Contributed by  Erin Quann, Ph.D., R.D., Jill Nicholls, Ph.D. and Gregory Miller, Ph.D, MACN

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) is the cornerstone of federal nutrition policy in the United States. Every five years, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) appoint experts to serve on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) to review the science supporting the guidelines. On June 15, the DGAC released the 2010 DGAC report of science-based conclusions on dietary patterns to promote health and reduce disease risk.

For the first time, the committee addressed an obese population, emphasizing greater consumption of nutrient-dense foods, including low-fat and fat-free dairy, decreased intake of calories, solid fats, added sugars, refined grains and sodium and increased physical activity. Nutrient-dense foods were redefined as those “that are lean and low in solid fat and without added solid fats, sugars, starches or sodium.”

The report also recommended a gradual reduction of sodium to 1,500 milligrams per day and of saturated fat to less than 7% of calories, and no change to the cholesterol recommendation of 300 milligrams or less per day for healthy individuals. Current consumption of these nutrients is significantly higher.

The report explicitly advised that Americans, particularly children, increase consumption of low-fat and fat-free dairy foods to recommended amounts (three cups for those nine years and older, two cups for children two to eight years). Current intake is less than 60% of the recommendation for dairy, which the committee linked to a possible increased risk of cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, poor bone health and related diseases.

The committee also urged Americans to consume three cups of milk or milk products in essentially all dietary patterns outlined (with the exception of the vegan diet) and recommends lactose-reduced or low-lactose dairy-based products for lactose intolerant individuals.

Dairy foods are a substantial contributor of three of the four nutrients in the diet that were identified as nutrients of public health concern (calcium, potassium and Vitamin D), as well as phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, protein, Vitamins A and B12 and riboflavin. In fact, milk is the No. 1 food source of these three “nutrients of concern.” The committee recognized dairy foods as the most bioavailable source of calcium, although they identified calcium-fortified “soymilk” as a milk equivalent.

The report provided insights regarding food products that may be needed to help consumers meet nutrition recommendations. It is unclear how the recommendations to promote consumption of nutrient-dense foods and to decrease consumption of foods containing solid fat, added sugars and sodium, such as sweetened dairy foods and regular and reduced-fat cheese, will be translated into practical guidance about dairy foods in the 2010 DGA. The goal will be to help Americans meet the nutrition guidelines by providing appealing, convenient and cost-effective products.

The report also identified research needs of interest to the dairy industry, such as the recommendation to further examine the effect of dairy foods on metabolic syndrome (a multiplex risk factor for CVD and T2DM), blood cholesterol, weight control and blood pressure. The effect of low- and high-fat dairy on blood lipids warrants further investigation as research suggests milk fat may be different than other dietary sources of saturated fat in that it may positively affect blood cholesterol. Finally, the metabolic effects of naturally-occurring ruminant trans fat versus industrial trans fat needs clarification.

Overall, the conclusions of the DGAC report are positive for dairy. In light of an overweight and undernourished population, the committee recognized dairy’s important nutrient package and its valuable contribution to recommended dietary patterns. To help most Americans meet the recommended three servings of dairy foods, product innovation and continued research are essential. 

Gregory Miller, Ph.D., MACN, is a nutrition professional with the National Dairy Council/Dairy Management Inc.