Food writer Annie Bell reports on all things dairy
It was once assumed that forgoing full-fat dairy from your diet would lead to better health and flatter stomachs but, as Annie Bell reports, the latest findings suggest otherwise. It’s time milk, butter and cheese are back on the shopping list
The calm white of milk belies its sophistication. The dazzling array of produce from around the world that results from this liquid is down to an extraordinary union of climate, soil and grass, the animals and the hands that tend them. Dairy is the bedrock of the way that people eat in the West.
The fact that dairy has been welcomed back into our lives is good news. The more studies that are carried out, the more science advances and the more we learn. Dairy is in from the cold and fat is no longer to be feared – respected perhaps, but also relished. And the way it is produced has everything to do with good nutrition and its affect on our bodies.
All too often, we find quality and health pulling in different directions, where one is at the expense of the other. So it is both rare and special that dairy offers us taste and health in a single package. The key is that we look to grass-fed cattle and artisanal production instead of grain-fed stock and industrial products that have altered the make up of dairy over the past 60 years. We nearly all have access to organic milk, fine butters and cheeses, and regional traditions by way of creams and yoghurts. The renaissance of small-scale dairy farming is one that we should cling to and seriously celebrate.
The most helpful way of including the right amount of dairy in a daily diet is to treat it like five-a-day fruit and veg, by aiming for three a day of different dairy types. In practice, this changes from one day to the next so bearing in mind that a portion can include a yoghurt serving of about 150g, a 30g hunk of cheese, or 200ml of milk, this provides a good benchmark to aim for. In short: little and often, and as varied as possible. Variation lies at the heart of good nutrition. A modest amount of everything will always be better than a large amount of just one food.
While most ingredients tend to have a fairly static profile (meat and fish is high in protein, while fruit is high in carbohydrates), dairy is unique in the way that the proportion of the macronutrients can vary markedly between different dairy products. For example, 100g of Parmesan typically contains around 30g fat, 36g protein and 1g carbohydrates, whereas quark, a sour-milk or acid-set cheese, contains less than 1g fat, 12g protein and 4g carbohydrates for the same amount. This is essential to dairy’s potential health benefits as it is uniquely flexible. Dairy can be whatever you want it to be. No other food group can match its variety in that single sense.
Eat fat, get thin?
The quality of a macronutrient is as important as the amount you are consuming. Opting for a low-fat strawberry yoghurt instead of a full-fat natural yoghurt is a step backwards because the ‘low-fat’ version has replaced the butterfat and its precious micronutrients with free sugars, which have no nutritional value. They are empty calories; energy without goodness. This is another reason why low-fat diets have fallen out of favour and diets higher in fat are making a comeback. It is a high-quality foodstuff providing we eat it in a way that is sensible.
There is good reason to believe that it is the quality of dairy fat rather than dairy fat per se that is at fault when it comes to obesity. Fatty acids contained in dairy fat are biologically active and the content of these is steered by the feed of the cow, in particular fresh grass, its natural diet. The upshot of the science is that, while we can’t travel back in time, as consumers we can use our awareness to benefit nutritionally.
One assured route is organic dairy produce. The standards are likely to differ marginally from one country to another but within the UK, for instance, after weaning, 60 per cent of the dairy herd’s diet must consist of organic grass and clover or conserved forage and roots, only modestly supplemented with cereals or pulses. The word ‘organic’ on packaging is a good starting point. So here, you have a complete food that offers variety and scope for enjoyment, from the simple pleasure of cheese with a select pickle to the many different ways of including it in both sweet and savoury dishes. Sample the very best in the recipes to follow.
FOOD & TRAVEL