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Is milk really good for us?

Experts debate the benefits of this creamy foodstuff
Published 9:46 am, Wednesday, April 17, 2013
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How much milk?
The United States Department of Agriculture recommends amounts 3 cups per day of fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products for adults and children 9 to 18 years; 2.5 cups per day for children 4 to 8 years, and 2 cups for children 2 to 3 years.
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Are those milk moustache-wearing celebrities hiding a dark secret?

Milk, once a symbol of everything healthy and pure, has been under attack in some circles for making us fat and putting us at risk for a host of diseases. A study published last month by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that women who eat high-fat dairy products after they are diagnosed with breast cancer are at a higher risk for death.

And California-based doctor and diet book author John McDougall has been speaking against dairy and the dairy industry for 20 years. In his March 2007 blog post "When Friends Ask `Why Don't You Drink Milk?' " McDougall -- who advocates plant-based diets -- referred to dairy products as "liquid meats" and criticized them for being high in calories as well as in fat, sodium and other unhealthy components.

Yet dairy products -- not just milk, but also yogurt, butter, cheese, cottage cheese and sour cream -- are integral to how most of us eat. So how do you replace it? And should you? Keri McComb, a dietitian and a professor at the Sage Colleges in Troy and Albany, N.Y., said no one older than 2 should be drinking whole milk because of its fat content. But unless you are lactose-intolerant or won't consume dairy on moral grounds, she and other experts said it's OK to keep drinking milk.

"It's considered a nutrient-dense food," McComb said. "It has vitamins, minerals, protein and carbohydrates, and it's usually fortified with calcium and Vitamin D, which is especially important for children."

Andrea Valenti, clinical nutrition manager at Bridgeport Hospital agreed. She and McComb both said that skim and lowfat milk are better options, as they feature a host of healthy attributes without the fat. "Americans, on the whole, eat a lot of fat," Valenti said. "We can't be eating everything that's high in fat."

For those who would prefer not to consume the bovine growth hormone sometimes used to increase milk production in cows can pick organic milk, Valenti said. If you really would prefer not to drink milk, there are numerous alternatives on the market, including milk made with flax seed, as well as soy, almond, coconut and rice milks.

According to research by the AARP, sales of nondairy milk drinks were $1.33 billion in 2011, a 10 percent increase from 2009.

McComb recommended soy milk as the dairy alternative the most like cow's milk. A cup of skim milk has 12 grams of carbohydrates (sugar) while soy has 7 grams of sugar. Soy milk has more fat -- 3.5 grams, and .5 of it is saturated fat. Milk has more potassium (419 grams), but soy has less sodium -- 70 milligrams, compared to 130 milligrams in a cup of milk. Soy has 7 grams of protein, similar to milk's 8.75 grams.

The other alternatives don't stand up quite as well. Rice milk has no protein and it a cup has 10 grams of sugar. Almond milk has 150 milligrams of sodium and only 1 gram of protein. Coconut milk has five grams of saturated fat, 150 milligrams of sodium and no protein.

Given the health benefits of regular milk, Valenti said it's likely the best option, unless you have an allergy or a moral opposition. But, as with anything, she recommends keeping an eye on how much you consume.

"Everything in moderation is my personal feeling," she said.

lhornbeck@timesunion.com

Staff writer Amanda Cuda contributed to this report.