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Dairy foods

7-minute read

Key facts

  • Dairy foods include products such as milk, yoghurt and cheese.
  • They are rich in many essential vitamins and minerals, including calcium.
  • Unpasteurised (raw) dairy products can be unsafe to eat and are more likely to contain bacteria.

What are dairy foods?

Dairy foods are products such as milk, yoghurt and cheese. Most dairy foods come from cow's milk. Other sources of dairy foods can be the milk of sheep, goats and other animals.

Dairy foods are rich in many essential vitamins and minerals. They are especially rich in calcium. Dairy foods are an important part of a balanced diet. They help build strong bones and keep you healthy.

Dairy foods vary in fat content. For example, milk comes in:

  • full fat = 3.5% fat
  • low fat = less than 1.5% fat
  • skim = less than 0.15% fat

Why is dairy an important food group?

Dairy foods provide many nutrients, including:

Calcium is needed in both children and adults.

It helps to grow strong bones and can also help reduce blood pressure. Dairy foods can also lower your risk of heart disease, stroke and some cancers.

ARE YOU AT RISK? — Are you at risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease or kidney disease? Use the Risk Checker to find out.

How do I get more dairy in my diet?

One serve of dairy is equivalent to:

  • 1 cup (250ml) of milk
  • ¾ cup (200g) of yoghurt
  • 2 slices (40g) of hard cheese
  • ½ cup (120g) of ricotta cheese
  • 1 cup calcium-enriched soy, rice or other cereal milk (with at least 100mg calcium per 100ml)

The recommended daily number of serves of dairy will depend on your age and sex.

Here are the recommended daily number of serves of milk, yoghurt and cheese (or alternatives) for a healthy diet.

Recommended daily number of serves for adults

  • women aged over 50 years — 4 serves
  • pregnant women — 2½ serves
  • breastfeeding women — 2½ serves
  • men aged over 70 years — 3½ serves
  • all other adults — 2½ serves

Recommended daily number of serves for children and adolescents

  • toddlers aged 1 to 2 years — 1 to 1½ serves
  • girls aged 2 to 8 years — 1 to 1½ serves
  • girls aged 9 to 11 years — 3 serves
  • boys aged 2 to 3 years — 1½ serves
  • boys aged 4 to 8 years — 2 serves
  • boys aged 9 to 11 years — 2½ serves
  • all teenagers — 3½ serves

Babies aged up to 12 months should drink breast milk or infant formula. Babies should not drink milk from cows (or other animals) at this age, because it does not contain enough iron.

You can introduce children to cow’s milk at about 12 months.

Increasing the dairy in my diet

Here are some tips for adding more dairy to your diet:

  • Include cheese in sandwiches or wraps.
  • Drink milk or yoghurt-based smoothies.
  • Sprinkle cheese on pasta.
  • Dollop natural yoghurt on a jacket potato.
  • Enjoy a warm glass of low-fat milk after dinner.

Alternatives to dairy

Some people avoid dairy because they:

If you do not normally eat dairy, you may need to get calcium and vitamin B12 from other sources. It is especially important that you get enough calcium. This is particularly important for children. They need plenty of calcium for their bones to grow properly.

If you do not eat dairy, it is a good idea to see a dietitian. They can give you advice. They can help assess whether you need to take a calcium or other vitamin supplement.

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Non-dairy sources of calcium include:

  • calcium-enriched soy, rice and oat drinks (1 cup equals 1 serve of dairy)
  • almonds (100g equals 1 serve)
  • firm tofu (100g equals 1 serve, although it can vary between brands)
  • tinned sardines (60g equals 1 serve) and salmon with bones (100g equals 1 serve)
  • green vegetables, such as bok choy, kale and broccoli
  • calcium-fortified breakfast cereal, bread or juice

Note that the calcium in green vegetables is not as easily absorbed by your body as the calcium in dairy. You also need to eat a lot of vegetables to get enough calcium.

Dairy and food safety

Pasteurisation is part of the manufacture of most dairy products. It kills harmful bacteria found in raw milk and raw milk products.

Unpasteurised (raw) dairy products are more likely to contain bacteria, including Listeria. Some people are at risk of getting sick if they eat unpasteurised (raw) dairy products. The people in this group are:

  • pregnant women
  • older people
  • people with problems with their immune system
  • babies and toddlers

These people should also not eat soft cheeses, such as brie and ricotta.

Dairy food should be handled and stored following food safety guidelines. For example, keep it in your fridge at or below 5°C.

Avoid eating dairy foods after their 'use by' date — even if they smell or look all right.

Resources and support

For more information you can read the Australian Dietary Guidelines.

You can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: October 2023

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