Is Milk A Healthful Food?

Few dietary topics create as much controversy as the issue of milk. Billboards, commercials, and magazine ads (featuring celebrities with milk moustaches) encourage us to drink more milk via the influential “Got Milk?” campaign, launched by the dairy industry in 1993. Even our government promotes the heavy consumption of milk—the latest federal nutritional guidelines recommend the equivalent of 3 glasses of milk daily, either fat-free or 1% fat.

Unfortunately, the recommendations for dairy are channeled to us through the perspective of the dairy industry, and are based more on marketing schemes than on scientific research. If you didn’t already know, the dairy lobby is a powerful force, and drives the government’s recommendations.

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At the opposite extreme are those who say that humans aren’t meant to consume dairy products (with the exception of breast milk for infants). They point to studies that indicate a relationship between dairy and modern health problems, including allergies, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. These people want nothing to do with dairy, and believe that it’s not a fit food for anyone. It’s no wonder that people are confused.

Almost all of my patients ask me whether or not they should be eating dairy products, and many of my colleagues raise the same question. I have researched and studied this issue in-depth for decades, and feel confident in my evaluation of the issue. I’m going to recommend to you the same guidelines that my family and I follow.

First, it’s important to understand that not all dairy products are created equal. Most dairy products in this country come from industrially processed milk. Dairy industry cows on factory farms are crowded together, bred for high milk production, continually impregnated by artificial insemination, fed unnatural high-protein diets, and are frequently given bovine growth hormones (rBGH, a genetically engineered drug) to increase milk production. Many spend their entire lives indoors, hooked up to milking machines. Others are packed together outdoors, standing in their own waste. Many dairy cows suffer from mastitis (a painful inflammation of the mammary glands), requiring treatment with antibiotics. Obviously, both the bacteria from the infection and the antibiotics make their way into the milk.

Commercially produced milk goes through an involved processing that includes pasteurization and homogenization. Milk is pasteurized at high heat to destroy pathogens and to increase shelf life; at the same time, dozens of beneficial enzymes are destroyed, including lactase, which aids in the assimilation of lactose; galactase for the assimilation of galactose; and phosphatase, which promotes calcium absorption. Without these enzymes, milk is difficult to digest. Many people with dairy intolerance may in fact be intolerant of pasteurization.

Equally or more harmful is the homogenization process, which breaks down the natural butterfat molecules in milk to distribute them evenly throughout the liquid. Xanthine oxidase (XO), a protein enzyme present in large amounts in homogenized milk, can oxidize plasmalogen, a substance important to heart and artery tissue health. When milk is homogenized, small fat globules surround the XO, allowing the enzyme to be absorbed intact into the bloodstream. Research dating back to the 1960s shows an association between absorbed XO and an increased risk of heart disease. Homogenization also creates a tremendous increase in the surface area of the fat globules. The original fat globule membrane is lost and is replaced by one that contains a much greater portion of casein proteins, which may account for the increase in allergies to commercial cow’s milk.

Removing or reducing butterfat content (as is done in skim milk and reduced fat products) creates other problems. Although nonfat or low fat dairy products are promoted as healthful foods, butterfat aids in the absorption of nutrients, including calcium, zinc, and B vitamins. Butterfat also contains some unique and important cancer-inhibiting compounds, including butyric acid and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid). There has been a great deal of research linking the consumption of CLA with a reduction in several forms of cancer, a decrease in the formation of already-formed atherosclerosis, a reduction of body-fat accumulation, and the prevention of diabetes. On the other hand, nonfat dairy is associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. When you remove the fat, you also remove many of the nutrients, and you get more concentrated milk sugar. Because nonfat dairy doesn’t taste as good, products made from nonfat milk (such as yogurt) also tend to be much higher in added sweeteners.

Commercial dairy farming and production is obviously not a healthy practice; for all of the above reasons, I strongly advise against consuming commercial dairy products of any type. However, organic, grass-fed, and raw dairy products are another story entirely. Raw cow and goat milk from grass-fed animals along with cultured dairy products are traditional foods prized by many cultures, and including them in your diet will provide you with a rich array of minerals, B-vitamins, and important cancer-protective compounds. If you can’t find raw, grass-fed milk, buy only organic dairy products. Because environmental toxins are concentrated in fats (this includes bovine growth hormone, antibiotics, and GMO corn and soybeans fed to dairy cattle), it’s especially important to search out sources of organically produced dairy.

Remember that dairy is a rich food and should not be eaten in excess; think of it almost as a condiment. I recommend including goat and sheep milk products in your diet in addition to cow dairy because each type of milk has a different nutrient profile. I also suggest including fermented dairy products in your daily diet—kefir, yogurt, and cheeses such as gorgonzola are delicious and are an excellent source of beneficial enzymes and natural probiotics—I personally enjoy goat milk yogurt almost every day in my morning smoothie.

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3 Replies to “Is Milk A Healthful Food?”

  1. This is wonderful information, and I thank you so much for posting it. I never knew Gorgonzola had natural probiotics in it! I’ve been wondering how to get more probiotics into my diet without popping a probiotic pill, so this really helps me. Kefir and miso were going to be my go-to foods for this, and now I have a couple more ideas!
    I would love to hear your thoughts (or perhaps your wife’s thoughts!) on feeding your family highly nutritious foods on a budget.

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