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How to choose the right type of dairy for your family

Full fat or low/no fat dairy?

The science is not conclusive. While low or no fat dairy is lower in saturated fat and calories, there is evidence that eating full fat dairy products may cause people to feel more satisfied, resulting in lower calorie consumption throughout the day. There is scientific research that supports full fat dairy consumption, and scientific research that supports low or no fat dairy consumption.

Nutrition professionals are also divided on the issue and the recommendations they give their patients and clients. Their recommendations often differ based on personal preferences, dietary needs, health objectives, and other aspects unique to each individual nutrition plan.

Cow’s milk or milk alternatives?

Cow’s milk is a healthy choice for many families. But for those who either prefer not to consume cow’s milk or have a dairy allergy or intolerance in the family, there are a variety of other milk alternatives to choose from. Options like soy, goat, or milks made from pea protein (like Ripple) are most equivalent in protein content to cow’s milk. Most other milk alternatives have significantly less protein per serving. Many milk alternatives may also have less calories and/or fat per serving than cow's milk, two important nutrients to young children’s diets. Some milk alternatives have naturally occurring vitamins and minerals, while others have been fortified with those that make them more comparable to the nutrient profile for cow’s milk like calcium and vitamin D.

Whichever milk or milk alternative you choose, choose one without any added sugars when possible. While cow’s milk and some milk alternatives have naturally occuring sugars (shown as sugar on the nutrition facts label), you want to make sure there are no added sugars listed on the ingredients list.

Summary: So what kind of dairy is right for your family?

There is one thing we know for sure: dairy of any kind does not need to have added sugar. Instead, opt for plain yogurt instead of flavored, and add your own sweetener of fruit or a small drizzle of honey or other natural sweeteners. When it comes to milk, opt for plain cow’s milk or milk alternatives instead of milk flavored with vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry.

We think your best choice is the one that your family prefers drinking as part of an overall healthy diet. If you’d like to read more about the science that does exist on the dairy debate, we’ve attached some articles below. If you have questions about any of the arguments included in the articles below, it is best to speak with your family doctor and/or a registered dietitian about which milk choice might be best for your family.

For more on milk alternatives and deciding which milk type is right for your family:

The Nourished Child: Cow milk vs. milk alternatives

Washington Post: Choosing non-fat yogurt

Time Magazine: The case against low-fat milk

Today's Dietitian: A review of the science on fat content in dairy

JAMA Pediatrics: Skim and low-fat dairy linked to weight gain in children