Anyone who has visited a nutritionist in recent years will probably have been given advice about dairy - either to reduce the amount of it consumed or cut it out altogether. Then there are reports from researchers around the world telling us to consume dairy to maintain calcium levels and achieve a balanced diet. Throw in the mainland's melamine scandal in powdered milk and other dairy-related products, and no one knows which way to go. The Health Department's Central Health Education Unit advises sticking with the classic food pyramid, which includes dairy as part of a balanced diet (vegetables and lean protein at the top, followed by whole grains, and so on). It does, however, offer calcium-enriched soya milk as an alternative, suggesting the most important reason for dairy is calcium intake. 'Dairy products are rich in calcium, protein, vitamin B2 and most of the milk has been fortified with vitamin D,' the department says in a document on the food pyramid. The department suggests choosing low-fat or skimmed milk and low-fat cheese to reduce fat intake, and drinking high-calcium soya milk if you do not consume dairy products. Canadian-trained holistic nutritionist Magdalena Fung does not agree with conventional beliefs about milk as a source of calcium. But she does not recommend cutting out any one food group as this may lead to imbalances in the body. 'It is all about moderation, instead of labelling food 'good' or 'bad',' Fung says. She says margarine contains hydrogenated oil, a known carcinogen, so it's better to avoid that form of dairy. She says butter and coconut oil are the only oils that can be safely heated when cooking. Cow's milk is, however, a good source of protein, which makes up 20 per cent of a person's body weight. Humans need protein to mend and maintain skin, hair, nails, eyes, organs, muscles, bones, brain cells, red cells, white cells, enzymes, some hormones, and antibodies. 'Protein is the building block of the body. It helps children and adolescents to grow and muscles to maintain bone structure.' The problem is many people are allergic to milk, or just don't like it, Fung says. 'The number one problem with dairy is lactose intolerance, whereby a person cannot tolerate milk's sugar [lactose],' says Fung. Lactose-intolerant people should opt for lactose-free products from health and organic food stores. Fung says milk contains two proteins - casein and whey. 'Casein is the protein that makes cheese; whey is the byproduct - the water - on top of the cheese. Casein is a big molecule and most children who are lactose intolerant are allergic to casein,' she says. 'In that case, they could eat whey protein instead.' She recommends buying organic whey protein, organic milk and organic butter, 'because toxins are stored in fats'. This also applies to meat, she says. Those with candida (yeast) problems are advised to consume less cheese and wine because of the fermentation, Fung says. She suggests eating plain yogurt with no sugar added and then adding cut fresh fruit. Fung goes against common dietary guidelines and says milk is not a good calcium source because of its high phosphorus content. Fung says bamboo is a better source of calcium and can be taken in supplement form (Ionix Supreme, available online, is one brand she recommends). Calcium alone won't help maintain strong bones, she says. 'The bone matrix contains more than 20 minerals, including silica and boron, so we need to take a complete range of minerals to have strong bones, not just calcium.' Fung says dairy is also acid-forming, so it is wise to limit it to 20 to 40 per cent of your diet, and for the rest to comprise alkaline-forming foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and grains. Peter Damestoy, a senior naturopath at Integrated Medicine Institute in Central, takes a strong stance against cow's milk, saying it is detrimental after the age of two. 'It builds fat in the body; it has 14 phenols which make it hard to digest,' says Damestoy. 'And it causes yeast and fungal infections to proliferate.' Wellness coach Anita S.K. Cheung, who offers nutritional guidance through Integrative Living in Causeway Bay, says individuals must decide what's best for their health. 'The dairy and meat industries have become powerful and have a lot of influence over those in power,' Cheung says. 'I think informed and conscious consumers can make their own choices - from learning more and judging how their bodies respond to dairy. No authority can tell them what to do.' From an environmental point of view, the cost of producing milk is very high, Cheung says. The same resources could produce much more plant food to feed more people, and the impact on the environment would be much lower, she says. Registered dietitian Priscilla Lau, who has a private practice in Central, says she does not recommend cutting out dairy and may even suggest one serving a day for those who do not consume any of it. 'Dairy is a rich source of calcium,' Lau says. 'And not many foods have the same level of calcium as dairy products.' But she does say such foods are not irreplaceable. 'If a person does not drink milk, they should have calcium-fortified soy milk, as should someone who is lactose intolerant,' she says. 'I don't believe a person must eat dairy,' she says. 'But I don't believe it's harmful to one's health either. People who drink too much milk, that's bad. But for a balanced diet, a glass of skim milk is a reasonable amount.' Lau says the reason we have dairy in the traditional food pyramid is because of its calcium content. The average Chinese diet would rely on dark green vegetables and tofu to provide it, but Lau says that may not be enough. 'If people don't have any dairy at all, there is a good chance that they are not getting enough calcium.' In a nutrition fact sheet, the American Dietetic Association says if your diet is low in calcium, your body will take calcium from your bones to keep blood calcium at normal levels. The association recommends three servings of low-fat or fat-free milk or other dairy products daily to help maintain healthy bones. If you are lactose intolerant or don't want to consume milk, the association recommends supplementing your diet with calcium-fortified foods and drinks, such as calcium-enriched orange juice. The general consensus seems to be that adults don't necessarily need to consume dairy products but do need plenty of calcium, and vegetables alone might not provide enough of it. And if you can't go without a frozen yogurt or a few slices of your favourite cheddar, sit back and enjoy it.