Milk and dairy foods give us cheap, essential protein

In all the discussions this week about milk prices some have forgotten to mention just how important and inexpensive milk and dairy foods are in nutrition terms – I’m a dietitian specialising in ageing and I know healthy ageing requires a good protein supply. In fact, people over 70 need more protein each day than someone who is 40 or 50.

Someone of 75 who weighs 65kg needs at least 78g protein each day, compared to about 65g if they were 50.

Milk and dairy foods supply inexpensive protein that also happens to give calcium to keep bones strong too. What’s more, recent research shows that dairy-sourced protein is more easily assimilated into muscle in older people. And since maintaining body muscle is the key to independence and health in later years, that’s vital.

You only need 300ml of milk to get 10g of protein. At the price consumers should be paying for milk in my opinion (around $2 per litre - double the current discounted price in big supermarkets) that is 60cents for that 10 g.

Cheese and milk powder are basically concentrated milk and they end up cheaper still – around 20 to 40cents for 10g of protein.

People buy protein bars costing up to 5 times that for 10g protein!

Compare milk and dairy to other foods for that 10g protein:

  • Full cream milk: need 300ml, costing 60c (at $2 per litre)

  • Skim milk powder: need only 30g (a dessertspoon), costing 20c

  • Cheddar cheese: need only 40g (matchbox size piece), costing 20-30c

  • Whey Protein Isolate (a cheese by-product): need only about 12g, costing about 50c

  • Chicken: need about a matchbox size piece, costing around 50c

  • Red meats: needabout a matchbox size piece, costing from 80c

  • Tofu: need about a deck of cards size piece, costing about 80c

  • Soy milk: need about 350ml, costing about 90c

  • Nuts (peanuts): need about 40g (1/3 cup), costing about 60c

  • Legumes: need about 160g (close to half a can), costing about 60c

(NOTE: all prices are average or representative, based on price this week in supermarkets. They may not reflect the price at all outlets and are intended as a comparison for this article only)

Many older people have smaller appetites than younger people, yet higher protein needs. Dairy foods provide protein that is concentrated, so gets around appetite issues.

And as mentioned above, dairy protein is more easily assimilated into muscle than other types of protein so is invaluable in maintaining muscle reserve, absolutely essential to boost both physical and mental health with ageing.

Sure, we don’t all eat thinking about the nutrients we need every day, but it’s worth putting the value of foods like dairy into their proper perspective. They are a food staple with good reason and the use of milk in big supermarket price wars saddens me greatly.

It’s ironic that people will often buy water at upwards of $2 a litre with no nutritional value as such, or buy highly processed foods that cost way in excess of the sum of their ingredients, but are drawn to cheap milk that is helping to threaten the livelihood of hard working farmers.

Milk is not an alternative to another type of drink – it is a valuable food and this industry must be supported.

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