The following content is created in partnership with Florida Dairy Farmers. It does not reflect the work or opinions of the NBC South Florida editorial staff. Click here to learn more about Florida Dairy Farmers.

Milk has strong competition. In the past decade, loyal milk drinkers have strayed, exploring other “milks.” Milk alternatives, sourced from plants in particular—like almonds and soybean—have become increasingly popular. Miami, in particular, has seen a drop in cow's milk consumption these past five years (the rest of the nation, on the other hand, has generally been drinking more cow's milk).

Some may have switched to non-dairy diets believing milk alternatives offer better nutrients. Others may have given up dairy due to environmental concerns. Some may even have sworn off milk because they’re worried about cows.

Whatever the reason, know that these concerns can be somewhat unfounded . . .

“Adults are not designed to drink milk”

Some say drinking milk is unnatural; that most mammals stop after infancy. Or they say species don’t feed off other species’ milk. But milk has been a key player in our human development: It’s been a key source of nutrition for thousands of years. While climate or geography in some regions limited the prevalence of dairy farming, it still played an important role in the development of agriculture and our development as a species. The consumption of dairy—and the care and reproduction of dairy animals—improved the survival chances of prehistoric humans to the point that some branches of the human family evolved to produce milk-digesting enzymes through adulthood. In other words, we as a species benefited from milk and evolved to consume it indefinitely.

But what about lactose intolerance?

Lactose intolerance is often mischaracterized as an allergy that requires the complete avoidance of dairy. However, lactose intolerance is actually the body’s inability to digest lactose—a natural sugar mainly found in dairy products. Which means this isn’t an all-or-nothing situation. First, it’s important to understand whether you’re lactose sensitive or have an allergy (and did you self-diagnose or did you consult a medical professional)? If you’re just sensitive, you may be able to keep some dairy in your diet.

If you’re considering a milk imitator or alternative because you think you’re lactose intolerant—you’ve experienced diarrhea, gas, or bloating after consuming dairy—try lactose-free dairy products. They’re still dairy, providing the same nutritional benefits. The lactose, though, is already broken down for you. Also, keep in mind that many milks, yogurts, and cheeses, like cheddar and Swiss, don’t even contain lactose. So next time you’re at a supermarket, start by checking the labels.

What’s behind the alternatives

Milk imitators are often fortified with nutrients. They’re designed to try and match cows’ milk nutritional profile (some more successfully than others). But as much as they’re considered alternatives, they’re not a like-for-like substitute and aren’t a natural equivalent to cow’s milk.

Milk imitators such as almond and soy, for instance, contain 10 or more added ingredients, including salt and even sugar. Cow’s milk, on the other hand, is pure and simple (and free of added antibiotics). Also, milk provides the same nutrients regardless of brand; imitators lack universal standards.

It’s important to keep in mind what it is that milk brings to the table: A single glass delivers a powerful package of nine essential nutrients, difficult to find in other foods. At just 25 cents per serving, it’s also the economical choice, offering more nutrients per penny than almost any other beverage.

The power of milk

A glass of milk has been an American diet staple for decades—and for good reason. Many nutrition experts and professional health organizations—including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Medical Association—have long recognized the importance of three daily servings of dairy foods as part of a healthy, nutrient-rich diet.

On average, Americans are currently consuming about two servings of dairy per day. Adding just one more serving—be it a glass of milk, a slice of cheese, or some yogurt—can help fill some nutrients gaps. Beyond that, researchers have also found that eating more low-fat dairy foods reduces the risk for high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and certain cancers.

Truth be told, without dairy, it’s tough getting enough of the nutrients you need. Each glass of milk serves nutrients needed for both adults and kids, including:

  • Calcium, vitamin D and phosphorus—key nutrients to build and strengthen bones
  • B vitamins to keep energy up
  • Protein to help build and maintain lean muscle
  • Vitamin A for a healthy immune system

The move to greater sustainability

Compared to milk alternatives, dairy milk does require the use of more land. But compared with 75 years ago, the production of one gallon of milk requires 65 percent less water, 90 percent less land and 76 percent less manure.

Dairy farmers are also finding innovative ways to tie sustainability to animal nutrition. For example, farmers may introduce ingredients such as citrus pulp, brewers’ mash, and whole cottonseed into cows’ feed. Doing this gives cows valuable nutrients from ingredients that would otherwise go to landfills.

What about animal rights?

There’s been talk questioning the treatment of cows in the dairy industry. The reality: Without healthy and comfortable cows, no dairy farmer can succeed. Good animal welfare practices lead to the production of high-quality, safe, and wholesome milk. By establishing healthy diets, offering pleasant, and clean housing along with regular medical care, dairy farms keep cows as happy and comfortable as possible.

Florida’s dairy farms have remained true to their values and committed to producing a fresh supply of wholesome, quality milk. Click here to learn more about their work and their commitment to your community.

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