How milk helps feed the world – the role dairy plays in global nutrition 


It takes an enormous amount of nutritious food to keep 8.1 billion people fed and healthy, and we rely heavily on some important staple foods. 

These include grains,  vegetables, and animal-derived foods – including milk and dairy products. Milk and dairy provide a significant source of important nutrients to billions of humans across the globe. It plays an enormous role in delivering everyday nutrition to support healthy lives.

“Milk is packed with goodness,” says Laura Anderson, Global Head of Nutrition. “It plays a huge role in delivering essential nutrition to support human growth and health around the world.” 

Milk is an important contributor to global health

Complete nutrition requires a blend of multiple foods, and milk makes a significant contribution to global nutrient availability for several key nutrients, delivering: 

  • 49% of calcium, essential for a range of functions including healthy bones and teeth
  • 24% of vitamin B2, needed for body growth and red blood cell production 
  • 22% of vitamin B12, required for central nervous system function
  • 18% of phosphorus, vital for cell growth, maintenance and repair 
  • 12% of protein, to repair cells and make new ones
  • 15% dietary fat, for energy and nutrient absorption 
  • Between 7 and 15% of essential amino acids, needed throughout the body’s systems

The DELTA model from the Sustainable Nutrition Initiative®, calculates how nutrition is delivered across the globe and considers 29 different nutrients essential for good health. Out of the 29 nutrients, milk contributes to the global availability of 28. Of the 98 food sources in the DELTA model covering the vast majority of the food consumed, milk is among the top five contributors for 23 of those nutrients.

And although it contributes significantly to the world’s nutrient requirements, milk provides a relatively low proportion of food energy: between 5 and 7%. This is because milk is nutrient rich: it delivers lots of goodness in a relatively small package. 

It packs a punch when it comes to nutrition, and is among the highest-rated food items for nutrient-to-calorie ratios for amino acids, phosphorus, calcium and vitamin B2. 

Milk and dairy products can help fight malnutrition

Because milk and dairy products are nutrient dense and easily accessible, they can help in the fight against undernutrition in places where people have low access to quality foods. In countries with populations at risk of malnutrition and nutritional deficiency, consuming dairy products can make a big difference. For example:  

A glass of milk is easy to prepare, widely available, and it can make a big difference to a child’s daily nutritional intake.

Laura Anderson, Global Head of Nutrition, fonterra

Malnutrition causes stunted growth and is associated with increased child morbidity and impaired cognitive development. Although it is improving, stunted growth among children under the age of five affects nearly 150 million children globally. Milk contains vital nutrients that support healthy growth in children, particularly calcium, but also protein, zinc, magnesium, and phosphorus. These nutrients all help with developing healthy bones, with calcium and phosphorus delivered in a ratio that is optimal for skeletal growth and development. 

“A glass of milk is easy to prepare, widely available, and it can make a big difference to a child’s daily nutritional intake,” Laura says. “Drinking milk regularly helps kids get the nutrients they need, which supports them to grow up healthy and strong.”  

Milk’s unique nutrient bundle is hard to replace

If milk was removed from the global food system, how would the global population access the essential nutrients it provides? 

The DELTA Model considers that question – and finds that it’s a serious challenge to find a suitable replacement for milk. The available plant-based beverage options generally have lower protein content, lower amino acid availability and low calcium delivery, even when fortified. When you add in the other nutrients milk provides, plus milk’s contribution to hydration, it becomes even harder to replace in the global food system. 

Around half of food calcium comes from milk currently, but even with that contribution, the world is still short of the total supply needed. If milk was removed from the global food system, you would also see gaps in other micronutrients, where supply is only just meeting global requirements such as vitamin A, B2 and B12. Meeting micronutrient needs isn’t just a nice to have. While you won’t notice immediately if your calcium intakes are too low, it will have a real impact on your health in the long term.

Milk’s nutrient density, its role as a traditional food in many cultures, and its cost-effectiveness, all add to the complex and vital role it plays in keeping the world healthy.

Milk and dairy products: a widely recommended food group 

Governments worldwide understand how effectively dairy products can deliver nutrients. Over 60 countries across the globe include dairy in their food-based dietary guidelines. 

Most countries recommend at least one serving a day, and many recommend up to three servings per day. The recommendations focus on milk, cheese and yoghurt, which deliver the most meaningful amounts of nutrients (rather than butter or ice cream, for example). In Western countries, where dairy is regularly consumed, up to two-thirds of the population’s calcium intake is supplied by dairy products. 

“We know billions of people drink milk – it’s a nutritional staple in many cultures,” says Laura. “Even in areas where milk-drinking is less common, people enjoy cheeses and yoghurts which can help them access all that dairy goodness.” 

Looking even further than the nutritional goodness of milk in the global food system, milk has enormous economic and cultural significance. There are few barriers to access, since milk requires very little processing, and is simple to store and transport. It is an economic and nutritional linchpin for many small rural communities globally.