Our well-respected dairy products got special recognition when the USDA released its new, MyPlate nutrition education tool. The MyPlate program replaces the Food Pyramid which had been the government's primary food and nutrition symbol to guide consumers in their food choices and reflect eating habits that align with the so-called Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

As shown in the illustration, "dairy" (dairy products) got their own "space" right beside a plate that suggests a diet of vegetables, fruits, grains, and sources of protein. Notably, the vegetable space is largest.

Dairy's place at the table in the new guidelines (including milk, cheese, or yogurt) was viewed positively by industry leaders. "Dairy foods are rightfully being recognized - from the school house to the White House - as an important part of everyone's diet," noted NMPF President and CEO Jerry Kozak. "USDA's new MyPlate, the simple visual metaphor of a serving of dairy products alongside a plate, says it's vital to consume three servings of low-fat and fat-free dairy foods everyday."

"Knowing what we do about dairy's ability to reduce the risk of conditions like osteoporosis, hypertension, and Type 2 diabetes, we think it's exciting that dairy is highlighted individually," said Jean Ragalie, president of National Dairy Council. "The location of dairy on the graphic really helps it stand out as an essential part of a healthy eating plan," she added.

Consumers clearly are encouraged to go the MyPlate website which actually is part of the graphic. If you go there and click on the dairy circle, you will see selection tips. The main message delivered is that people should shift to low-fat (1 percent milk) or fat-free milk and other dairy products. All people above the age of 9 are encouraged to get three cups of milk a day. Children ages 2 to 3 should get two cups, and those 4 to 8 should get 2-1/2 cups a day.

There are several options under each dairy product heading. Reduced fat (2 percent) and whole milks and yogurts are included as are Cheddar cheese and ice cream. However, according to the guidelines, if you don't choose low-fat or fat-free milk or yogurt, some of the calories need to be assigned to the "empty calories" portion of your diet which are calories from solid fats and added sugars in other foods.