Volume 81, Number 1 January/February 2010
Consumers’ increasing awareness of the link between nutrition and health, their interest in taking responsibility for improving their diets, and the explosion of food and nutrition information of varied accuracy from many venues can contribute to misperceptions about food, including dairy foods. Low-fat and fat-free milk, cheese, and yogurt are nutrient-rich foods. Together they provide calcium, potassium, phosphorus, protein, vitamins A, D, and B12, riboflavin, and niacin (niacin equivalents). Studies show that dairy foods, when consumed as part of a healthful diet, improve overall diet quality and may help to reduce the risk of major chronic diseases such as osteoporosis, among others.
Misperceptions about dairy foods can result in the unnecessary elimination of these foods from the diet, which in turn often leads to nutritional shortcomings and increased risk of some chronic diseases. For this reason, it is important for health professionals to understand the rationale used by people harboring misperceptions about dairy foods and effectively communicate science-based information about dairy foods’ nutritional value, health benefits, and quality.
A common misperception is that low-fat or fat-free flavored milk, because of its sugar content, is an unhealthy beverage choice for children. On the contrary, even though low-fat/fat-free flavored milk contains some added sugar, scientific studies show that children who drink flavored milk consume more milk overall, meet more of their nutrient needs, do not consume more added sugar or fat, and are not heavier than non-milk drinkers. Studies show that flavored milk is the most popular milk choice among school children. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the Institute of Medicine, and leading health professional organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Dietetic Association, and the American Heart Association support the inclusion of low-fat/fat-free flavored milk in children’s and adolescents’ diets.
Scientific evidence fails to support other misperceptions such as milk consumption causes early puberty in girls, acne, autism, or mucus formation in the respiratory tract. Although multiple genetic and environmental factors are implicated in these conditions, there is little, if any, scientific grounds for reducing or eliminating milk intake.
The perception that raw (unpasteurized) milk is more nutritious and healthful than pasteurized milk is incorrect and potentially has serious health consequences. Consuming raw milk and raw milk products is responsible for life-threatening disease outbreaks from harmful bacteria. Pasteurization of milk, which is widely supported by the federal government and health professional organizations, is the most effective means of reducing the risk of milkborne microbiological illnesses. There is no meaningful change in the nutritional quality of milk as a result of pasteurization. Moreover, unlike raw milk, most pasteurized milk is fortified with vitamin D, which plays a beneficial role in bone health.
Health professionals can help consumers identify and understand science-based information and encourage consumption of three servings every day of low-fat and fat-free milk, cheese, or yogurt as part of a healthful diet.
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