Atanu Dey On India's Development

Milk Does a Body Good?

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.

Enough of the editorializing. Here are the relevant articles. The first one is a two-part report in the Guardian: Diary Monsters – part 1, and part 2. A few excerpts below the fold.

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.

. . .

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”.

. . .

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.

. . .

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.

  • ghostwriter

    Effects of milk aside – the driver to all this is the perverted agri-subsidy system in the west.

    The philosophical underpinning is deeply flawed. The Western system is based on exploiting nature (in this case hurting cows with hormone injections) to enhance productivity so as to peculate other civilizations (for e.g. ours). They think of their cows as machines – to be run into the ground or bled dry – just so farmers in developing countries should not compete.

    It is the same story when it comes to use of pesticides (alas we have followed their lead on this) or the use of genetically modified food – we still have time to prevent this catastrophe – but all the half-read, neo-liberated English-speaking press people love to speak for the GM Food industry. Anyone advocating organic agriculture (like me) is thought of as a Luddite Neanderthal who should go back to climbing tress. Here are a few interesting links for your reading pleasure

    http://www.heritage.org/Press/Commentary/ed072607a.cfm

    http://www.heritage.org/Research/Agriculture/wm1738.cfm

    http://www.heritage.org/Research/Budget/wm1337.cfm

    And these links are only to US farm subsidy – the Europeans are worse.

    As an economist perhaps you will address – in detail – the income, production and most important ecological distortion that result from this perverted policy

  • lurker

    Comment by Mayuresh Gaikwad

    My 2 cents:

    Milk is definitely good for us. But then so is meat (white and red), wine, scotch, oil, etc. ! The trick is to consume it in the right quantities and NOT think of milk as a complete food.

    Milk does not have all the nutrients our body requires in their exact same proportion. Further, nutritional requirements will vary from person to person. A body builder may require a higher proportion of protein in his/her diet than a sedentary worker like yours truly. Short distance sprinters may require more protein thana cross country runner, even though both do a lot of physical labor.

    Research needs to be done into what exactly milk provides us and what it does not. And that should account for the nutrients consumed in the digestion process. That will aid us solve the “osteoporosis (hope I spelt it right) in milk-consuming individuals” conundrum.

    A lot of societies live without cow’s milk. A lot of societies live without milk from any animal! The thing to understand is that milk is a valid food source, like meat, eggs, pulses, grains, vegetables, fruits and what have you. But, as I said earlier, it is NOT the complete food.

  • Amit

    While there may be some segments of the AR movement that ignored dairy, for the most part, the AR/vegan/vegetarian movements in the US/West do include milk and its harmful effects.
    Also, replace “milk” with “meat” or any other large-scale crops like corn and soybean, and a similar argument can be made – and has been made for many years now, except that MSM has started picking it up only lately. (Books by Michael Pollan, movies like King Corn, Fast Food Nation et al are all connecting the dots.)

    I think “ghostwriter” above has already mentioned the flawed philosophical underpinnings that cause this, and while the use of fertilizers etc. was somewhat justified way back in the 50s (or so) when policy decisions regarding ensuring food security were made, the negative results in the form of loss of nutrient-rich topsoil due to monoculture farming, polluted water, polluted soil, lakes of animal shit from feedlots, massive algae bloom due to agriculture runoff etc. have started coming in and are much harder to ignore. Basically, the way US produces a lot of its food is polluting and unsustainable in the long run, more so with oil running out.

    Food (and health-care) are two areas where profits should be secondary – the farmers know best how to grow crops and animals (with help from researchers and scientists), and any policies set by the government should prioritize that, instead of letting wonks or corporations (who have zero idea how and what it takes to produce food and are only interested in maximizing profits due to quarterly deadline – long-term negative effects be damned) set the tone of these policies.

    How we make the transition to sustainable food production with the “free market” remains to be seen.

    What I learned while growing up in India regarding food has for the most part, served me much better (and is a lot healthier) than all the scientific research done in the West regarding food (which is not to say that science is useless). I guess cultural traditions do have some value and accumulated knowledge.

    I’m sure Chaitanya will have something to add. :)

  • Amit

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bovine_somatotropin

    This issue is actually a good example of the amount of power a corporation can (and does) wield and how it curbs freedom instead of promoting it – to the extent of threatening small dairy farmers who wanted to label their milk rBGH-free with lawsuit. This is the same corporation that also sells Bt cotton.

  • Amit

    Atanu,
    I’m curious. Do you also not eat any Indian desserts – almost all of which are made using milk or milk products? :)

    Also, would you know if the same dairy system that you mention above is followed by Indian dairy farmers too? Or are they producing milk without the use of hormones and antibiotics?
    Thanks.