A long time ago, one of our distant ancestors thought, I want to suck the thick white liquid right outta that cow-boob. Thousands of years later, not much has changed: Americans consume approximately 630 pounds of dairy products—including milk, cheese, yogurt and ice cream—per year.
Whether these dairy products are healthy or not has long been a controversial topic. On one hand, the dairy industry has a history of advertising milk as a drink that’s necessary for growing big and strong. On the other hand, many nutritionists claim that all forms of dairy are downright dangerous.
While the truth seems to sit somewhere in the middle, some dairy products are objectively healthier than others. To find out which ones these are, we asked Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, to help us rank every dairy product, from most healthy to least healthy.
But before we begin, let it be known that eggs—despite generally being placed next to milk and yogurt at the grocery store—aren’t actually dairy. “I don’t understand why eggs are frequently grouped with dairy products, since they’re actually more akin to meat,” Hunnes says, theorizing that they may sit next to the milk just because they come from a live animal (similar to how milk comes from a live cow).
More importantly: Much of the following ranking is based on lactose content, lactose being a sugar found in milk. Approximately 75 percent of the population is lactose intolerant—in varying degrees—meaning they’re incapable of properly digesting lactose and will experience abdominal pain, bloating, nausea, gas and diarrhea if they consume dairy. While lactose isn’t as harmful if you aren’t lactose intolerant, consuming too much of it will inevitably lead to an accumulation of fatty acids, which can result in weight gain. Remember: Lactose is a sugar (which is why milk counts as carbs), and consuming more sugar than your body can burn will make you overweight.
With that out of the way, let’s get milky…
1. Yogurt: Yogurt is the healthiest dairy product for two reasons. For starters, the bacteria used to make yogurt contributes to a healthy gut. “Live-active cultures (such as lactobacillus casei) are used in the fermentation process—they help our microbiome and gastrointestinal system stay healthy,” Hunnes explains. “This can also be achieved with soy, coconut and almond versions of yogurt that are now on the market.”
The other reason yogurt reigns supreme is that people who are lactose intolerant are more likely to be able to digest it without experiencing stomach problems. “Yogurt has been a staple of diets around the world—even in places where people are lactose intolerant—because the fermentation process already digests the lactose,” Hunnes says. As a result, there’s less lactose in yogurt to mess you up.
2. Cheese: “While cheese is often high in saturated fats [which increase your risk of heart disease and stroke by raising cholesterol], it’s also frequently fermented and/or cultured to remove the lactose,” Hunnes explains, meaning people who are lactose intolerant may have an easier time digesting cheese than milk. “There’s also some evidence that cheese is beneficial to our dental health,” she says. According to a study performed by the Academy of General Dentistry, cheese increases saliva production and adheres to tooth enamel to protect the teeth from cavities caused by acid (which can be found in the likes of coffee, wine and soda).
3. Cream (e.g. Sour Cream): “In small doses, cream is low in lactose, but extremely high in saturated fat,” Hunnes warns. “Most people don’t sit there and eat all that much cream, though.” She also explains that the main reason she rates cream higher than milk is because it’s lower in casein, which again, may be carcinogenic.
4. Butter: “Butter is basically coagulated or solidified cream, so it has similar properties,” Hunnes explains.
5. Milk: “Milk [from a cow] is high in casein, and therefore, should never be given to a child under the age of 12 months,” Hunnes warns. “It has a fair amount of calcium and vitamin D, but so do alternative milks (soy, coconut, almond).” Milk is also high in lactose, which again, can cause digestive problems in those who are lactose intolerant. “After the age of weaning, we don’t need milk in our diets, especially milk from other animals,” Hunnes emphasizes.
6. Ice Cream: “Because there’s sugar and fat in ice cream, I don’t see many benefits from eating it… unless it’s a crazy hot summer day,” Hunnes jokes. But seriously, ice cream is super unhealthy.
*dives into a pool of yogurt, never to be seen again*