A Closer Look at Dairy & Dairy Alternatives

By Trisha Howell, MSH, RD, LD/N, IFMCP

Dairy products are foods containing or produced from animal milks. For centuries, many cultures across the world have included dairy foods as a dietary staple. Due to an increase in the demand for dairy products, farming practices have changed from hand-milking cows and other animals to large scale factory farms. The way these factory-farmed animals are raised and what they are fed has also changed, potentially impacting the quality of the product.

Milk as we know today is far different from milk even 100 years ago, where it may have been delivered to your front door by a milkman, unpasteurized and nonhomogenized, still containing the cream solids that had risen to the top.

Health benefits of dairy1,2

Dairy as a food source has many beneficial properties. It is an excellent source of high-quality protein, calcium, magnesium, zinc, selenium, and fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) and all the B vitamins. Adding cultures to dairy to create yogurt and kefir has the added benefit of containing gut-healthy probiotics, subsequently aiding digestion.

Foods That Contain Dairy3Prepared Foods That Contain Dairy3
ButterArtificial butter, butter flavor
Cheese (all types)Chocolate
Cottage cheeseMayonnaise
CustardsNondairy creamers*
Dairy creamerVegan cheeses*
Ghee-clarified butter (casein and whey are removed)Artificial butter, butter flavor
Half & half 
Ice cream 
Milk (nonfat, fat-free, low-fat, skim, whole) 
Sour cream 
Yogurt and kefir (natural probiotics) 
Whey (all forms including protein powders) 
*It's true! Nondairy creamers and vegan cheeses can contain caseinate, a milk protein.

What are the two protein components in dairy?


Casein is the curd and makes up as much as 80% of the protein in cow’s milk. It is possible for infants and small children to experience allergic reactions to casein; these are often outgrown. If you suspect there is an allergic reaction, it is best to avoid cow’s milk.

It’s worth noting that there are several different varieties of casein, A1 and A2 being the most studied for their effects on human health.


Whey is the liquid left after milk is curdled and makes up the remaining 20% of its protein. Whey is rich in branched-chain amino acids (isoleucine, valine, and leucine), as well as essential amino acids. These amino acids are important for muscle growth and repair and also act as precursors to glutathione, a powerful antioxidant that helps reduce oxidative stress and support immune function. Research shows that whey protein supports muscle recovery from resistance exercise injuries. It also supports many metabolic functions in the body. People who are sensitive to casein may also have to avoid whey protein.

Why consider removing dairy from your diet?8

Rising concerns abide whether milk from animal species is healthy for humans to consume. Cow’s milk, as a food source, can be difficult to digest due to a combination of the proteins such as casein and/or lactose also known as milk sugar.

Perception of choice: cow’s milk vs. nondairy alternatives9

There has been a sharp decline in cow’s milk intake as the expanding nondairy alternative varieties increase. Health trends and allergen concerns are some of the primary reasons for the shiftAccording to dairy foods research, fat content was the most important factor in choosing cow’s milk followed by the package size and label claims with least important factors of pasteurization type  (heat treatment) and milk brand.The most important factor for nondairy alternative choice is the sugar content (preferably naturally sweetened or no added sugar) followed by plant source and package size; label claims and different brands were the least important factors.

Many people consider the above factors as they select a dairy (or nondairy) option. Still deciding which would be best for your cereal? Try them all!

For more information on general wellness topics, please visit the Metagenics blog.


1. Gaucheron F. Milk and dairy products: a unique micronutrient combination. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 2011;30(5):400S-409S.
2. Otles S. Kefir et al. A probiotic dairy-composition, nutritional and therapeutic aspects. Pakistan Journal of Nutrition. 2003;2 (2):54-59.
3. National Dairy Council website. https://www.usdairy.com/dairy-nutrition/products. Accessed January 24, 2019.
4. Ng-Kwai-Hang KF e al. Relationships between milk protein polymorphisms and major milk constituents in Holstein Friesian cow. J Dairy Sci. 1986;69:22-26.
5. Patel S. Emerging trends in nutraceutical applications of whey protein and its derivatives. Food Sci Technol. 2015;52(11):6847-6858.
6. Davies RW et al. The effect of whey protein supplementation on the temporal recovery of muscle function following resistance training: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutrients. 2018;10(2):221.
7. Flaim C et al. Effects of a whey protein supplementation on oxidative stress, body composition and glucose metabolism among overweight people affected by diabetes mellitus or impaired fasting glucose: A pilot study. Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry. 2017;50:95–102.
8. Yadav S et al. Oral feeding of cow milk containing A1 variant of β casein induces pulmonary inflammation in male Balb/c mice. Nature Research. 2020;10:(8053):1-10.
9. McCarthy S et al. Drivers of choice for fluid milk versus plant-based alternatives: What are consumer perceptions of fluid milk? J Dairy Sci. 2017;100:6125–6138. 

Trisha Howell, MSH, RD, LD/N, IFMCP
Howell is a certified Functional Medicine nutritionist who completed her master’s and undergrad in nutrition and health sciences with the University of North Florida and registered dietitian training with the University of Northern Colorado. She is board-certified in Functional Medicine with the Institute for Functional Medicine. She has over 20 years of experience delivering personalized medicine in academia, nonprofits, and her private practice for individuals, groups, the community, and corporations. This focus led her to become the founding dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, the only one of its kind in the world. Howell joined Metagenics 3 years ago as a practice specialist with FirstLine Therapy®.

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