated at ultra-high temperature (UHT) to kill spoilage bacteria so it does not need to be refrigerated until opened. Especially popular in Europe, UHT milk is convenient when refrigeration is not possible and for keeping in the cupboard as a pantry staple. The milk tastes a bit sweeter, however, and may take some getting used to. Make note of the “best if used by” date before you buy. Once opened, it will keep in the refrigerator as long as fresh milk.

Healthy grocery shopping tips for milk

  • Reach for nonfat or low-fat (1 percent) milk.
  • Buy organic milk if you want to support more sustainable farming practices—though you will have to pay about double. Be aware that any nutrient differences between conventional and organic milk are minor.
  • Look for lactose-free or lactose-reduced milk if you are lactose intolerant. But keep in mind that small amounts (up to 1⁄2 cup) of regular (lactose-containing) milk are often well tolerated by people with lactose intolerance.
  • Go for flavored milks if that’s what gets you or your family to drink more milk; except for the added sugar, they’re just as nutritious. But look for low-fat flavored milks and cut back on sugar elsewhere in your diet.
  • Stock up on UHT milk if you want a handy source of milk that does not require refrigeration until after it’s opened.
  • Steer clear of raw milk, which has not been pasteurized and so carries a higher risk of harboring dangerous bacteria like E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella.

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Cheese and your health

Cheese is one of life’s pleasures. And Americans are eating record amounts of it—an average of 33 pounds per capita of natural cheeses alone, according to the International Dairy Foods Association. Cheese has nutritional merits, notably bone-building calcium. But it’s easy to overdo it—as when it’s slathered on pizza, poured over nachos, stacked on crackers—and this can cancel out any health benefits. After all, cheese is high in calories (about 100 per ounce, on average) and fat (6 to 9 grams per ounce, most saturated) and it often has a lot of sodium. Still, small amounts can fit into most people’s diets.

Lately, some researchers and marketers have been emphasizing the potentially healthful aspects of cheese. But generally the research is scarce or conflicting. While cheese may not be especially good for your heart, for example, some research suggests that it may not be so bad for it, either, at least when it’s part of an overall healthful diet. And cheese does have a bright side: Research backs it as an effective cavity fighter, possibly by destroying cavity- causing bacteria, altering the acidity in the mouth, acting as a physical barrier to harmful acids or simply stimulating saliva production. So if you can’t brush after a meal, you may want to reach for a bite of cheese instead.

Cheese works well as a flavor enhancer—a supporting player in a meal. A thin slice with fruit makes a nice dessert. An ounce of cheese, even daily, is reasonable as long as you can afford the calories and your diet is not otherwise high in saturated fat.

Understanding cheese products

Whole-milk cheeses get most of their calories from fat (about 70 percent)—and most of this fat is saturated. Reduced-fat cheeses have at least 25 percent less fat (and thus fewer calories as well) than whole-milk cheeses, while “light” cheeses have at least 50 percent less fat. Lower-fat and nonfat cheeses contain various ingredients to make up for the fat taken out, such as xanthan gum and hydrolyzed oat flour. Sodium, a key ingredient in cheese making, ranges from about 75 milligrams to more than 400 milligrams per ounce. As a dairy alternative, soy- and rice-based cheeses have little or no fat, but they tend to be higher in sodium than their milk-derived counterparts.

Farmer Cheese and Calcium

Farmer cheese, also known as dry curd cottage cheese or baker cheese, is a good option for people with lactose intolerance. It is lower in sodium than other cheeses and lower in fat than regular cream cheese. Is it a rich source of calcium as well?

Cheese: good-to-know facts

In traditional cheese making, rennet, a digestive enzyme from the stomach of cows, is used to trigger milk coagulation. Most domestic cheeses today, however, are made with the aid of enzymes that are not animal-derived. Instead, they tend to be produced using microbial enzymes, some using enzymes that are genetically engineered from bacteria. Kosher cheeses are always rennetless because the mixing of dairy and meat products is forbidden. Many imported cheeses still use animal rennet.

Healthy grocery shopping tips for cheese

  • Look for reduced-fat, low-fat, or nonfat cheese if you eat a lot of cheese (more than an ounce a day) or use recipes that call for large amounts. Try several lower-fat cheeses to find one that satisfies your taste buds and, if you cook with it, melts the way you like (the lower the fat, the less well it will melt).
  • If you are watching your sodium intake, look for lower-sodium versions. “Low-sodium” cheeses have no more than 140 milligrams per serving.
  • Check out strong or savory cheeses—they have more flavor, so you don’t need as much. Small amounts of grated Parmesan or Pecorino, or crumbled feta or blue cheese, for instance, go a long way in salads, pastas and vegetable dishes.
  • Don’t buy raw milk cheese unless it has been aged more than 60 days, as required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA); it takes that long for enough acidity to accumulate to kill off any lingering bacteria.
  • Stick to low-fat or nonfat when buying cottage cheese. But don’t rely on it for calcium. It has much less than other cheeses (the same is true of most soft cheeses, especially cream cheese). “No-salt-added” cottage cheese is available, but it may take some getting used to.
  • If you like cream cheese, try reduced-fat (sometimes called Neufchâtel cheese or “1/3 less fat” cream cheese), low-fat or nonfat versions. Farmer cheese, which is low in fat, is a good alternative.
  • If you are vegan, look for nondairy cheeses, such as those made from soy and rice. But read the ingredients carefully—some have casein (or caseinate), a milk protein that helps cheese melt.
  • If you want to avoid rennet, look for dairy cheeses that are “rennetless” or “rennet-free,” or that list “cheese culture” or “microbial enzymes” in the ingredients. Such terms indicate that the enzymes used to make the cheese are vegetable or lab-derived. Or look for Kosher cheeses.

What is Kefir?

Kefir is a cultured dairy product similar to a yogurt drink that originated in the Caucasus Mountains. Its promoters call it “miracle milk” because of its alleged health benefits.

Yogurt and your health

Supermarkets carry an ever-increasing array of yogurts, from “Swiss-style” products that don’t need stirring to traditional yogurts with fruit on the bottom and dessert yogurts flavored with chocolate and marbled with crumbled cookies. Which you prefer is a matter of taste—but keep in mind that not all yogurts are equally good for you.

Yogurt is made by fermenting milk with “probiotic” bacteria. Two bacterial cultures always used are Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, but you may also find L. acidophilus, Bifidobacterium and others. Some yogurts brand their own cultures for marketing purposes—for example, Bifidus Regularis in Activia. Proponents claim that probiotics (meaning “for life,” as opposed to antibiotics) confer health benefits primarily by rebalancing the normal flora in the large intestine—though the claims made or implied by manufacturers (for example, that yogurt helps keep you regular or increases immunity) are far from proven.

Yogurt is an excellent way to get milk’s many nutrients, and it is better tolerated by those who are lactose intolerant; the bacteria in the yogurt help digest the lactose so there is less of it to cause gastrointestinal problems. A cup of low-fat or nonfat yogurt makes a healthful snack or meal, on its own or combined, for instance, with fruit or whole-grain cereal.

Understanding yogurt products

For yogurt’s probiotic effects to matter, the bacterial cultures have to be alive and present in sufficient numbers. Check labels for products that contain “live and active cultures.” If yogurt has undergone heat processing, which affects the live cultures, the label must say so.

The sudden popularity of ultra-thick Greek-style yogurt has many people thinking it’s more healthful. But there’s a trade-off. Because Greek yogurt has had much of the whey (liquid) drained off, it provides about twice as much protein (15 versus 8 grams per 6 ounces of nonfat plain varieties) and only about half the sodium (60 to 80 versus 100 to 150 milligrams). But it has less calcium (about 200 versus 300 milligrams).

Healthy grocery shopping tips for yogurt

  • Reach for nonfat or low-fat yogurts that contain live and active cultures.
  • Choose plain yogurt or a flavor like vanilla, coffee or lemon. Fruit-flavored varieties pack in more sugar and calories and slightly less calcium and protein.
  • Skip the “whipped.” Whipped yogurts are simply full of air, and ounce for ounce, they may not be lower in calories than regular yogurt. Plus, you pay more for less yogurt.
  • Buy Greek yogurt if you like its dense, creamy consistency; you’ll get more protein, but less calcium. Even low-fat and nonfat Greek yogurt—the ones to pick—are satisfyingly creamy.
  • Beware of the calories in yogurt drinks, as it’s easy to gulp down more than a standard portion of yogurt, and the drinks often contain more sugar.
  • Buy nonfat or low-fat plain yogurt to substitute for sour cream in recipes. If you’re using the yogurt in a cooked dish, stir it in after removing the pan from the heat, so it won’t curdle.
  • Don’t lose your whey: The fluid that sometimes separates from the yogurt contains nutrients including calcium. Mix it back in and enjoy it all.

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