My brother and I exclusively drank skim milk in our childhood home: every morning with cereal or oatmeal, and every evening at the dinner table. I can remember thinking that 1% looked like cream and 2%... wasn’t that just a slab of butter in a plastic milk jug? Back then, whole milk was considered by many to be “unhealthy” because of its saturated fat content, and fat was evil! In recent years, researchers (and food bloggers) have worked to flip that theory on its head, proving that whole or full-fat dairy is actually the healthier option. Bring on the melted brie, baby.
Well... not so fast. Dairy got a LOT of shade in 2018. In addition to our lactose-intolerant friends (who lack an enzyme necessary to process the lactose component in dairy), more people are discovering unpleasant reactions to milk, cheese, and other dairy products. Nobody wants to be bloated, gassy, nauseous, and breaking out in pimples at 30 years old. Are cheese boards and lattes to blame? If so, why? AND WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO PUT IN MY COFFEE?
Here are the most important things to consider when evaluating dairy in your diet:
1. The Saturated Fat Debate
While cardiovascular disease is still a major cause of death, and diet is proven to play a crucial role in disease prevention, dairy fats may have been unfairly blamed for many years. I could nerd out on the science of saturated fatty acids and cholesterol, but I’ll keep it simple. Studies like this one show that high-fat dairy is less likely to contribute to obesity and those who eat full-fat dairy are no more likely to develop cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes than those who stick to low-fat dairy. Milk, cheese, and other dairy products can provide very good quality protein and other essential nutritional benefits.
2. Hormones + Additives
You may have heard that dairy in European countries and other places is different from dairy in the US. That’s true for a number of reasons, with one of the biggest being that US dairy often comes from unhealthy factory-farm cows. On many US farms, bovine growth hormone is given to the cows to make them bulk up faster and produce more milk. Additionally, before it hits the shelves, reduced-fat milk requires synthetic vitamins to be added back in (along with sugar and other additives) to meet law requirements. Hmm. Comparatively, pasture-raised and grass-fed cow milks have more healthy fats and 100% natural fat-soluble vitamins for bone and heart health.
3. Proteins: A1 vs. A2
Another potential reason for adverse reactions to dairy may be one of the naturally-occurring protein compounds found in cow milk. Emerging research shows that Americans who are sensitive to dairy may have issues digesting the A1 protein that dominates traditional Holstein cow milk. That’s the milk you’ll find in stores. Milk containing more of the A2 protein and far less or no A1 protein, like that from other breeds of cow, goats, sheep (and even humans!) can be harder to find and more expensive. More A2 and less A1 protein may be the ticket for less inflammation and digestion issues.
4. Calcium… is that still a thing?
Of course we all want strong bones (and yes, high school Maggie had a centerfold of Usher from his “Body By Milk” campaign hanging on her wall). We need calcium for a lot of functions: maintaining tooth health, blood clotting, nerve impulses, and even heart rhythm. While dairy is a great source of calcium, it is not the only one. Some of my favorite calcium-rich foods are chia seeds, beans, lentils, almonds, and dark leafy greens like kale and swiss chard. I’ve even been known to eat nutrient-dense canned sardines… don’t knock it ‘til you try it!
In the end, dairy itself can’t really be categorized as healthy or unhealthy because the effects it has can vary from person to person. Step 1: figure out what you tolerate best. As a baseline, I highly suggest forgetting your “skinny” coffee order and sticking to whole or full-fat. Step 2: decide what you’re willing to spend. If you can, choose organic dairy from grass-fed or pasture-raised animals as you’ll get maximum benefits and the least amount of additives. Step 3: do your research when it comes to alternatives! And always check for added sugar, because that could actually be the culprit of your hormone, skin, and digestive issues.
Back to the (very important) coffee question… check out the best dairy and non-dairy options at Cincy’s most popular coffee shops:
Coffee Emporium: Excited to learn that both the Hyde Park and downtown locations use Origin Milk, a top-notch organic and non-GMO certified brand for their beverages. Origin sources their milk from pasture-raised Guernsey cows for tons of nutritional benefits without the A1 protein. Emporium also offers unflavored almond and soy milk alternatives that are sweetened.
Lookout Joe's: All of the drinks at this Mount Lookout favorite can be made with either Prairie Farms milk dairy products, Silk unsweetened and unflavored almond milk, or Sunrich Naturals organic and unflavored soy milk. Lots of options for your preference; just ask!
Hyde Perk: You can choose half and half, whole milk, or skim milk for your cup. Alternative options are Silk soy and coconut milks as well as Almond Breeze almond milk. Bonus = no judgement of your pajamas at the drive-thru window.
Brick Coffee: Mer’s favorite Norwood coffee spot serves the following milk alternatives: Almond Breeze unsweetened original almond milk, Sunrich Naturals organic and unflavored soy milk, and Oatley oat milk - which has been all the rage lately and sometimes hard to find.
1215 Wine Bar & Coffee: You’ll find Pacific Foods almond and soy milk on Vine Street in OTR for your dairy alternatives. All organic!
Carabello Coffee: This philanthropic coffee bar in NKY uses Kroger or Meier whole and skim milk. For other options, you can have Oatley oat milk when it’s in stock as well as almond milk from Pacific Foods.
Starbucks: Their milk is conventional despite pressure to switch to an organic, non-GMO source. For an alternative, I’d suggest their almond milk. One cup contains just 4g net carbs and 3g of sugar. The coconut and soy options are much higher in carbs and sugar and also provide less calcium and vitamins D & A. You can find nutritional information listed on their website.
Brewing at home? My personal favorite non-dairy additions in coffee are Nutpods or Ripple half & half. If you like the taste of coconut, make yourself a frothy blended coffee with full-fat coconut milk with Thai Kitchen or Trader Joes brand. Enjoy!