Aisle by Aisle: Navigating the Dairy Case

The dairy section can get a bit overwhelming, but here are some hints on what you should be looking for on your next trip to the market.

One day while we were shopping in the dairy aisle, my son reached down and grabbed a purple-colored carton of yogurt and asked, “Mom, can I have this?” My answer, “Dude, cows don’t make purple milk.” Poor kid, he looked at me with this perplexed face. The dairy section can get a bit overwhelming for an adult too, but here are some hints on what you should be looking for on your next trip to the market.

Nutrition Basics

The basic dairy group includes milk, cheese, yogurt and milk-based desserts like frozen yogurt and ice cream. The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines recommend consuming 3 cups per day of fat-free (a.k.a. skim) or low-fat (a.k.a 1%) milk or equivalent milk products. What counts as a serving? One cup of milk, 8 ounces of yogurt or 1.5 ounces of cheese.

Dairy products contain calcium, a mineral needed for bone health. Calcium also plays a role in blood clotting, regulating certain hormones and supporting muscle contractions (including your heart). Clients ask me why they should switch from regular to non-fat milk for their cereal and coffee, and I just show them the numbers. A cup of whole milk contains 150 calories, 8 grams of total fat, 5 grams of saturated fat and 33 milligrams of cholesterol. A cup of skim milk contains 90 calories and 0 grams of fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. Both contain 8 grams of protein per cup and 30% of your daily calcium needs.


Low-fat or fat-free milk is suggested, but now what? There’s lactose-free, pasteurized, hormone-free, organic and even a new line of dairy-free milks! Most (not all) have added vitamins A and D, so make sure to check the label.

If you’re lactose intolerant, lactose-free milk like Lactaid is the way to go. It contains the same nutrients as regular cow’s milk, but the milk sugar has been broken down to prevent bloating, gas and other musical symptoms associated with lactose intolerance. To me, pasteurized milk is a must (as opposed to raw) since I have young kids in the house. During the pasteurization process, the milk is heated to high temperatures to kill the bad bacteria, yet the nutritional quality is still maintained.

Dana and I both agree that organic milk (made without hormones) is the way to go. Recent research shows that organic milk contains higher levels of omega-3s and vitamin E. Believe it or not, you may also be able to find local milk at your grocery store. Dana gets The Farmer’s Cow milk, made by a group of Connecticut dairy farmers.

If you’re not a cow’s milk fan, you’re in luck! So many alternative milks are available now. Soy milk is a good alternative, but if you’re watching your weight, you may want to choose light soy milk. Rice and almond milk are also available, but may be in your dry goods aisle not your dairy case.


I like my yogurt without high-fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners and made from skim milk — and yes, it is possible! Here are some of my favorite yogurt choices:

Greek yogurt is relatively new trend reaching supermarkets. It’s thicker and creamier than traditional yogurt because it’s been strained to remove much of the whey. I stock my fridge with Fage 0% Greek Yogurt and, when serving, top it with blueberries or strawberries. Kefir is a cultured milk product similar to yogurt only thinner. It comes in a variety of flavors and makes great smoothies. There's been a lot of talk about the health benefits of probiotics in yogurts, which Dana explains in this past post.

Other Dairy Products

Cheese, cottage cheese and cream cheese are other popular foods in your dairy aisle. We explained how to choose healthy low-fat cheeses before, but what about the soft spreadable types? My husband eats cottage cheese on whole-wheat bread with a slice of low-fat Swiss cheese -- a tradition he learned from back home in Israel. But I buy the low-fat version to skim off some calories and only buy it once a month.

Now cream cheese is my kids’ favorite, so I buy the Temp Tee kind in the bright pink container, and I just monitor how much I put. If you’re watching those calories, choose a low-fat version and stick to a 2-tablespoon rule (I find the non-fat versions tasteless). Tofu cream cheese is a favorite of my mom, who is a vegan chef, and my hubby -- it has no cholesterol. It’s a great alternative for those who are allergic or intolerant to dairy.

Next Up

How to Choose Between Low-Fat and Full-Fat in the Dairy Aisle

Here's the science behind cheese, yogurt and more.