Unsweetened, calcium-fortified dairy alternatives like soya milks, soya yoghurts and soya cheeses also count as part of this food group and can make good alternatives to dairy products.
To make healthier choices, go for lower-fat and lower-sugar options.
Healthy dairy choices
The total fat content of dairy products can vary a lot. To make healthier choices, look at the nutrition information on the label to check the amount of fat, including saturated fat, salt and sugar in the dairy products that you are choosing.
Much of the fat in milk and dairy foods is saturated fat. For older children and adults, eating too much fat can contribute to excess energy intakes, leading to becoming overweight. A diet high in saturated fat can also lead to raised levels of cholesterol in the blood, and this can put you at increased risk of a heart attack or stroke.
The fat in milk provides calories for young children and also contains essential vitamins. But for older children and adults, it's a good idea to go for lower-fat milks because having too much fat in your diet can result in you becoming overweight.
If you're trying to cut down on fat, try swapping to 1% fat or skimmed milk, as these still contain the important nutritional benefits of milk, but are lower in fat.
Cheese can form part of a healthy, balanced diet, but it's good to keep track of how much you eat and how often as it can be high in saturated fat and salt.
Most cheeses - including Brie, Stilton, Cheddar, Lancashire and Double Gloucester - contain between 20g and 40g of fat per 100g. Foods that contain more than 17.5g of fat per 100g are considered high in fat.
Some cheeses can also be high in salt - more than 1.5g salt per 100g is considered high. Eating too much salt can contribute to high blood pressure.
Try choosing reduced-fat hard cheeses, which usually have between 10g and 16g of fat per 100g. Some cheeses are even lower in fat (3g of fat per 100g or less), including reduced-fat cottage cheese and quark.
If you're using cheese to flavour a dish or a sauce, you could try using a cheese that has a stronger flavour, such as mature cheddar or blue cheese, because then you'll need less.
But remember if not fully cooked some blue cheeses and soft mould ripened cheese may not be suitable for 'at risk' groups - for example, infants and young children, people over 65 years of age, pregnant women or those who have a long-term medical condition or weakened immune system.
Other dairy foods
Butter is high in fat and saturated fat. It can often be high in salt too, so try to eat it less often and in small amounts. Choosing lower-fat spreads instead of butter is a good way to reduce your fat intake.
Cream is also high in fat, so use this less often and in small amounts too. You can use lower fat plain yoghurt and fromage frais instead of cream.
Alternatively, you could opt for reduced fat soured cream, or reduced fat crème fraîche in recipes but remember, these foods can also contain a lot of saturated fat.
When eating yoghurts or fromage frais, choose lower-fat varieties, but look at the label to check that they're not high in added sugar (plain lower-fat yoghurts are a good choice as they usually don't contain added sugars).
Refer to the Eatwell guide for more information on healthier dairy choices.
Dairy intake for pregnant women
Dairy foods are good sources of calcium, which is important in pregnancy because it helps your unborn baby's developing bones to form properly.
But there are some cheeses and other dairy products that you should avoid during pregnancy, as they may make you ill or harm your baby. Make sure you know the important facts about which foods you should avoid or take precautions with when you're pregnant.
Learn more about the foods you should avoid if you're pregnant.
During pregnancy, only drink pasteurised or ultra-heat treated (UHT) milks. These milks have been heat-treated to kill bacteria and prevent food poisoning.
Cows' milk that is sold in shops is pasteurised, but you can still find unpasteurised or "raw" milk for sale from some farms and farmer's markets. Check the label if you are unsure.
Dairy intake for babies and children under 5
Milk and dairy products are an important part of a young child's diet.
They're a good source of energy and protein, and contain a wide range of vitamins and minerals, including calcium, that young children need to build healthy bones and teeth.
Giving your baby breast milk only (exclusive breastfeeding) is recommended for around the first 6 months of your baby's life. Find out more in benefits of breastfeeding.
If you choose not to, or are unable to breastfeed, the only alternative is infant formula. Find out more about the different types of infant formula.
Cows' milk should not be given as a drink until a baby is a year old. This is because it doesn't contain the balance of nutrients babies need.
However, babies who are around 6 months old can eat foods that use full-fat cows' milk as an ingredient - for example, cheese sauce and custard.
Babies under a year old shouldn't be given condensed, evaporated or dried milk or any other drinks referred to as "milk", such as rice, oat or almond drinks.
Between the ages of 1 and 2 years, children should be given whole milk and dairy products because they may not get the calories or essential vitamins they need from lower-fat alternatives.
After the age of 2, children can gradually move to semi-skimmed milk as a drink, as long as they are eating a varied and balanced diet and growing well.
Don't give skimmed or 1% fat milk as a drink to children under 5 years old. It doesn't contain enough calories and other important nutrients for young children.
Children between the ages of 1 and 3 need to have around 350mg of calcium a day. About 300ml of milk (just over half a pint) would provide this.
See the British Dietetic Association (BDA) fact sheet on calcium (PDF, 406kb) for recommended calcium and dairy intake per age group.
Goats' and sheep's milk in your baby's diet
Like cows' milk, goats' milk and sheep's milk aren't suitable as drinks for babies under a year old because they don't contain the right balance of nutrients.
Once a baby is a year old, they can drink full-fat goats' milk and sheep's milk as long as the milks are pasteurised. They can be given to babies from the age of six months in cooked foods such as cheese sauce and custard.
What is pasteurisation?
Pasteurisation is a heat treatment process to kill bacteria and prevent food poisoning. Most milk and cream is pasteurised.
If milk is unpasteurised, it is often called 'raw' milk. This must carry a warning saying that it has not been pasteurised and may contain harmful bacteria (which could cause food poisoning). You can sometimes buy unpasteurised milk and cream from farms, and farmers' markets.
If you choose unpasteurised milk or cream, make sure they are kept properly refrigerated because they go off quickly. Follow any instructions provided with the milk and do not use the milk past its use-by date.
Some other dairy products are made with unpasteurised milk, including some cheeses. For example, some makers of camembert, brie and goat's cheese may use unpasteurised milk, so check the label.
Children, people who are unwell, pregnant women and older people are particularly vulnerable to food poisoning and shouldn't have unpasteurised milk or cream, and some dairy products made with unpasteurised milk.
Milk allergy and lactose intolerance
Milk and dairy foods are good sources of nutrients, so don't cut them out of your or your child's diet without first speaking to a GP or dietitian. There are 2 conditions that cause a reaction to milk.
Lactose intolerance is a common digestive problem where the body is unable to digest lactose - a type of sugar mainly found in milk and dairy products. Lactose intolerance can cause symptoms such as bloating and diarrhoea. It does not cause severe reactions.
Cows' milk allergy
Cows' milk allergy (CMA) is one of the most common childhood food allergies.
CMA typically develops when cows' milk is first introduced into your baby's diet either in formula or when your baby starts eating solids. More rarely, it can affect babies who are exclusively breastfed because of cows' milk from the mother's diet passing to the baby through breast milk.
As with all food allergies and intolerances, if you think you or your baby have a milk allergy or intolerance, make an appointment to talk to your GP or other health professional.
Learn more about cows' milk allergy.
Dairy alternatives and substitutes
Some people need to avoid dairy products and/or cows' milk because their bodies can't digest lactose (lactose intolerance) or they have an allergy to cows' milk protein.
Some people also choose not to have dairy products for other reasons, for example because they follow a vegan diet.
There are a number of alternative foods and drinks available in supermarkets to replace milk and dairy products, such as:
- soya milks, yoghurts and some cheeses
- rice, oat, almond, hazelnut, coconut, quinoa, and potato milks
- foods which carry the 'dairy-free' or 'suitable for vegans' signs
Remember that milk and dairy foods are good sources of important nutrients, so don't cut them out of your or your child's diet without first speaking to your GP or dietitian.
If you're unable to, or choose not to, eat dairy products you may not be getting enough calcium in your diet. Read more about how you can increase you calcium intake.
Article provided by NHS Choices