At a recent conference involving the general public, I was flooded with questions about milk when the other attendees learned I was a dairy specialist. Obviously, many consumers don’t know what IS and IS NOT in their milk. Nor do they fully recognize the health benefits from regular consumption of dairy products. 

We all run into consumers daily. That’s why I felt it would be useful to highlight a few common misconceptions or misunderstandings that many consumers have about dairy products.

While most consumers associate milk with high calcium content, they don’t recognize that milk is also 97 percent fat-free, or that milk naturally contains many of the supplements that consumers seek out, such as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), lactoferrin, and whey proteins.

To help educate consumers, every dairy producer needs to speak up when the opportunity arises. Here are five positive messages about dairy products that you can tuck away to share with the consumers you meet.

1. Nearly fat-free. In most U.S. states, whole milk contains 3.2 percent fat. That means whole milk is 97 percent fat-free.  Although this sounds like a very elementary concept, it is NEW information to consumers. In fact, I have talked with consumers who believe that milk contains 30 percent fat or more.

2. The calcium in milk has a high rate of absorption.  Many dietitians promote beans and spinach as a source of calcium. Although many of these non-dairy foods contain high levels of calcium, they also contain substances that inhibit calcium absorption. For example, about 30 percent of the calcium found in milk is absorbed. But the presence of phytates in beans and oxalates in spinach reduce calcium absorption to just 5 percent to 15 percent in those foods.

3. Many natural cheeses contain virtually no lactose.  For people who have trouble digesting lactose, natural cheeses offer them a way to enjoy dairy products without the problems that lactose presents for them. Cheeses such as natural aged cheddar, sharp, jack, swiss, colby, and blue contain extremely small levels of lactose. Consumers can identify low-lactose cheese by looking at the label — the carbohydrates will be 2 percent or less.  In addition, several cheesemakers have developed lactose-free cheeses.

4. More than just protein, fat, lactose, and calcium.  Milk contains more than 20 different minerals, many vitamins, and a host of other components that are continually being shown to be important for good health. Some examples include CLA, lactoferrin, growth factors, and whey proteins. If you browse a health-foods store, you will find that many of these components are available as supplements in a purified form. Research is under way to see if lactoferrin will alleviate persistent diarrhea in young children. And CLA is under study for its possible anti-cancer effects.

5. Additional health
benefits from cultured dairy products.  In the 1900s, Elias Metchnikoff associated long life with populations that ate large quantities of Bulgarian-fermented milk. Today, researchers continue to identify beneficial health effects from the regular consumption of cultured dairy products, such as yogurt and cultured buttermilk. Several of the benefits include enhanced lactose digestion, overall intestinal health, protection against ulcers, enhanced immunity, and possibly anti-cancer and cholesterol-lowering effects.

Remember these five points. Hopefully, you will find them useful in your discussions with consumers about food products, and particularly “nature’s most perfect food.” You can obtain more information about the health benefits of dairy foods from the National Dairy Council or your local milk promotion organization.

Marjorie A. Faust is director of external research for ABS Global. She formerly served as an extension dairy specialist at Iowa State University.