Let me start off with the confession that I don’t like milk. It is just a matter of taste, nothing more. For years, I had felt somehow deprived that I didn’t have a taste for something that was clearly so beneficial. But as the evidence against milk mounted, I started feeling a sense of smug satisfaction — I figured that my taste buds had figured out a truth that I had not known. But I am sure that you are not interested in my dietary preferences. I bring this up only because the story of milk illustrates a number of deeper issues.
The first lesson is that it is possible for people to believe something sincerely and yet to totally mistaken. The second lesson: commercial interests motivate many to maintain a falsehood in the face of mounting evidence. Third, the world is connected and therefore even if you don’t directly promote harmful activities, even seemingly innocuous activities can indirectly cause suffering. Fourth, sometimes a proposed cure can aggravate the situation. Fifth, what appears to be a well established ancient practice could well be a relatively recent result of the modern way of living. Sixth, it is not easy but eventually with due diligence, researchers figure out what are the causes of a problem. That is, empirical studies reveal truths that are not analytically tractable. Seventh, the power of advertising and marketing is immense and can brainwash people into believing whatever the commercial interests dictate.
Today, there’s a big bank of scientific evidence against milk consumption, alleging not only that it causes some diseases but, equally damning, that it fails to prevent others for which it has traditionally been seen as a panacea. . . For this is a story of evidence and counter-evidence, of an elixir tainted and attempts to restore it to its previous pre-eminence. At stake are enormous commercial interests, deeply rooted patterns of agriculture and consumption – and our health.
It starts in infancy. Frank Oski, former paediatrics director at Johns Hopkins school of medicine, estimated in his book Don’t Drink Your Milk! that half of all iron deficiency in US infants results from cows’ milk-induced intestinal bleeding – a staggering amount, since more than 15% of American under-twos suffer from iron-deficiency anaemia. The infants, it seems, drink so much milk (which is very low in iron) that they have little appetite left for foods containing iron; at the same time, the milk, by inducing gastrointestinal bleeding, causes iron loss.
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According to various studies, there’s a whole catalogue of other illnesses that can be attributed to cows’ milk, among them diabetes. A 1992 report in the New England Journal of Medicine corroborated a long-standing theory that proteins in cows’ milk can damage the production of insulin in those with a genetic predisposition to diabetes. The dairy industry dismisses this as “just a theory” – along with “myth” and “controversial”, a term it applies to almost all studies critical of milk.
The anti-milk lobby also claims that consumption of dairy products can aggravate rheumatoid arthritis and has been implicated in colic, acne, heart disease, asthma, lymphoma, ovarian cancer and multiple sclerosis. Major studies suggesting a link between milk and prostate cancer have been appearing since the 1970s, culminating in findings by the Harvard School of Public Health in 2000 that men who consumed two and a half servings of dairy products a day had a third greater risk of getting prostate cancer than those who ate less than half a serving a day. In the same year, T Colin Campbell, the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University, said that “cows’ milk protein may be the single most significant chemical carcinogen to which humans are exposed”.
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To the milk critics, the shibboleth that osteoporosis is caused by calcium deficiency is one of the great myths of our time (each side accuses the other of myth peddling). Mark Hegsted, a retired Harvard professor of nutrition, has said, “To assume that osteoporosis is due to calcium deficiency is like assuming that infection is due to penicillin deficiency.” In fact, the bone loss and deteriorating bone tissue that take place in osteoporosis are due not to calcium deficiency but rather to its resorption: it’s not that our bodies don’t get enough calcium, rather that they excrete too much of what they already have. So we need to find out what it is that’s breaking down calcium stores in the first place, to the extent that more than one in three British women now suffers from osteoporosis.
The most important culprit is almost certainly the overconsumption of protein. High-protein foods such as meat, eggs and dairy make excessive demands on the kidneys, which in turn leach calcium from the body. One solution, then, isn’t to increase our calcium intake, but to reduce our consumption of protein, so our bones don’t have to surrender so much calcium. Astonishingly, according to this newer, more critical view, dairy products almost certainly help to cause, rather than prevent, osteoporosis.
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How come it’s taken so long to learn about milk’s less health-giving properties? Partly it’s to do with how research is conducted. Until recently, no one had done the science – the epidemiological and population studies. What’s more, though the milk advocates maintain that humans have kept animals for milk products for thousands of years, milk-drinking on the scale we have it now is relatively new. Fresh, raw milk was rarely consumed after childhood until the late 19th century, except in nomadic countries. Milk is essentially a modern, industrial phenomenon – its consumption only really took off after the discovery of pasteurisation in 1864.
In the west, we’ve moved very fast (in historical terms) from undernutrition to overnutrition, from insufficiency to excess. While milk had a major role to play early in the last century, today’s nutritional needs are different. Says Lang, “I’m not saying that milk is lousy. It does have lots of nutrients and is a rich source of energy, quickly taken up in an easily digestible form – good when children were short and you needed growth. But should we be basing our diets on it today, as though without dairy we couldn’t survive? I’d say no.”
Alongside the researchers raising questions about milk sits the more inflammatory animal rights movement, which has recently focused its attention on dairy farming and what it argues is its intrinsic cruelty. For a long time, those concerned about animal welfare seemed magically to exempt milk from their preoccupations. They suffered from what Richard Young of the Soil Association calls “the vegetarian fallacy”: non-meat-eaters who still drink milk and so perpetuate the cycle that ends in crated veal calves destined for European dinner tables. Now many of them have begun to contend that, organic or not, there’s no such thing as humane milk. For in order to lactate, cows – like humans – first have to get pregnant. Calves are essentially the waste by-product of the industry. What happens to them once they’ve done what they were created to do – stimulate a cow’s milk production by the very fact of their being conceived?
Male udderless cows are of no value to the dairy industry, so if prices for male calves are low and the veal route unprofitable, most are killed within a couple of weeks for baby food or pies, to make rennet, or sent to rendering plants to be turned into tallow or grease or, in other countries, animal feed. Female calves, on the other hand, are bred as replacement stock for their mothers. The provision of beef essentially originates in the dairy industry: if we didn’t drink milk, we wouldn’t have all that extra meat to get rid of.
Though a male calf’s life is unenviable, its mother’s is no better. To ensure almost continuous lactation, she endures annual pregnancies. Her calf is removed from her within 24 hours of its birth. Calves hardly ever drink their mother’s milk.
For a bit more, see this article at notmilk.com. Be warned that the article is somewhat graphic and could well put you off milk for a while — which may not be such a bad idea since adults don’t really need milk.