Milk forms a large part of our Western diet. But in recent years it has been getting a bad press and blamed for a variety of health problems. Is this fair? LUCY STEPHENS reports.

WE drink it from the first day we're born, and most of us get some in our diet every day.

Whether we prefer full-fat, semi-skimmed or virtually fat-free, few of us have no dairy products in our diet at all.

But recently, milk, and the dairy sector, has been under fire from more and more people - many of them in the public eye - who say they are avoiding this section of their diet for weight-loss or "intolerance" reasons.

To mark World Milk Day this month, the Dairy Council has hit back, saying milk is the innocent victim of bad publicity.

Milk has been linked to a range of health problems, from asthma to putting on weight, and even cancer.

But the Dairy Council says there is little scientific evidence to support many of these claims.

Dr Sarah Elton, a senior anatomy lecturer at Hull York Medical School, agrees that milk gets a bad press which it does not deserve.

She is working on a study which investigates how people in different parts of the world have adapted to different foods - of which milk is a key example.

Dr Elton says milk has long been a staple part of our Western diet. Therefore, the likelihood that we will develop an intolerance to lactose - the natural sugar found in milk - is highly unlikely. Chinese people, on the other hand, are much more likely to struggle digesting milk, which is why they tend to prefer soya products.

"My take on this is that all this celebrity stuff: I'm not taking in milk and wheat' - a lot of it is probably rubbish," says Dr Elton.

"Milk is a really important part of our diet.

"In those of European extraction, there's only a small proportion - about three per cent - who don't have the ability to digest milk.

"I think milk gets a terribly bad press and I think it isn't justified in populations which have drunk milk for generations."

But Azizah Clayton, a York-based nutritionist, maintains that diary products are still one of the top four allergens that we eat.

She agrees that while an intolerance to lactose is rare, many more people are intolerant to Casein - a protein in cow's milk.

This can flare up in young children if they were given cow's milk when their digestive systems have not developed enough, she says. It might also be the case that we simply consume too much milk.

"If we over-consume, we develop an intolerance to it," she says.

Milk - the facts

* Lactose intolerance is not the same as a milk allergy* It is estimated that between two and three per cent of UK infants are allergic to milk. Most will outgrow the problem by the time they are three. According to the Diary Council, that means only between 0.1 and 0.5 per cent of adults are actually allergic to milk * Full-fat milk contains 3.9 per cent fat. Semi-skimmed has 1.7 per cent, and skimmed has 0.3 per cent * A glass of semi-skimmed milk, a pot of low-fat yoghurt and a piece of cheddar-type cheese together contain about 15g of fat. The recommended daily fat intake is 70g for a woman and 95g for a man * The link between milk and mucus production has been part of folklore for centuries - but scientific studies do not support the association. It is likely, however, that milk and dairy products briefly coat the lining of the mouth and throat - a sensation that is mistaken for increased mucus.

Source: The Diary Council