Americans do not consume enough of four primary nutrients. Dairy delivers three of those four dietary needs - calcium, potassium and vitamin D.

by Cary Frye
The author is vice president of regulatory and scientific affairs with the International Dairy Foods Association.

The final version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 released in early January supported what the dairy industry had hoped for: dairy foods are critical for a healthy diet. Americans will continue to benefit from three servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy every day.

Every five years the U.S. government updates its dietary recommendations, taking into account new research on nutrition, health and eating patterns. The updated guidelines provide information to all consumers to help them chose a healthy diet. But the main purpose of the dietary guidelines issued by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is to form the development of federal food nutrition policies and programs. These programs include the National School Breakfast and Lunch program that serves 30 million lunches to students each day.

Focus on healthy eating

Previous editions of the guidelines focused primarily on nutrients and food groups. However, people tailor their diet to their personal food preference. The revised guidelines use the concept of healthy eating patterns; these patterns adapt to the individual, cultural and traditional foods people enjoy rather than the rigid structure of only focusing on nutrients and food groups. It is great news that dairy was included in each of the three recommended eating patterns: the Mediterranean, the U.S.-Style and the Vegetarian-Style.

Here is an overview of the key recommendations for healthy eating patterns:

  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese and/or fortified soy beverage
  • A variety of vegetables dark green, red, orange, legumes (beans and peas), starchy and others
  • Fruits, especially whole fruits
  • Grains, at least half should be whole grains
  • A variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats, poultry, eggs, legumes, nuts, seeds and soy products
  • Oils

The dairy group includes milk, lactose-reduced milk, yogurt, frozen yogurt, dairy desserts and cheeses. Cream, sour cream and cream cheese are not included due to their low calcium content.

Recommended intakes of dairy for those following a healthy U.S. or vegetarian eating pattern are three daily servings for Americans age 9 and older, 2.5 servings for children ages 4 through 8 and two servings for children ages 2 through 3 years old. The Mediterranean eating pattern, which includes more fruits and seafood, has less dairy. It includes only two servings of dairy for adults.
Only one in 10 Americans reaches the dairy consumption targets chart

As this chart from the guidelines shows, current intakes of dairy foods for most Americans "are far below recommendations." One of the recommendations states that Americans should shift to consume more dairy products, particularly low-fat and fat-free varieties.

It's startling to see that almost 90 percent of the population isn't eating the recommended three servings of dairy daily. But the good news is that dairy foods taste great, are accessible almost anywhere and come in a variety of options from low-fat to less sodium and lactose free - all at a reasonable cost. In fact, for less than a dollar you can get three servings of milk with 8 grams of protein and essential nutrients such as calcium, potassium and vitamin D.

Limits on sugar, sodium and some fats

The dietary guidelines recommend that added sugars, defined as "syrups and other caloric sweeteners used as a sweetener in other food products," be less than 10 percent of calories. That means if you need 2,000 calories a day, you shouldn't consume more than 50 grams of added sugars daily. But it could be difficult to know how many added sugars you're eating, because "total sugars" - which include both naturally occurring and added sugars - are combined into one category on food labels. FDA has proposed that the nutrition facts label on the back of packages be revised to include new information on the amount of added sugars.

Added sugars do not include the naturally occurring sugars in fruit or milk. The dietary guidelines indicates that "healthy eating patterns can accommodate other nutrient-dense foods with small amounts of added sugars, such as whole-grain breakfast cereals or fat-free yogurt" as long as added sugar and total calories fall within recommended levels.

Flavored milk gets a pass

Flavored milk, which was banned from sale at some schools due to its sugar content, wasn't mentioned in the sections on added sugar or sugar-sweetened beverages. In fact, the report acknowledged that dairy including ice cream, yogurt, and flavored milk only account for 4 percent of the added sugars in our diet - as the bulk (47 percent) of added sugars are from sugar-sweetened beverages such as soft drinks, fruit drinks, flavored waters, energy drinks, sweetened tea and coffee.

Some dairy products are identified as sources of saturated fat or sodium, which the guidelines also recommend limiting. Saturated fat is recommended to be less than 10 percent of calories; that would be 22 grams or less daily for a 2,000 calorie diet. Full-fat dairy, butter and cheese are mentioned as sources of saturated fat.

A sodium limit of 2,300 milligrams is recommended for the general population and 1,500 mg for specific populations, such as those with high blood pressure.

The dietary guidelines urge Americans to select low-fat or fat-free dairy options and those with little-to-no added sugar. The guidelines also recommend that people shift intake away from cheese to milk and yogurt to reduce saturated fat and sodium, or choose lower-fat versions of cheese.

Make smart choices

It's important to note that the guidelines' suggestion to make healthier choices still can accommodate foods people like. You can order cheese with your egg sandwich, grab chocolate milk, have a slice of pizza or scoop yourself some frozen yogurt. You just need to take into account the sodium, saturated fat and added sugar in these choices to not exceed the recommended limits.

Together, the dairy community's farmers and food companies are doing their part to ensure healthy dairy products are available for Americans. Now, we just need to amplify the message that dairy is part of a healthy diet and remind Americans to add another serving of low-fat or fat-free dairy products to their day - what a great message for us to share with our family, friends and neighbors.

This article appears on page 79 of the February 10, 2016 issue of Hoard's Dairyman.

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