Milk and milk products also are often called dairy products. Included within this category are cheese, butter, yogurt, ice cream and cream, as well as some other forms of these products. Cow's milk is the most widely produced and consumed milk around the world, but other animals whose milk is consumed by humans include buffaloes, goats and sheep.
You can also get milk and milk products that don't come from an animal — products like soy or almond milk, which work as milk substitutes for people who can't or won't consume the animal-derived versions.
What Are Milk Products?
At its simplest, milk is what comes from a nursing female animal's mammary glands. It's full of nutrients because it's what infants drink before their bodies are able to digest other foods. Milk from all animals is made up of water, proteins, fat, sugar and salts.
Humans have been taking the milk from animals such as cows and sheep for many centuries to drink and to turn into other foods like cheese, yogurt and cream. Nowadays, milk and milk products in many developed countries are mass produced on factory farms, and the milk that humans consume is not the liquid that comes directly out of the animal. Milk is heated first (pasteurized) to destroy pathogens that could make people sick. Many milk products are also flavored in some way.
Are Nut and Soy Milks Really Milk?
You might have seen soy, almond, coconut, rice or other kinds of plant- and nut-derived milk at your local supermarket. Technically, these are not milk — they are not produced by a female animal's mammary glands to feed their young. But, because they are cloudy white liquids that can be used in place of animal milk, they are called milk in their own right. These milks are also full of nutrients, too, just different ones from animal milk.
Non-animal milks are an alternative milk for people who can't or won't drink animal milk, such as vegans or those with lactose intolerance or milk allergies. Nut milks are usually less fatty than animal milk, so they can't directly replace animal milk in some recipes. But, for some uses, such as pouring on your cereal, adding to a cup of coffee or even in some baking, they are effective.
Coconut milk and coconut cream are quite different. They're what you get when you crack open a coconut and when you extract and concentrate the juices from the white flesh inside the coconut. They're an important ingredient in some Asian cuisines. Coconut milk and cream are sweet and go well in many desserts, but they can also be used for savory dishes, contrasting with the spiciness and sourness of dishes such as Thai green curry or Goan fish curry.
Uses of Milk
A carton of milk is an essential ingredient in many households. Kids around the world grow up drinking milk straight or pouring it on their cereal. Many adults tend to drink it daily as an addition to their coffee or tea. Unless you are a vegan or lactose intolerant, you're likely to have quite a lot of milk in your diet in one form or another.
Milk is also an important ingredient in a lot of baking, desserts and puddings. Sweetened condensed milk can be used in place of fresh milk in many cases — the thick, extremely sweet milk is stored in a can, so it has a long shelf life and is a useful ingredient in dessert cooking.
When combined with rice, sugar and spices, it helps create a creamy rice pudding. Mixed with custard powder, milk is an important ingredient in sweet, creamy custard, which can be eaten alone, added to fruit salad or dolloped on the side of a piece of cake. South Asian cuisine, in particular, uses milk in many desserts and sweets — dishes like barfi, kulfi or kheer.
Milk is an essential ingredient in pancakes, whether they're thin French-style crepes, thick American-style pancakes, or small New Zealand-style pikelets. While pancakes are usually eaten as a breakfast food, they can also be enjoyed as a snack or dessert.
Somewhere between a beverage, a dessert and a snack are milkshakes and smoothies. Milk is an important ingredient in both. Milkshakes are usually made by blending milk with ice cream and a flavored syrup, whereas, smoothies are made with milk, yogurt and fresh (or frozen) fruit.
Many savory dishes also rely on milk: Macaroni and cheese, cauliflower and cheese, and creamy soups are just a few. Milk helps create thick and creamy white sauces or cheese sauces.
Uses of Milk Products
The fun and variety doesn't stop with milk. There are almost endless varieties of milk products, including cheese, yogurt, cream and butter.
Cheese varies enormously depending on where in the world it comes from. Europe, especially, has a wide range of cheeses, as do countries with a European cultural heritage, such as the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Varieties of cheese include Northern European types such as cheddar, red Leicester, Gouda and Edam. These are commonly slice thinly and added to sandwiches. French cheeses include Brie and Camembert, which are best enjoyed as an appetizer or an ingredient in recipes. Italian cheeses, such as mozzarella or ricotta, are used to make pizza and pasta dishes. South Asian cheeses like paneer can be cubed and added to curries or skewered and grilled. All kinds of cheeses make good additions to salads.
Yogurt comes in many flavors, from plain to fruity. Flavored, it's a popular snack for kids. It can be added to cereal or granola as an alternative to milk (a good option for people with an intolerance to lactose). Plain or lightly sweetened yogurt can be added to fruit salad or served as a side to a piece of cake to help cut the sweetness. Savory yogurts are used to make dressings or a side dish.
Butter comes salted and unsalted. It's commonly used as a spread for sandwiches, although blended varieties that aren't pure 100 percent butter are easier to spread straight from the refrigerator, because they don't harden as much when refrigerated. Butter is also an essential ingredient for baking. Most cakes, cookies and pastries wouldn't hold together properly without butter. It can also be used to add richness and saltiness to soups or other savory dishes.
Cream, which can be thick or runny, is used in many desserts. Fresh cream looks and tastes much like very thick milk.
Advantages of Dairy Products for Your Health
Milk and milk products contain a number of substances that your body needs ‒ calcium, protein, carbohydrate, fat, potassium, vitamins A, B, B12 and D, zinc, phosphorus and selenium. These vitamins and minerals can be found in other foods, but their combination in dairy foods makes milk and milk products a nutritious food group.
Including milk in your diet can help build bone density and slow or prevent its loss later in life. Bone is built by the body in childhood and adolescence, so calcium intake is important at this time. Later in life, women, in particular, are at risk of developing osteoporosis, which is when the bones become thin and brittle. Calcium intake is one way of slowing or preventing the onset of osteoporosis, and milk and milk products are a natural source of calcium.
Calcium is also important for the growth and health of teeth, which is why it's important that children (whose baby and adult teeth are just developing) drink milk and eat dairy products.
The protein in milk and milk products is also important. It is very rich in protein, which is needed for growth and development, the immune system and the repair of cells. Protein is important for everybody, but high protein intake is especially important for people who exercise a lot and put stress on their muscles. An ideal human diet should contain nine essential amino acids, and milk contains a balanced amount of all nine of these, making it a "complete protein" food.
The connections between calcium and protein and good health are strong and scientifically established. There are a number of other benefits to milk and milk product consumption that aren't as obvious or widely known, but still present. For example, vitamin D is believed to play a role in cancer prevention, and milk contains vitamin D. Optimum potassium levels are associated with a lower risk of several problems, including strokes, high blood pressure and kidney stones ‒ milk contains good levels of potassium.
The results of some studies are inconclusive as to the links between other nutrients in milk and their health benefits. So, for example, it's not quite accurate (or proven) to say that consuming milk lowers the risk of cancer. But, the connections are promising, and when consumed as part of a balanced diet, it's safe to say there are many advantages to consuming dairy products and including milk in your diet.
Disadvantages of Dairy Products for Your Health
Some milk and milk products are relatively high in saturated fat and cholesterol, which can be harmful to the heart and increase the risk of heart attacks. If you're worried about the fat content in dairy products, choose lower-fat alternatives like low-fat or fat-free milk.
Some studies, however, report that the consumption of whole-fat milk may, in fact, help prevent obesity and weight problems. As with all foods, most health professionals will recommend eating dairy products in all forms (whether high or low in fat) in moderation. There are important advantages and disadvantages associated with consuming a lot of milk and milk products, and these should be weighed and balanced according to individual dietary needs at certain phases of life.
Some people are unable to digest milk because they are intolerant to lactose (milk sugar). Many lactose-intolerant people can still eat some yogurt — especially probiotic yogurt or those with live cultures — as they contain a bacteria that helps break down the lactose. So, while putting yogurt on your cereal is a tasty option for many people, it's the healthiest option for people who are lactose intolerant. Lactose-intolerant people can also consume other types of milk, such as the nut milks mentioned.
- Nutrition Foundation: Milk and Milk Products
- Britannica: Dairy Product
- WebMD: Living with a Milk Allergy
- Dairy Processing Handbook: The Chemistry of Milk
- Legendairy: Types of Milk
- WebMD: What Milk Can Do For You
- Healthline: 5 Ways That Drinking Milk Can Improve Your Health
- Prevention: 6 Dairy Foods that Don't Affect Lactose Intolerance
- Medical News Today: All About Milk