Behind the headlines: Why low-fat milk isn't the whole story

Years of negative messages about fat have discouraged many of us from eating dairy products. It's time for a rethink, says Joanna Blythman

Behind the headlines: Why low-fat milk isn't the whole story

Demand in decline

Do you have cow’s milk in your fridge? If so, what sort? Skimmed or semi-skimmed, I’d guess, because that’s what the Government recommends. Or perhaps you have a carton of soy or almond milk instead, because you’ve been convinced that cow’s milk – and dairy – is bad for you. Whole (full-fat) milk has been damned because it contains saturated fat, which we were told was unhealthy. Cutting out dairy, in an effort to reduce food intolerance, has also become a major plank in some alternative nutrition thinking. No wonder that demand for milk in the UK is in significant decline.

Milk for muscle

In March, the Dairy All-Party Parliamentary Group of MPs published a report asking the Government to launch a 3-a-day initiative for milk and dairy products, similar to the 5-a-day message for fruit and vegetables. The thinking is that consuming milk and dairy could help to tackle loss of muscle mass and frailty in older people, and play a positive role in the health of growing children. They are deeply concerned that ‘young girls and teenagers tend to stay away from dairy as they perceive it as being a “fatty” food’, while less-healthy products – fizzy drinks, juices and vegan ‘milks’ that contain added sugar – see sales grow.

The report wants us to drink more milk, not less. This report is a significant acknowledgement that the scientific case against saturated fat in milk doesn’t stack up. A body of evidence now suggests that dairy doesn’t make us fat, and could actually help to maintain a healthy weight.

Does skimmed make a difference?

It also shows that milk and dairy foods can have a neutral or protective effect when it comes to heart disease, type-2 diabetes and metabolic disorders. This makes good sense to me. I had a fleeting affair with semi-skimmed milk, but I missed the satisfying richness of full-fat milk familiar from my childhood. Looking at my own children, it felt counter-intuitive to feed them milk with depleted nutrients (when you skim off the fat, you remove useful vitamins, notably vitamin A). Besides, even the creamiest milk is still a low-fat food: most cow’s milk is only 3.5% fat. As for taste, the flavour compounds in milk are almost all in the fat element. Remove it and you have white water that tastes of nothing. People accustomed to skimmed or semi-skimmed milk often say that they find whole milk too rich. For me, it’s the other way around.

Soy and nut milks? They don’t tempt me. I’d rather avoid the additives and high-tech ingredients most of them contain – particularly the gums, thickeners and man-made flavourings added to make them palatable. And can it really be good for the environment to drink milk lookalikes manufactured from imported crops such as almonds and soya, when cows can produce the real thing in these isles?

Do you agree with Joanna? Let us know in the comment section below...

Comments, questions and tips

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9th Jun, 2016
Wholeheartedly agree, dairy products provide great, natural goodness for all ages.
7th Jun, 2016
Great article, by a common sense food writer, who sees through all the fads & fashions foisted on us by big food processor corporations, and gov't quangos. We would all be much better off drinking full fat milk products, and our dairy farmers might not be quite so up against it as they currently are. Well said!
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