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Milk is important for people of all ages

June 17, 1997

- by Lynn F. Little

Milk is a basic food that everyone in the family needs every day. Milk is called nature's perfect food, yet, despite the great taste and the fact that it's a good source of many vitamins and minerals, Americans are drinking less milk.

Many believe that milk is high in fat and calories. Skim and 1 percent milk have little or no fat with all the calcium and other nutrients found in whole milk, and fewer calories.

Milk is important for people of all ages - not just kids. Our bodies need the calcium and nutrients in milk as much when we're 70 as when we are 7. Milk helps children grow big and healthy. Teenagers and adults need milk to make their bones strong. Pregnant, breast-feeding and older women need milk to stay healthy.

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Adults, especially women, need 1,000 to 1,500 milligrams of calcium each day. That's the amount in three to five glasses of milk. Calcium helps prevent osteoporosis, a disease that makes the bones break easily. Women often get this disease, so it's important that they eat foods high in calcium. Calcium also may help some people to prevent or lower high blood pressure.

There are several different kinds of milk available today. All contain nutrients you need to stay healthy. The major difference between the milks is the amount of fat they contain. All kinds of milk are packed with the same amount of calcium and vital nutrients; the only difference is the fat and calorie content.

Whole milk contains 3.5 percent milkfat. This milk is recommended for children between 1 and 2 years of age. It is also good for physically active children and teenagers. It is good for elderly people who need more calories. One cup of whole milk contains about 150 calories.

Low-fat contains 2 percent milkfat. This milk has less fat, but is just as nutritious as whole milk. It is suggested for families with children ages 2 years and older. Extra light milk contains 1 percent milkfat, but has the same good taste as low-fat milk with half the fat. It is suitable for all adults.

Nonfat or skim milk has less than .25 percent milkfat. It is low in fat, has the least amount of cholesterol and is a good milk for people who are watching their weight or cholesterol levels.

In addition to these types of milk, the dairy case includes cultured milks, flavored milks and eggnog.

There also is a variety of dairy products on the grocery store shelf such as evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk and nonfat dry milk. Whatever the type, chill the milk thoroughly before serving to enhance the flavor.

Make sure the milk products you are buying are fresh. Look for the date printed on the package or container. Make sure the date has not passed.

Store milk products in the coolest part of the refrigerator, at 40 degrees or colder. Put the milk in the refrigerator as soon as you return from the grocery store. Teach your family to put away milk products right after they are used. If milk products stay outside the refrigerator for a few hours, they can spoil. Immediately after use, tightly close the container to prevent absorption of other food odors. Avoid exposing milk to bright light, which acts to impair its flavor.

Most unopened milk products can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 10 days. Most opened milk products stay fresh for two to seven days. Freezing milk changes its consistency. If frozen, thaw in the refrigerator and stir gently; use this milk in cooking or baking.

Some quick tips to help you "drink your milk" include:

- Drink a glass of milk before, after or with your meals and cook with milk.

- Serve milk over breakfast cereal. Add some fruit and you have a quick, balanced meal.

- Add milk to hot coffee, tea or hot chocolate. It also is tasty with cold coffee over ice.

- Try adding a little bit of sugar or flavored powders to milk. Most grocery stores sell chocolate and strawberry flavors. Try adding almond or vanilla liquid flavoring to milk.

- Warm some milk on the stove. This makes a great bedtime treat. Some people say warm milk helps them sleep better.

- Add milk to eggs for softer, moister scrambled eggs.

- A big glass of milk, hot or cold, and a piece of fruit makes a relaxing and comforting bedtime snack.

- Add whole or low-fat milk instead of water to creamy soups, sauces, gravies and hot cocoa mix for a richer flavor.

- Blend any flavor yogurt into a glass of milk, add fruit or berries, and you have a tasty, nutrient-filled snack.

From soft drinks to sports drinks to milk, we have a lot of beverages to choose from every day. When you consider the nutrients that only milk offers, you can see why it should be part of your daily drink choices.

Maryland Cooperative Extension Service's programs are open to all citizens without regard to race, color, sex, disability, age, religion or national origin.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences extension educator for University of Maryland.

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