Dairy is confusing–as many studies touting the health benefits of butter exist as stories swearing milk is bad for you. We take a real food approach when it comes to dairy. This guide will give you a list of healthy dairy products, including what to look for on the label.
This post is sponsored by Organic Valley. All thoughts and opinions are my own. Thank you for supporting the brands that make it possible for Root + Revel to provide free content and healthy living inspiration.
Man oh man, if ever there was a food group with more controversy than dairy, I don’t know what it is.
In fact, the decision of whether or not to eat dairy has been a personal struggle of mine over the past few years, as well.
It’s tough to know who you can believe–there’s just as many studies touting the benefits of consuming dairy as there are articles urging you to swear it off forever, and everyone has their own motivations.
But you know who I’ve found I can trust? My body. No matter what anybody else says, I can listen to my body and see how it responds to any number of foods and make a decision.
So I would encourage you all to do the same. It’s true that dairy is one of the most common food allergies and millions of Americans are lactose-intolerant.
But I’m a firm believer that if you don’t fall into either of those camps and you choose high-quality dairy and eat it in moderation, milk, cheese, butter and yogurt can all be a part of your diet.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again (and again!): there is room for all real food in a balanced diet.
If you don’t have an intolerance/sensitivity/allergy, here are my best tips for how to find high-quality healthy dairy products.
What is Dairy?
I know this may seem an obvious question, but you wouldn’t believe how many emails I get from people who aren’t exactly sure what foods qualify as dairy products.
So, here’s a list of foods containing dairy: Butter, Cheese, Milk, Cream, Yogurt, Kefir, Ice Cream, Cream Cheese, Sour Cream, Cottage Cheese and Whey Protein.
Obviously, this is isn’t exhaustive and there are plenty of processed products that use some form of these dairy products in their blend, so just be sure (as always) to read your labels closely.
Are eggs dairy? No. Dairy refers to the milk from the mammary gland of mammals, and anything made from milk, like cheese, butter and yogurt. Eggs are not made from milk, nor do they come from a milk-producing animal, so they are not dairy.
Is mayonnaise dairy? No. Mayo should be made from a mixture of oil and egg yolks, which as we just established are not dairy.
Is dairy bad for you?
This is a loaded question, but I would argue that when done right and in moderation, dairy is actually an incredibly delicious and safe part of anyone’s diet (assuming you don’t have allergies, of course).
In fact, I would argue that dairy is good for you.
Here are some of the health benefits of consuming high-quality dairy: lowers your risk of developing type 2 diabetes and being overweight or obese, increased levels of brain- and heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids, gut-friendly probiotics and dairy is a good source of calcium, potassium and protein. (source)
So why does dairy get such a bad rap? For starters, there are a lot of people who do have allergies and intolerances to dairy.
If you’re not sure whether or not your body can tolerate and digest dairy, try cutting it out for a week or two. Cold turkey, 100% dairy-free. Then add it back in and see how your body responds. You can also get food allergy and sensitivity testing done if you want to really draw a line in the sand.
If you suffer from bloating and digestion issues, skin problems (acne to eczema), respiratory/sinus issues (think runny nose, wheezing and chronic cough), you may want to consider getting tested or doing an elimination diet as dairy could be a potential trigger for you.
Related: Recipes Without Dairy
But mostly, I think the rumors that dairy is bad for you come from conventional dairy, meaning dairy products that come from animals raised on factory farms where they are confined and crowded (and usually sick), who are grain-fed, pumped up with hormones (which makes cows sick and disrupts our own bodies natural hormone levels) and antibiotics (which contributes to antibiotic resistance), not allowed to graze as nature intended, and their feed is often filled with GMOs and toxic pesticides.
This is why I keep saying that I recommend only consuming high-quality dairy. What do I mean by that? Let’s get into it.
What to Look For: Healthy Dairy Products
Here’s a list of terms I look for whenever I buy any kind of dairy products:
Organic Dairy Products
I always look for the USDA Certified Organic seal when I’m shopping for dairy.
The one exception to this rule is if I’m able to talk to the farmer personally and ask them about their practices. Sometimes farmers are doing everything organic, but they haven’t paid to get certified because it can be cost-prohibitive for small farms.
But if I’m at the grocery store, I always get Organic. Why? Is there really a difference between organic milk vs regular milk?
YES! A huge difference. Unlike conventional dairy, the Organic seal ensures that there are absolutely no antibiotics, synthetic hormones, toxic pesticides or GMOs used ever.
Plus, several studies have found healthier fat ratios (particularly conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)) in organic milk, as well as more antioxidants, both of which have been shown to reduce body fat, and lessen your risk of cardiovascular diseases and cancer.
An important note: the Organic seal doesn’t mean that cows were grass-fed. Which brings me to the next term I look for on the label.
Grass-fed Dairy Products
Just like organic dairy, grass-fed cows (those who spend their days grazing in grass-filled pastures), produce milk with more omega-3s, CLA and beta-carotene (this is what gives grass-fed butter that incredible yellow color) than conventional milk. As you can imagine, this is also much more humane for the cows, and better for the environment.
You might have also seen the term pasture-raised or pastured on dairy products, which means the animals graze certified organic pasture whenever weather permits and receive supplemental grain and dried forage rations.
Compare that to 100% grass-fed animals, which receive only fresh pasture and dried forages, like hay, but never receive grain rations.
Ideally, you’d be able to get 100% grass-fed dairy products, but this isn’t always an option as weather conditions can prohibit that, so pasture-raised dairy is great too.
That’s why I always buy Organic Valley Dairy Products–their co-op wide pasture requirements specify that all cows must have a minimum of 120 days on pasture during the grazing season, and they must have outdoor access to pasture year-round (check out how cute they look on Organic Valley’s gorgeous farm!).
Their Grassmilk(R) products are made from 100% grass-fed milk, which has been shown to have a wealth of health benefits. A new peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Food Science and Nutrition reveals that milk from 100% grass-fed cows has dramatically more omega-3 fatty acids, higher levels of CLAs, and a better ratio of fatty acids (a 1:1 ratio of omega-3 to omega-6) than milk from cows that eat mostly grain.
Omega-3 are essential fatty acids that contribute to brain and eye health, and in other studies, CLA is shown to have a variety of health benefits.
Most Americans consume a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3, as high as 16:1, with excessive amounts of omega-6 fatty acids. This new scientific study shows that Organic Valley whole Grassmilk® has a better 1:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3.
Why does that matter? Excessive amounts of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) and a very high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio promotes many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, whereas increased levels of omega-3 PUFA (a low omega-6 to omega-3 ratio) have the opposite effects and reduce chronic disease. (source)
As if that weren’t enough, I just want to take a minute to talk about the quality of the farms Organic Valley sources their dairy from.
Though Organic Valley is sold in most grocery stores nationwide, they are not a corporation; rather a cooperative, owned and run by the farmers who grow the food, milk the cows, and bring you your cheese. You can learn more about the family farms that make up Organic Valley here.
P.S. I don’t pay much attention to the term “free range”, which by itself is not a legal, enforceable standard, nor is it supported by an independent, third party certification process.
Raw, Unpasteurized and Non-Homogenized Dairy
Most conventional dairy is processed using Ultra Pasteurization (UP), or Ultra High Temperature (UHT) pasteurization, which means the milk is heated to 280°F to kill bacteria and extend the shelf-life.
The problem is, this pasteurization process can also reduce the nutrients and enzymes in the milk, which make it less nutritious and flavorful (this is why companies often add synthetic vitamins and other ingredients to their milk), and it’s harder to digest.
In fact, many people have found that while they had trouble digesting conventional dairy, they have no problem with raw dairy. But raw dairy can be hard to find, and when it’s not possible, I go for non-homogenized milk, like Organic Valley’s Grassmilk(R), which has the cream on top and is beyond delicious.
Homogenization is the process of breaking down the fat molecules in milk so that they stay integrated rather than separating as cream, but a quick shake of your milk before you serve will do the trick and preserve the nutrients and enzymes.
Fortunately, raw cheese is getting easier to find, too. I love Organic Valley’s Grassmilk(R) Raw Sharp Cheddar Cheese, and their raw Monterey Jack and Feta cheese.
Also when it comes to cheese, buy the whole block rather than pre-shredded, which is more expensive and is often made with anti-caking agents, like cellulose (a fancy word for wood pulp), which is really difficult for us to digest.
Full Fat Dairy (Whole Milk)
Yes, you read that right. We’ve talked before about how low-fat foods are horrible for you (they’re heavily processed and when the fat is removed, other harmful ingredients are added in to make up for the flavor loss, usually sugar) and dairy is no different.
Not only is full fat dairy (or whole milk) so much more delicious, creamy, rich and satisfying, but it’s also healthier! In fact, a recent study found that women who consumed more full-fat dairy were 8 percent less likely to be overweight or obese compared to the low-fat dairy group. Fat does not make you fat!
Plain/Unsweetened/Unflavored Dairy + Yogurt
Most conventional dairy products, particularly yogurt, contain high doses of artificial sweeteners, sugar, or high fructose corn syrup, not to mention artificial colors, preservatives, and gut-harmful carrageenan.
That’s why I always opt for plain or unflavored dairy, unless it’s made with real food ingredients, like Organic Valley’s Grassmilk(R) Yogurt, which is flavored with real fruit and lightly sweetened with Organic Fair Trade Unrefined Cane Sugar and Organic Fair Trade Vanilla.
Also, on the topic of yogurt–while yogurt can be a good source of probiotics, many are mislabeled and actually don’t contain Live Active Cultures. So be sure to read your labels, or just stick with Organic Valley’s Grassmilk(R) Yogurt, which has L. acidophilus and Bifidus, L. casei active probiotic strains.
Healthy Yogurt for Kids
Looking for a healthy snack for your little ones? Organic Valley just launched their new Grassmilk Kids Yogurt Cups in Blueberry or Strawberry. They use real, organic berries with their 100% grass-fed whole milk yogurt and active cultures, and they taste delicious!
Many kids yogurts on the market are made from conventional dairy and filled with questionable ingredients like preservatives, thickeners, coloring agents, other additives and excessive amounts of unhealthy sweeteners.
In Organic Valley’s Grassmilk Kids Yogurt, there are absolutely no antibiotics, synthetic hormones, toxic pesticides or GMO anything, plus all the healthy benefits mentioned above. The yogurt is fruit sweetened with a little bit of organic cane sugar added.
These four-ounce cups of whole milk yogurt are perfectly portioned for a kid-friendly (or, let’s be honest, adult-friendly) snack!
If your kids prefer yogurt tubes (who didn’t love Gogurt?!), or for extra convenience on the go (no spoon needed!), their Grassmilk Kids Yogurt Tubes in Bananaberry and Strawberry are also made from 100% grass-fed cows and organic milk.
The texture is smooth and, lets face it, kids have more fun getting to sip their yogurt out of a tube. 😉
Organic Valley Grassmilk Kids Yogurt is currently available in Publix, and will be available later this summer nationwide.
Ok, I know that might seem like a lot. But listen.
When we choose organic, grass-fed, full-fat, plain, non-homogenized dairy, not only are we investing in our own health and the health of our families, but we are supporting organic farmers, protecting our environment, and encouraging the humane treatment of animals. Everybody wins!
To recap, here are my favorite healthy dairy products (you can buy them all on Amazon with their new Fresh program, and have it delivered right to your door!):
- Organic Valley Grassmilk(R) Whole Milk
- Organic Valley Cultured Pasture Butter
- Organic Valley Grassmilk(R) Yogurt
- Organic Valley Grassmilk(R) Raw Cheese
- Organic Valley Ghee
- Organic Valley Half & Half
- Grassmilk Kids Yogurt Tubes in Bananaberry and Strawberry
- Grassmilk Kids Yogurt Cups in Blueberry or Strawberry
And now, because I know this topic can often still leave people with a lot of questions, I’ve answered a few of the most common questions below in a quick FAQ:
- Can you freeze butter? Yes, butter can be stored frozen between -10°F to 20°F for up to one year. It can also be refrigerated between 32°F-38°F for up to four months. Some people even like to leave butter out at room temperature. In fact, the FDA and USDA have even suggested that butter, when properly covered, is okay to be left at room temperature for a couple days.
- Is dairy a good source of calcium? While it’s true that milk does contain about 300 mg of calcium per cup, there are other whole plant sources that provide even more, like dark leafy greens, sesame tahini, sea vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and sardines or salmon. Which is just to say that you can get calcium from a variety of different foods, and drinking milk is not necessary, though can be a tasty way, to get calcium.
- Does milk naturally contain vitamin D? No. The vitamin D in milk is only there because it’s fortified with it. To get vitamin D from natural sources you can take supplements, eat salmon, egg yolks and mushrooms, and get some natural sunlight every single day (the best source of Vitamin D).
Photo Credit: Heidi Geldhauser
Disclaimer: This post includes affiliate links, and I will earn a commission if you purchase through these links. Please note that I’ve linked to these products purely because I recommend them and they are from companies I trust.