Should You Be Drinking Milk? (And If So, What Kind?)

There’s a debate raging around dairy, with some people advocating its consumption for a variety of health reasons, and others shunning it based on their own digestive or ethical concerns. But the new dietary guidelines are clear. They continue to recommend three servings per day of dairy as the best way to meet the requirements for calcium, potassium, vitamin D, vitamin A and magnesium. “The guidelines say that dairy is crucial, because for most Americans it is the primary source of those nutrients that many come up short on,” says Isabel Maples, RDN, spokesperson for the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics.

But many Americans experience symptoms of lactose intolerance that make consuming dairy products particularly unpleasant. The gas, bloating and diarrhea are caused by an inability to digest lactose — the sugar that naturally occurs in cow’s, sheep’s and goat’s milk.

Recently, however, science has started to tease out another possible explanation for many people’s post-dairy discomfort. “Researchers looked into why people who thought they were lactose-intolerant could drink goat’s milk without issue, even though it has as much lactose as cow’s milk,” says Bonnie Johnson, M.S., R.D., nutrition director, a2 Milk Company.

It turns out that it’s not just the lactose that’s a problem. Many more people are actually reacting to milk’s A1 protein — a genetic mutation that occurred in cows as dairy farming became bigger and herds were bred for increased milk production.

Goats and sheep don’t have this mutation, so their milk contains only the easier-to-digest A2 protein. A new product, simply called a2 Milk, is sourced from small herds of cows that have all been DNA tested to confirm that their milk contains only the A2 protein.

For those who truly are lactose-intolerant, however, the solution remains avoiding large quantities of dairy, especially milk. “Many people can still tolerate yogurt and aged cheese, because they actually contain very little lactose,” says Maples.

Check the nutrition facts label for the amount of carbohydrate in a dairy product — if it contains little to none, that means there’s little to no lactose. And the dietary guidelines do rank fortified soy milk on par with dairy (but not other nondairy alternatives such as rice and nut milks), because its nutrition profile most closely matches that of cow’s milk.

Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist who writes about nutrition, health and wellness.

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