Cook Annie Bell on why dairy is actually a 'superfood'

Milk, cheese and cream have got a bad rep in recent years for being high in fat. However, cookery writer Annie Bell believes dairy products are 'superfoods' that we should be eating at least three times a day, with a little help from her new book The Modern Dairy...

Annie Bell has written a new dairy-themed cookbook, The Modern Dairy
Kate Whiting

IN WEIGHT-WATCHING terms, we all know now that refined sugar is the real 'enemy' –and that those low-fat yoghurts we've been spooning down for years are crammed with sugar to replace the fat.

But with so many celebs giving up all animal products to go vegan – from Jay-Z and Beyonce to Jared Leto – we're still a little bit confused about dairy.

Cookery writer Annie Bell has an MSc in human nutrition. She splits her time between a flat in London and a 17th century farmhouse in Normandy, where the local markets are full of artisanal cheeses, and is a big advocate for dairy.

She even calls it a "superfood" in her new book, The Modern Dairy.

Annie gave up dairy for several years after her mum died seven years ago – but a check-up at the doctor's turned out to be a wake-up call.

"I had this real loss of appetite and went off dairy," she recalls.

"The foods I wanted to eat were soups and chicken and vegetables and nuts – I didn't think dairy mattered. It was this myth that I was going to feel better if I didn't eat dairy.

"The doctor gave me a sheet of facts about calcium and how to get it. It was such an eye-opener, that there was almost no other way of getting it, so now I make a point of eating dairy every single day."

Now a fully-fledged fan of the stuff, there's no looking back for Annie. Here, she sorts some of the dairy facts from fiction.

:: MYTH: Eating dairy products is bad for you

"The truth is, there is no evidence to support it being in any way harmful. It's an extraordinary food if you think about the range of nutrients it contains. It's very adaptable in terms of its macronutrient breakdown. It can be very high in protein, it might be very high in fat, but you can alter that depending on what your aims are," says Annie.

"It also has this incredible collection of micronutrients – in particular, the calcium. There is no other food that can match it or come even close to it.

"Dairy is a high-quality fat and it has a wide array of benefits. There are all the fat-soluble vitamins that it carries, which you will only get in full-fat dairy, not in skimmed milk and low fat.

It also keeps you full for longer – fat acts in a way, after you've eaten, that it promotes the release of this particular hormone which stops you feeling hungry and eating again at the next stage."

MYTH: People with lactose-intolerance can't eat any dairy

"A lot of people, if they have any kind of digestive issues, might think, 'I wonder if it's dairy, why don't I cut it out?' But even if you are lactose-intolerant, you don't have to give up dairy [completely].

"Lactose is water soluble, so it's contained in the whey rather than the fat. So in the cheese-making process, if you remove the whey, you've normally removed a lot of the lactose. The problem areas are things like wet cheeses, so quark, cottage cheese, ricotta, which are high in lactose.

"But very mature cheeses, things like Parmesan, hardly have any lactose, and by turning butter into ghee, you basically remove the lactose content, which is in the milk solids. So by clarifying butter, it becomes a pure fat that you can cook with."

FACT: Aim to eat three portions of dairy per day

"The guidance in terms of how much fat we should derive from our diet is quite generous, so in this book, I'm not saying eat masses and masses of butter, what I'm saying is you don't need to cut it out or eat a low-fat diet.

"I find the most helpful way of including the right amount of dairy in my daily diet is to treat it as I do my five-a-day fruit and veg, by aiming for three-a-day of different types. A bit from each fat level is probably the ideal; one low, one medium, one high, bearing in mind that their size is proportionately smaller the higher the fat.

"So it could be you have a 150g portion of yoghurt, perhaps you use some sour cream or quark in a nice sauce to go in a salad and then use a small, matchbox-size portion of a high-fat cheese like Parmesan to go over something."

FACT: The higher the quality, the better it is for you

"Because the way we farm has changed so much, the fatty acid profile of the nutrient content of milk has also changed. There is a massive difference between pasture-reared cattle and those that are basically just kept indoors in barns and fed on grain.

"One route is organic produce. I always go for the organic milk, the organic yoghurt; it's readily available, and also treating yourself to the nice, artisanal cheeses, there's a good selection in supermarkets. I would avoid the block-style commercial cheeses, those are the ones that have less [nutritional] value and more salt."

:: RECIPE: Annie Bell's fig, gorgonzola and basil croutes

THESE mini bites look as delicious as they taste – they're perfect as "a relaxed stand-in for a starter at a barbecue, or a summer supper".


(Serves 6)

12 x 1cm-thick slices of baguette, lightly toasted

180g Gorgonzola, cut into 12 thick slices

3 figs (approx 150g), stalks trimmed

Extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling

3tbsp runny honey

A few tiny basil leaves, cut into thin strips


1. Preheat the grill to high.

2. Spread each croute with a slice of Gorgonzola, taking it just within the rim.

3. Cut a small slice off each fig either side, and then cut downwards into four slices. Lay a slice on each croute, and arrange in a roasting pan.

4. Drizzle over a little olive oil and the honey and grill until the toast surround is nice and golden and the cheese is softened, without melting to a river.

5. Scatter over the basil, then leave to cool for about five minutes before serving.

:: The Modern Dairy: Nourishing Recipes Using Milk, Yogurt, Cheese And Cream by Annie Bell is published in paperback by Kyle Books, priced £16.99.

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