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Is milk really good for you?

When it comes to milk – and milk alternatives – it’s time to set the record straight.
Image: Milk
A young woman drinking a glass of milk.Purestock / Getty Images file

Milk DOES do a body good - especially for the development and maintenance of strong bones and teeth. But milk is a health plus only IF you can digest it readily. That’s where a large part of the confusion comes into play.

Milk is a nutrient powerhouse. An 8-ounce glass has 8 grams of complete protein (the same as an egg) and 300 mg of calcium, about one-third of your recommended amount. Plus, it’s naturally-occurring and not added as a supplement. Milk is also especially rich in vitamin B12 and potassium. All milk is fortified (it’s added separately) with vitamin D and helps boosts calcium absorption.

The fat in all dairy products (like other animal products) including milk, is artery-clogging saturated fat. So while national guidelines recommend a life-long limitation of saturated fat, the good news is that the nutrients in all types of milk are the same, regardless of fat content. So look for reduced fat (1 percent or 2 percent) or non-fat milks for drinking or using in your cereal. Try using whole milk in your coffee and in recipes, instead of light cream.

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While some people get digestive upset from milk, either early in life, or later, much of the population can digest milk just fine. This upset is almost always from the lactose (milk sugar) which needs the enzyme “lactase” to be digested. People who lack that enzyme or don’t have enough of it experience lactose intolerance. It’s quite rare to have a true milk allergy, where milk’s protein (casein) cannot be digested. But it’s definitely worth a bit of trial and error to see if milk (or its other dairy cousins yogurt and cheese) can continue to be part of your daily food intake.

And it’s not only the calcium and vitamin D that support bone and tooth health. The components that make milk appear white – called milk solids – also contribute to the maintenance of strong bones and teeth.

There can be confusion from the fact that some digestive tracts can’t tolerate milk. If you have one of these, then you want to avoid it. But to obtain the health benefits of dairy, you might try yogurt or cheese as alternatives before ditching dairy altogether. In fact, many people can tolerate one cup of yogurt daily, even if they’re lactose intolerant, because the bacterial components of yogurt contain lactase, the enzyme that digests lactose.

As for other milk alternatives – like nut, soy, and vegetable types – the FDA is now trying to enforce a labeling law indicating “milk” must come from a lactating animal (like a cow or goat). As a result, labels for almond, soy, coconut, hemp, and other “milks” will change to an alternate term. A different label might help consumers understand the differences better, as the plant “milks” are typically very low in protein. Even the highest protein source – soy milk – has half the protein of cow’s milk and calcium. And while these can be fortified with nutrients to resemble cow’s milk, these add-in nutrients are the same as taking any other supplement by mouth.

Cow’s milk is a healthy choice, if it works for you. If you don't drink milk (or consume dairy products) make sure your alternatives provide plenty of protein, calcium and vitamin D.

Milk has a taste that’s familiar and loved from toddlerhood. And it’s got a powerful set of nutrients that should encourage you to make milk intake a lifelong habit to help support healthy bones and teeth. And if you are lactose-intolerant, try a lactose-free milk, like Fairlife or Lactaid for all of the benefits of milk without the lactose.

Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD is the NBC News Health Editor. Follow her on Twitter @drfernstrom.