Milk: The Irreplaceable Superfood

Truth be told, I don’t like the term superfood but after doing a deep dive on the nutrients naturally occurring in milk, I felt the term was well-deserved. I did this deep dive on behalf of my client, Clover Sonoma Dairy. Trust me when I say that if the facts did not support milk as a source of naturally occurring nutrients with only three ingredients, I would not be writing this article.

Dairy has been getting a bad wrap with the increasing popularity of plant-based alternatives, but dairy (more specifically milk) is a highly overlooked superfood that is not easily substituted. This distinction, superfood, is often reserved exclusively for brightly colored fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are certainly deserving, but after my in-depth analysis of the nutrients in milk, I believe dairy to be extremely underrated.

I am actually embarrassed to have not given milk more credit, although I have long been a supporter of milk as an optimally-formulated-by-nature recovery drink due to its beautifully proportioned carbohydrate and protein profile. In an airport with limited time, I grab a milk box to get me through a flight with limited hunger pains. But honestly, there is so much more to milk than any label will ever show you. The prominent placement of dairy in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is totally vindicated after all. Milk’s unique nutrient profile and productive calories outperform the nutritional profiles of the many so-called dairy alternatives on the market today. There is currently no single food replacement for dairy in the diet, so removing it should not be done without true cause. Nor should non-dairy beverages be referred to as dairy “alternatives”.

Milk is one of the most nutritionally complete single foods a person can put into their body. For those who are allergic or choose not to eat animal products, replacing the nutrients contributed to the diet through milk is not impossible, but it does require rethinking the quality of the food eaten. Nutritional surveys of Americans show that when dairy disappears from the diet many of its nutrients are not recovered.

The Truth About Alternatives

A look into the nutritional contributions provided by one cup of milk is quite impressive. With a simple and short ingredient list, milk provides high-quality protein identified to support healthy muscles and maintain lean body mass. Milk also provides several important vitamins and minerals that are not present in non-dairy alternatives like calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A, phosphorus, potassium, B12, riboflavin, zinc, and magnesium. According to the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, “When dairy  foods are removed from healthy eating patterns, calcium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A and riboflavin drop below 100% of dietary goals, and vitamin D, potassium and choline drop even lower.” 

Non-dairy milk is often referred to as an “alternative” to milk. When breaking down the nutrition profile of non-dairy milks on the market, it is easy to see that there is no single food or drink that replaces the gap created when not drinking milk. Take protein, for example, milk derived from soy and pea come closest to meeting the protein amount in milk with almond, rice, and cashew falling well below them. The quality of the protein in soy and pea is not however, equal to that of milk. Milk proteins, whey and casein, have been extensively studied for their role in building, repairing, and maintaining a lean body and healthy muscles. Milk proteins are characterized as high quality and complete proteins, because they contain all the essential amino acids the body must have but can not produce on its own. Whey protein is digested quickly by the body and contains the amino acid leucine, which helps begin the muscle recovery process when consumed after exercise. Casein is a slower digesting protein, which means muscle repair will continue in the hours after exercise when protein is available to the body. The advantage of a slower digesting protein is that after whey’s work is done, casein can pick up where whey left off. Soy is also a complete protein, but it contains a lower level of some of those essential amino acids, characterizing it as second best to milk protein. When it comes to recovery from sports, whey is the protein of choice because it is digested quickly and available to the body right away. 

Milk is often reduced to its individual components when the magic of milk is that it is a whole food with nutrients that work synergistically together to support health. For example, calcium absorption is enhanced by the presence of lactose. On average, dairy calcium is 25% more absorbable than fortified calcium in soy milk. The synergistic effects of milk nutrients can also be seen when looking at the impact of milk on fat absorption. Calcium, phosphorus, and the milk fat globule membrane interfere with fat absorption which lowers the number of calories from fat that enters the body. 

I have often referred to non-dairy milk alternatives as “calcium alternatives”, because they can serve as a source of calcium for those who have a true milk allergy or chose not to eat animal products. However, they clearly do not replace all the nutrients found in milk. Additionally, fortified nutrients tend to be heavy, and rather than being suspended in the liquid, stick to the bottom of the container. Shaking before drinking can improve this; but even then, studies have found fortified nutrients add to the cost of a product and usually don’t get fully dissolved. More importantly, non-dairy milk alternatives are not standardized or regulated and can not be counted on to provide calcium and vitamin D–leaving it to the buyer to ensure their non-dairy milk alternative is providing the nutrients they need.

A Nutritious and Ambitious Milk Profile

There are plenty of people in the world who can not or chose not to eat or drink dairy foods. Does that mean they are destined to be short on the nutrients found in milk (noted below)? Not necessarily, but it does require more work to ensure they are eating a variety of foods needed to make up the difference.

Nutrients in milk: 

  • CALCIUM: Builds and maintains strong bones and teeth. 
  • VITAMIN D: Carries messages between the brain and every body part, and the immune system needs vitamin D to fight off invading bacteria and viruses. Together with calcium, vitamin D also helps protect from osteoporosis.
  • PROTEIN: Builds and repairs muscle tissue. 
  • VITAMIN B3 (NIACIN): Utilized in energy metabolism in the body to improve cholesterol levels and lower cardiovascular risks.
  • VITAMIN A: Keeps skin and eyes healthy and promotes growth. 
  • VITAMIN B12 (COBALAMIN): Supports normal blood functions and keeps the nervous system healthy. 
  • VITAMIN B2 (RIBOFLAVIN): Helps your body use carbohydrates, fats, and protein for fuel. 
  • PHOSPHORUS: Builds and maintains strong bones and teeth, and supports tissue growth.
  • CHOLINE: Supports brain and nervous system functions, and helps the body transport fat for metabolism and early brain development.
  • POTASSIUM: Supports proper kidney and heart function, muscle contraction, and nerve transmission.
  • MAGNESIUM: Regulates muscle and nerve function, blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and making protein, bone, and DNA.

Certainly, there are other food sources that provide the nutrients found in milk. Milk just happens to be a nutrient-dense option making obtaining nutrients more convenient for both kids and adults. While not an exact measurement because some individual foods contain more than one of the nutrients found in milk, the following table provides an example of foods that should be incorporated into a daily diet to regain nutrients lost by the removal of dairy foods.

NutrientOption 1Option 2Option 38 oz. glass of milk
Calcium1.5 cup spinach6 cups kale.5 cups tofu351 mg
Phosphorus4 ounces of pork¾ cup beans1 cup chickpeas288 mg
Potassium1 large tomato1 large banana¾ cup kidney beans470 mg
Riboflavin3.5 ounces of beef1.5 ounces Almonds2 large scrambled eggs.44 mg
B-121 egg1 ounce of Tuna¾ cup fortified cereal.96 mcg
Vitamin A¾ cup ricotta cheese 4 ounces of herring2.5 cups boiled broccoli162 mcg
Vitamin D5 Sardines1 ounce of salmon3 ounces of Tuna100 IU
Zinc1 oz of Almonds½ cup cooked kidney beans1 cup green peas.99 mg
Magnesium4 oz of chicken¼ cup spinach¼ cup black beans38 mg
Choline1 cup quinoa1.5 ounces of cod½ cup kidney beans40 mg
Approximate Total Calories1617 calories1120 calories
1346 Calories120-150 calories

Even still there are other foods that supply these nutrients. However, by looking at the complexity of the nutrients found in milk, it is easy to see how a nutrient gap is created (and never gets filled) when eliminating milk from a daily diet. Milk is a complex matrix of nutrients in one simple glass. Those same nutrients can be found in a variety of other food combinations, but the task of eating them can be more caloric and complex. When older children replace milk, they often choose sugar-sweetened beverages such as juice, sports drinks, or soda, which can lead to poor nutrition and eating habits and even obesity.

Searching for nutrition and health information related to dairy can lead to a lot of contradictory theories, opinions and scientific research. Unlike plant-based alternatives, milk has decades of research demonstrating its unique nutritional profile is beneficial in weight management, heart health, muscle health, and growth. A needed, growing awareness of added sugars in foods has drawn attention to the fact that milk is a source of sugar. That is a true statement: milk contains a naturally occurring sugar known as lactose. However, there is no added sugar in milk. Consumption of added sugars contributing to empty, non-productive calories should be the reason for reducing sugar intake. Milk, with no added sugar, high-quality protein and the multiple other nutrients it offers is a source of productive calories. Additionally, consuming milk with meals has been shown to reduce portions eaten at the following meal helping with appetite control. 

Correcting Misperceptions

Eating and drinking dairy is a personal choice. However, there are misperceptions that need to be corrected. For those with a dairy intolerance, complete avoidance is often not necessary. Lactose-free milk contains all the benefits of milk without the lactose. Sometimes just reducing the amount of dairy without completely cutting it out will relieve symptoms of lactose intolerance. Some people avoid dairy because of the belief that it causes systemic inflammation. The recent 2017 review of 52 clinical studies concluded that dairy actually lowered inflammatory markers. 

There is certainly no denying that milk is a nutrient-dense powerhouse. It supplies essential nutrients in a single convenient source that is hard to match without supplements or a serious revamp of the diet. The productiveness of this superfood is irreplaceable. It’s worth overlooking concerns around calories, sugar, or fat content. I have seen many food/beverage and diet trends come and go throughout the history of my career, but dairy continues to prove its weight in milk gold. Personally, I will be including more milk into my day. In fact, I am sipping an organic whole milk lavender latte right now.

  1. Rafferty K et al. Calcium fortificants: Overview and strategies for improving calcium nutriture of the U.S. population. J Food Sci 2007;72(9):R152-8.
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Nutrition Strategist and Registered Dietitian with twenty years of experience creating nutrition strategies that influence and inspire people to accomplish big things.