In 2019, nearly 11 billion pounds of fluid milk, 683 million pounds of cheese, and 662 million pounds of yogurt and other dairy foods moved through federal food assistance programs. That’s almost 10% of the U.S. milk production. This included school meal programs across the nation, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).
Meal standards for these programs align with the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These guidelines are updated every five years by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
The latest rendition
The newest version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025, along with an update to the MyPlate consumer website, were announced in late December, and dairy’s role in nutrition and health — once again — was reaffirmed. That’s good news for dairy farmers, whose milk will continue to flow where people depend on it while providing consumers across their entire lifespan with a reinforced stamp of approval of dairy’s goodness.
There really wasn’t any suspense leading up to this year’s announcement. Dairy has been a cornerstone of the dietary guidelines since it was created in 1980, and it has earned its place based on sound science and peer-reviewed research. This is where the dairy farmer-funded and checkoff-led National Dairy Council (NDC) plays an important role.
The aim of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is to promote health and prevent disease, and for decades NDC has supported hundreds of research studies on topics such as Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, whole milk dairy foods, inflammation, protein, digestive health, sustainable food systems, child nutrition, bone health, and more. This research is a vital component of the dietary guidelines’ process to inform and reinforce dairy’s unique contributions to health and wellness.
National Dairy Council participates in every public process around the dietary guidelines, submitting written comments and oral testimony to USDA and HHS that summarizes the scientific evidence on dairy’s role in healthy dietary patterns. We also present our research to members of the scientific community and health professionals.
Overall, National Dairy Council remains focused on these dietary guidelines, and we’re already looking ahead to the 2025-2030 edition, anticipating what we may see and the research gaps we need to address.
Six points to know
Until then, let’s look at some of the results for dairy that will be in place for the next five years.
1. For starters, dairy remains its own food group. The dairy group includes low-fat and fat-free milk, cheese, and yogurt, as well as lactose-free versions. Not every country places dairy in its own group in their dietary guidance. And, in some countries, the daily recommendation of dairy is one to two servings.
Based on the peer-reviewed science, the dietary guidelines recommend three low-fat or fat-free dairy servings in the healthy U.S. and healthy vegetarian eating patterns. The recommendation is two to 2.5 servings in the healthy Mediterranean eating pattern for adults and three servings for those 9 to 18 years of age.
“What’s a serving?” you might ask. For milk and yogurt, the serving size is one cup. The serving size for natural cheese is 1.5 ounces, and it’s 2 ounces for processed cheese.
2. Dairy is a core component of healthy eating patterns early in life and throughout the lifespan. The science is strong and continues to show that our daily eating patterns over time have a profound impact on health and wellness.
And now, for the first time ever, the dietary guidelines provide recommendations for healthy eating at every life stage. The dietary guidelines are clear about what comprises a dietary pattern that’s associated with health promotion and disease prevention, and low- and nonfat dairy are core components.
3. Dairy is linked to positive health. It’s true, the recommended healthy eating patterns, which include milk and dairy foods, are linked to positive health across the lifespan. The dietary guidelines reinforce that notion with this specific statement: “Beneficial outcomes for all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, overweight and obesity, Type 2 diabetes, bone health, and certain types of cancer (breast and colorectal).” This, again, is why NDC’s research is so critical.
4. The dietary guidelines make it clear that all milks are not equal. Dairy stands alone because it’s tough to match its nutrient package elsewhere. The only dairy alternative recognized by the dietary guidelines is fortified soy beverages because they are fortified with many nutrients found in dairy milk. Other plant-based “milk” alternatives are not included in the dairy group because their overall nutritional content doesn’t stack up to dairy milk and fortified soy beverages.
5. For the first time, recommendations for the birth-to-23-month time period are included in the dietary guidelines. These new recommendations include yogurt and cheese as options for infants starting as early as 6 months. Whole milk, reduced-fat cheese, and reduced-fat plain yogurt are included in recommendations for toddlers beginning at the first birthday.
6. There was no movement for full-fat dairy in this version of the dietary guidelines. The guidelines state people should choose low-fat and fat-free dairy “most often.” This is new language, and the guidelines provide flexibility for people to consume 10% of their total calories from food sources containing saturated fat. One serving of full-fat dairy such as whole milk or whole milk dairy foods can fit within these new parameters.
National Dairy Council continues to invest in science on dairy at all fat levels, and consumer trends indicate growing acceptance of full-fat dairy. According to IRI data on food purchases, whole milk held 41% market share in 2020, the largest of any milkfat level.
An aligned message
The dietary guidelines provide a call to action: “Make Every Bite Count.” It’s a fitting concept and one that National Dairy Council has been aligned with since our founding in 1915. The checkoff’s commitment to invest in science and promote dairy’s total nutrient package has created a legacy and established dairy as a longstanding pillar of good nutrition that leads to its rightful place in our nation’s dietary guidance.
As the dietary guidelines show once again, the science behind dairy’s nutrition and health benefits continues to stand the test of time.