Cow's Milk: A Natural Choice?
Milk and other dairy products are included in many vegetarian diets. Dairy is a rich source of calcium, vitamin B12, vitamin D, and other nutrients. It has been a part of many cultures for centuries, especially in Northern Europe. For religious Hindus, milk is considered sacred. Yet the majority of the world's peoples do not come from cultures that have a history of dairy consumption. These people often have problems digesting it. And with the advent of modern mechanized dairy production, milk may not be as pure as it once was.
What follows is an in depth overview of some of the potential problems associated with dairy, and a look at the alternatives.
Is drinking milk natural?
Human beings are the only species (other than house cats) to consume milk past childhood. We are also the only species to consume the milk of another species. Yet, at about the age of four, most people around the world begin to lose the ability to digest lactose, the carbohydrate found in milk. This results in a condition known as lactose intolerance that causes a range of unpleasant abdominal symptoms, including stomach cramps, flatulence and diarrhea.
Lactose intolerance is a reality for 75% of the world's population. In Canada, while many adult Caucasians have the ability to digest lactose, a large number of First Nations People, Asians, Africans and people of Jewish ancestry are lactase deficient.1
Even though consuming dairy is unnatural and problematic for many people, Canada's Food Guide recommends 2–4 servings per day, and the US Food Guide Pyramid recommends 2-3 servings. One serving is defined as 1 cup of milk, 2 slices of cheese or 3/4 cup of yogurt.
Whole cow's milk is a high-fat fluid, designed by nature to turn a 60–70 lb (27–30 kg) calf into a 300–600 lb (135–275 kg) cow in one year.
High-fat dairy products such as cheese, butter and cream contain saturated fat. Saturated fat is the most important dietary factor involved in raising blood cholesterol levels. The consumption of high-fat dairy products has also been found to cause atherosclerosis, heart disease and stroke. Finland which has a death rate from heart disease that is among the highest in the world, also has one of the highest rates of dairy product consumption.2
“The African Bantu woman provides an excellent example of good health. Her diet is free of milk and still provides 250–400 mg of calcium from plant sources, which is half the amount consumed by Western women. Bantu women commonly have 10 babies during their life and breast feed each of them for about ten months. But even with this huge calcium drain and relatively low calcium intake, osteoporosis is relatively unknown among these women.”
– John McDougall, M.D.
"There is no human requirement for milk from a cow.”
– Suzanne Havala, R.D.
author of the American Dietetic Association's Position Paper on Vegetarian Diets
"I no longer recommend dairy products after the age of two years."
– Dr. Spock from Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care, 1998 edition. P 331.
Between 1980 and 2003, annual milk consumption in Canada slipped from 103 to 85.3 litres per person. Consumption of butter has fallen to 3.16 kilograms a year from a high of eight, 40 years ago. Canada has one of the highest rates of dairy consumption in the world (with sales of $11 billion in 2003).
Low-fat milk and cheese products are still significantly high in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. For example, 2% milk has become much more popular than homogenized milk, yet it still derives one third of its total calories from fat. Skim milk mozzarella with approximately 15% milk-fat is considered a low-fat cheese, yet a 1-ounce slice contains 5 grams of fat, totaling 56% calories from fat! So don't be fooled by the "skim milk" label.
The wide range of skimmed milk products available in grocery stores reflects health concerns over high-fat dairy products. But for many people, low-fat dairy products may still be an unacceptable alternative.
Low-fat dairy products linked to heightened allergies
The high protein content of low-fat dairy products is actually more allergenic than dairy products with a high-fat content.3 Dairy products are one of the leading causes of food allergies and food sensitivities causing allergic responses in people of all ages, especially infants and young children. It is estimated that 1–7% of infants are allergic to cow's milk protein. Infants who react to milk also have a greater likelihood of developing allergies to other foods.4
Allergies to dairy products can cause a wide range of symptoms including irritability, restlessness, hyperactivity, depression, abdominal pain, cramps or bloating, gas, diarrhea, bad breath, headaches, lack of energy, constipation, poor appetite, mal-absorption of nutrients, nasal stuffiness, runny nose sinusitis, asthma, shortness of breath, rashes, and eczema.5
Osteoporosis & the milk connection
North America has one of the highest consumptions of dairy products, and also the highest incidence of osteoporosis – a disease of brittle bones formed through the loss of calcium. The dairy lobby has many campaigns and advertisements encouraging people to consume large quantities of dairy products to ward off this dreaded disease later in life. But that's not the whole story.
Regardless of how much calcium you take in, the amount your body can actually absorb and retain matters more.
The high animal protein intake typical of North American diets can make it difficult to retain calcium. Digesting animal protein creates an acidic environment in the body. To neutralize the acid, the body may rob calcium from the bones. Years of this pattern can contribute in osteoporosis later in life.6
A study published in 2001, found that "elderly women with a high dietary ratio of animal to vegetable protein intake have more rapid neck bone loss and a greater risk of hip fracture than do those with a low ratio. This suggests that an increase in vegetable protein intake and a decrease in animal protein intake may decrease bone loss..." Several studies have found that "in comparison with animal protein, soy protein decreases calcium excretion, a result of the lower sulfur amino acid content of soy protein."7
To prevent osteoporosis it is also important to get enough Vitamin D, avoid smoking and limit coffee and alcohol. Weight-bearing exercise such as running, dancing and walking is especially helpful. (seeKey Nutrients for more information on vitamin D).
Yogurt is the healthiest dairy product because of its live bacterial enzyme cultures that foster a healthy colon, and even may lower the risk of colon cancer. The culturing process makes yogurt more digestible than milk. The live active cultures create lactase, the enzyme lactose-intolerant people lack. Some yogurts are pasteurized again after the fermentation process. This kills the beneficial bacteria cultures and decreases many of the health benefits. Check the label, and look for the brands with the simplest ingredients. It is best to avoid frozen yogurt – most brands have no live cultures, are high in fat (some as fatty as ice cream), and the low-fat versions are usually high in sugar. An average non-fat serving of frozen yogurt contains approximately seven teaspoons of sugar.
Note: all yogurts have the high protein content and related problems mentioned above. Non-dairy soy yogurts containing live cultures are available.
Iron deficiency in infants
According to Frank Oski, the late Chairman of Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Medical School, "Drinking large quantities of cow's milk has long been recognized to produce iron-deficiency anemia in infants... Cow's milk contains less than 1 mg of iron per quart. Very little of this iron is absorbed from the intestinal tract because other constituents of the milk bind with the iron... Many infants drink 1-2 quarts of milk per day. This tends to satisfy their hunger and they are left with very little appetite for the necessary iron-containing foods."8Breast milk is the best source of iron for infants.
Ovarian cancer is more common in Northern Europe than in Asian populations and the consumption of milk products may be the reason. Studies have found that there is a higher risk of ovarian cancer in women who consume lactose (sugar in milk). This was the conclusion of a study published in 2004, that tracked 80,326 participants in the Nurses' Health Study. A Swedish study of 61,084 women found that high intakes of lactose and dairy products, particularly milk, are associated with an increased risk of serious ovarian cancer but not other subtypes of ovarian cancer.9
Cow's milk and diabetes in children
Several studies have linked cow's milk to diabetes in children. Something in milk (possibly bovine serum albumin) may cause an immune reaction in diabetic children leading to the destruction of the body's insulin-producing cells. Breast-fed infants who are not fed cow's milk seem to have a measure of protection against diabetes. Avoiding cow's milk may delay or prevent diabetes in susceptible individuals. A 2003 study of 4,701 ten to sixteen year-old adolescents from 11 European countries found that cow's milk and animal product consumption were associated with higher rates of type 1 diabetes when Icelandic data was excluded.10
Women and dairy
According to gynecologist, Christiane Northrum, "Stopping dairy food often improves menstrual cramps, endometriosis pain, allergies, sinusitis and even recurrent vaginitis." Other problems associated with dairy food may include: benign breast conditions, chronic vaginal discharge, acne, fibroids, and chronic intestinal upset. "I can't help but think that there might be some correlation between over stimulation of the cow's mammary glands and subsequent over stimulation of our own, resulting in benign breast conditions."13
Stress, antibiotics, mastitis, and pus
People who regard milk as "the perfect food" rarely think about milk as a commercial product – prone to the hazards of mass-production. John Robbins, author of May All Be Fed, puts it well; "The modern-day Bessie is now bred, fed, medicated, inseminated, and manipulated for a single purpose – maximum milk production at a minimum cost."
In order to produce milk, a dairy cow must give birth. To maximize their milk supply they are artificially inseminated every year, meaning they are pregnant for a physically demanding 9 months out of every 12. Their calves are traumatically taken from them shortly after birth. The resulting surplus of calves feeds the veal industry.
With genetic manipulation and intensive production technologies, Canadian cows produce an average of 9,519 kg of milk per year (2003) — seven times more than they would produce naturally. When their milk production wanes after about four years, dairy cows are sent to slaughter where their worn out bodies are ground up into hamburger.
These unnatural conditions make the modern dairy cow highly prone to stress and disease.
The most damaging stress-related disease is mastitis (an inflammation of the udders). It reduces milk yield and directly affects milk quality by altering composition and increasing the somatic cell count (pus). The National Mastitis Council estimates that it costs about $200 per cow per year on the average dairy farm. In Quebec, mastitis is the second-leading cause of culling.11
Antibiotics, mostly common penicillin, are given to cows for treatment of mastitis. Cows are not supposed to be milked for 48 hours after receiving penicillin. When this precaution is not followed the penicillin appears in the milk in small amounts.12
In 1993, Food and Drug Administration in the United States approved the use of a synthetic growth hormone, rBGH (also known as rBST). This genetically engineered hormone, so far banned in Canada and Europe, has no therapeutic value but to boost milk production. This can cause additional stress, and more frequent bouts of mastitis.
Non-dairy calcium sources
Foods rich in calcium include dark green vegetables such as broccoli, bok choy and kale, beans, tofu (made with calcium), tahini, sesame seeds, almonds, figs, seaweeds, and fortified soymilks.
Since the consumption of animal protein increases calcium requirements, a person following a vegan diet may have much lower needs. Although some plant foods contain oxalates and phytate that can inhibit calcium absorption, the calcium in plant foods is generally well absorbed.
Soy milk as a healthy alternative
Soymilk is loaded with phytochemicals: particularly isoflavones, genistein and daidzein. Studies have found that these substances reduce the risk of cancer.14 Most soy milk today is fortified with calcium, B12 and other nutrients that make it as vitamin-rich as its cow's milk counterpart.
Soy protein consumption has been shown to reduce the levels of cholesterol and lessen the incidences of atherosclerosis.15 Soy also has beneficial effects on obesity and diabetes.16
There is evidence to suggest that soy isoflavones assist in the prevention of osteoporosis by reducing calcium loss from bones.17
Variety is the key to a healthy diet, so don't overload on any one food including soy. Enjoy it in moderation – two to three servings per day. While soy appears to perfectly safe for nearly all healthy people, there are some articles on the internet warning of its dangers. See Soy controversy – healthy or not for more information. .