The Best and Worst Dairy Products

Not all milk products are created equal. Learn the best (and worst!) ways to get your three-a-day

April 18, 2013
Greek yogurt//best and worst dairy products
1/8 Thinkstock
Best: Plain Nonfat Greek Yogurt

Greek yogurt has almost double the protein--and half the sodium--of regular yogurt, making it an obvious choice. And that's before you factor in Greek yogurt's live and active cultures. By contributing to a healthy mix of bacteria in the gut, probiotics can regulate your gastrointestinal health and digestion (think: no bloat), says Gayl Canfield, RD, director of nutrition at Pritikin Longevity Center. Plus, many brands contain no preservatives, artificial flavors, or synthetic growth hormones.

Shop smart: Read labels carefully. Choose the brand with the shortest ingredient list--fewer ingredients generally signal fewer additives. Also, your blend of choice should contain at least 25 percent of your recommended daily allowance of calcium and vitamin D, says nutritionist Laura Cipullo, RD, owner of Laura Cipullo Whole Nutrition Services in New York City.

Related: 8 Ingredients You Never Want to See on Your Nutrition Label

organic milk//best and worst dairy products
2/8 Thinkstock
Best: Organic

Grass-fed dairy cows produce milk that's up to five times higher in conjugated linoleic acid, which correlates with lower heart-attack risk in humans, according to Harvard researchers. Plus, organic milk contains more vitamin E, beta-carotene, omega-3 fatty acids, and lutein than milk from conventionally raised cows, according to the Organic Consumers Association. Organic dairy products do not contain milk from cows that have been given growth hormone or antibiotics, says Canfield. 

Shop smart: We know--organic is expensive. If you can't swing the prices, you can still skip the hormones by shopping for dairy that says, "no artificial hormones or antibiotics used" on the label, Canfield says.

Related: Are Hormones Sabotaging Your Weight?

1 percent milk//best and worst dairy products
3/8 Thinkstock
Best: Low-Fat Milk

Cut out fat, not nutrients. During the fat removal process, concentrations of some nutrients, such as such as protein, potassium, and calcium are actually increased. And low-fat milk has 50 percent less cholesterol than whole milk. Low-fat milk (also known as 1 percent milk) is still low in saturated fat like skim is, but it has enough dietary fat to promote your body's absorption of fat-soluble nutrients such as vitamins A, D, E, and K, says Keri Glassman, RD, author of The New You and Improved Diet. What's more, 1 percent milk contains higher levels than fat-free milk of conjugated lineolic acid, which may help reduce body fat.

Shop smart: Go organic. And if you'll honestly drink it, go ahead and get the full gallon. Gulp per gulp, it'll be cheaper.

MORE: 7 Reasons to Go Organic

cheese//best and worst dairy products
4/8 Thinkstock
Best: Full-Fat Cheese

You read that right: Full fat. The one-two punch of protein and fat in regular, full-fat cheese is filling and can naturally slash your caloric intake during later meals, says Glassman. And don't worry; your cholesterol will be just fine. When Danish scientists had men eat 10 (yes, 10!) 1-ounce servings of full-fat cheese every day for three weeks, their LDL (bad) cholesterol didn't budge a bit.

Shop smart: Skip the shredded stuff and get it sliced fresh at your grocer's gourmet cheese counter, Glassman advises.

Plus: 10 Filling Foods

yogurt with fruit on the bottom//worst dairy products
5/8 Thinkstock
Worst: Fruit-Flavored Yogurt

"This 'healthy choice' actually delivers as much sugar as a candy bar," says nutritionist Monica Reinagel, LN, CNS. "Yogurt is a good source of calcium, protein, and beneficial probiotics. And fruit is a good source of fiber and antioxidants. But 'fruited yogurt' cancels out the benefits by containing up to six teaspoons of added sugar per serving." Many yogurts (especially low-fat ones that look extra healthy) pack artificial sweeteners that can kick your taste buds into overdrive and actually raise your tolerance to any and all things sweet, adds Glassman.

Shop smart: If you need some fruity flavor in your yogurt, buy the fruit fresh and mix it into plain yogurt, she says.

6/8 Thinkstock
Worst: ____ Cream

A recent study in Archives of Osteoporosis found that eating cream products (like cream, sour cream, and ice cream) actually decreases bone density. Cream's low levels of calcium and vitamin D are largely to blame, according to researchers. Plus, these products are packed with calories and ridiculous amounts of saturated fat, says Canfield.

Shop smart: It sounds counterintuitive, but if you crave ice cream, go the full-fat route. In an attempt to make up flavor, many low-fat cream products actually contain several times the number of ingredients--and additives--as their full-fat versions, Glassman says. As for sour cream and cream cheese, try using plain Greek yogurt instead. We bet you won't notice the difference with these unexpected Greek yogurt recipes.

7/8 Thinkstock
Worst: Processed Cheese Food

The name alone is probably enough to make you cringe. "I don't consider anything labeled as a 'pasteurized processed cheese food' to be cheese," Reinagel says. That includes Velveeta and American cheese singles. In fact, processed cheese foods have to contain only 51 percent cheese. The rest can be dry milk, whey solids, anhydrous milk fat, and loads of additives.

Shop smart: Avoid labels that say "pasteurized process cheese" and "pasteurized process cheese spread." For the love of dairy, just stick to the real cheese counter.

8/8 Thinkstock
Worst: Butter

If Paula Dean's before and after photos aren't proof enough, let us reiterate: Butter is bad. The yellow stuff contains huge amounts of cholesterol and saturated fat, which aggressively increases levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, Canfield says. Just one tablespoon of butter contains more than half of your recommended daily allowance of saturated fat, according to Harvard Medical School.

Shop smart: Spread one of these healthy butter knockoffs, which use ingredients including olive oil and yogurt.

See Next