Dairy Foods Can Improve World Nutrition

Projections put milk at the centre of healthy diets for many. However, is it too expensive and can we just think about cows?
calendar icon 3 December 2013
clock icon 4 minute read

Milk and dairy products hold huge potential to improve nutrition and livelihoods for hundreds of millions of poor people across the world, according to a new FAO publication launched today.

The book, Milk and Dairy Products in Human Nutrition, says governments should be investing more in programmes that make milk and dairy products available to poor families and that help them produce milk at home.

“As part of a balanced diet, milk and dairy products can be an important source of dietary energy, protein and fat,” said FAO Senior Nutrition Officer Ellen Muehlhoff, who co-edited the publication. “They are also rich in micronutrients critical for fighting malnutrition in developing countries where the diets of poor people are often starch- or cereal-based and lack diversity.”

A combination of food is necessary for a healthy diet, and milk and dairy products are not the only sources of essential nutrients, Muehlhoff underlined.

But while animal milks are not recommended for infants under 12 months, they are an efficient vehicle for delivering vital nutrients and improving growth for young children, whose nutrition is critical in the first 1 000 days of life, she said.

Prohibitive Prices

However, despite the benefits they could be providing, milk and dairy products are still too expensive for the poorest families to buy, the book warns.

Dairy consumption in developing countries is expected to increase by 25 percent by 2025 as a result of population growth and rising incomes, but milk and dairy products will likely still be out of reach for the most vulnerable households.

Governments need to address the issue by making nutrition a specific objective in dairy sector development and by investing in programmes that help poor families keep small dairy livestock like goats at home, according to the publication.

“Small-scale dairy farming is especially beneficial to poor households as it provides food and nutrients but also a regular income,” said FAO Livestock Industry Officer Anthony Bennett, co-editor of the new publication.

“Whereas crop agriculture means getting paid once or maybe twice a year, dairy is produced and sold daily so smallholders have cash in hand for immediate family needs such as food, household goods, clothing and schooling – and that changes lives.”

Currently about 150 million households – some 750 million people – are engaged in milk production around the world, the majority of whom are in developing countries.

“A major challenge is for governments to develop inclusive policies and encourage investment from the private sector that helps these small-scale farmers take advantage of the escalating demand for milk and dairy in developing countries to improve their livelihoods,” Bennett said.

Glass of Llama Milk?

Although the term ‘milk’ has become almost synonymous with cow milk, milk from many other species is consumed in different parts of the world. The book covers the milk composition of other major dairy species such as buffalo, goat and sheep, and species that are currently underutilized in dairy production such as reindeer, moose, llama, alpaca, donkey, yak, camel and mithun.

“There is huge scope for developing other dairy species, particularly goats, which are easier to keep than cattle and significantly increase the accessibility of dairying to poor rural families,” Bennett said.

In South America, for example, llamas and alpacas have historically not been bred for dairy purposes but could provide a valuable nutritional and economic resource for the people living in the region’s mountainous areas, the book suggests.

Milk from some of the other underutilized dairy species also has particular nutritional benefits. For instance, the protein profiles of mare and donkey milk may make them more suitable for the 2-6 percent of the population allergic to cow milk.

Reindeer and moose milks have a cream-like consistency and are very high in fat and protein. They also contain less than half the lactose found in cow milk and could provide an alternative source of dairy for people who are lactose intolerant, the publication says.

Environmental and Health Concerns

The book also addresses environmental and health concerns that have arisen around milk and dairy in recent years.

Muehlhoff said it was important to see health concerns in context.

“Many of the health issues arise predominantly in developed countries and are not so much dairy-specific as related to overconsumption of calorie-dense foods in general,” she said, underlining that there is also evidence to suggest milk and dairy play a role in preventing diet-related non-communicable diseases such as type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.

Lactose intolerance, the frequency of which varies widely among populations, can also be a concern, although most individuals can tolerate some dairy products like yoghurt and aged cheeses.

The book calls for new collaborative initiatives to address the environmental effects of the dairy sector, which accounts for some 4 percent of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions in addition to increasing pressure on land and water resources.

“Producing, processing and distributing milk and dairy products, like other foods, does affect the planet, and ongoing efforts are required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions generated by the sector,” said Bennett.

Further Reading

You can view Milk and dairy products and human nutrition by clicking here.

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