With All the Plant-Based Dairy Alternatives, We Asked a Dietitian: What's Wrong With Dairy Milk?

In the mid-'90s, the "Got Milk?" ad campaign was displayed everywhere, and it seemed like all of our favorite celebrities were proudly sporting milk mustaches as a fashion statement. Milk was the natural partner for a freshly baked cookie, it was the drink you had to finish each night at the dinner table, and with this new celebrity endorsement, it was everywhere. It seemed like everyone was drinking milk. But then something changed. Somehow, drinking dairy milk became a polarizing topic, and many people turned to plant-based milk alternatives — almond, oat, hemp, soy, you've heard of them, and likely seen and ordered them in your favorite local coffee shop.

The general consensus around milk seemed to shift, and though there have yet to be celebrity campaigns captioned "Got Almonds?" it's no secret that dairy milk has seemingly fallen out of fashion. But is this shift in popularity actually based in what we know about dairy milk's health impacts? And is dairy milk really as bad as people make it out to be? To get to the bottom of this mystery, POPSUGAR spoke to a registered dietitian.

When looking into the demonization of dairy milk, there are a few claims that rise to the top. One claim is that dairy contributes to inflammation, another is that it is packed with antibiotic byproducts, and another is that you can get the same nutrients from plant-based alternatives. Although it's true that no food is exactly "perfect," the disparaging claims around dairy milk might be a bit overrepresented.

"I'm not quite sure when dairy became so demonized for its supposed effects on inflammation, but the current data just does not support this theoretical inflammatory effect," Melissa Azzaro, RDN, LD, told POPSUGAR. In fact, there is evidence to the contrary, that dairy milk does not contribute to inflammation, and according to some studies, actually has an anti-inflammatory effect.

When it comes to antibiotic residue, though it is true that antibiotics can be used on dairy cows, the resulting milk is tested frequently and antibiotic residues are very rarely found. In fact, in 2016, milk tested positive in fewer than two out of every 10,000 tankers, and any milk that does contain it is thrown away. Similarly to how breastfeeding people "pump and dump" when they don't want infants to ingest alcohol or medications, when a cow is treated with antibiotics, farmers follow federal guidelines on how long they must discard her milk in order to prevent drug-residue exposure to humans.

Focusing on the nutritional aspect of dairy milk, it contains key nutrients like protein, calcium, vitamin D, and magnesium. It also provides important B vitamins in quantities that most plant-based options do not contain in a comparable amount. When over 600 plant-based milks were compared to the nutrient quantities of dairy milk, none were nutritionally equivalent to dairy milk, and many options fell short on key nutrients. Additionally, unique components found in milk, like lactose, have been linked to enhanced calcium absorption.

"Of course, if you have a true dairy allergy, you shouldn't eat dairy-containing foods," Azzaro said. "But for most people, reasonable servings of dairy have been found to be beneficial."

There is some evidence to suggest that limiting dairy milk might have benefits when tackling certain health conditions, such as treating acne. And while it is true that there are some bad players when it comes to the dairy industry's carbon footprint, the production of many plant-based beverages involves some complex food technology and processing that results in a heavy carbon footprint as well.

Azzaro added that for those who are lactose intolerant, lactose-free dairy milks are a good option. Foods like yogurt and hard cheeses are often well-tolerated for those with lactose intolerance, too.

Bottom line: Cow's-milk dairy foods are not "bad" for you, as long as they are a part of an overall balanced and healthy diet and lifestyle. Dairy milk contains important nutritional benefits like supporting bone health and weight-management goals. If you are a true dairy-lover and have forgone a cold glass of milk in recent years, feel free to indulge in the beverage without fear.