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Should we cry over spilled milk?

February 28, 2020 by Kimberly Drake

Milk. We buy it by the gallon, dip cookies in it and wean our babies on it. It’s included as an integral part of the USDA’s food guide icon alongside fruits, grains, vegetables and protein, and it is a requirement in school lunches. 

Cow’s milk contains nutrients, including protein and calcium, and can provide a nutritionally sound alternative to sugar-laden soft drinks and processed foods. However, according to “Milk and Health,” published Feb. 13, 2020, in The New England Journal of Medicine, this everyday food staple in our American diets might not live up to the “does a body good” slogan as touted by ad campaigns in the past.

The Oxford Dictionary defines milk as “an opaque white fluid secreted by female mammals for the nourishment of their young.” On a side note, this definition has me wondering how companies can label products containing pureed almonds as “almond milk,” but I guess calling it liquefied nuts would be a marketing nightmare. At any rate, animal milk is species-specific, meaning cow’s milk is designed for calves, dog’s milk is made to nourish puppies, and so on. We are perhaps the only species on the planet that consumes another animal’s milk after weaning. This most likely occurred thousands of years ago when our species made the shift from being nomads to farmers.

But is milk the nutritional powerhouse it’s made out to be? Does it really “do a body good?”

In general, moo juice has a favorable health-promoting track record, as it contains all sorts of nutrients and active compounds, including calcium, vitamin D and a variety of fats and proteins. On the other hand, according to “Milk and Health,” dairy products also contain an array of growth-promoting factors, and studies show that children who drink a lot of milk tend to grow an inch or two taller. On the surface, that seems like a good thing, but some research shows this additional growth might be detrimental in the long run.

According to a January 2014 study published in JAMA, “After controlling for known risk factors and current milk consumption, each additional glass of milk per day during teenage years was associated with a 9% higher risk of hip fracture in men, with no increase seen in women.” Scientists think that rapid growth in the early years may cause bones to be less dense, and therefore more susceptible to fracture.

These results are surprising because food guidelines have touted calcium-rich milk as a way to prevent hip fractures. However, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition says results from randomized controlled trials show no reduction in hip fracture risk with calcium supplementation. Even more interesting, according to the “Milk and Health” report, “Countries with the highest milk consumption tend to have a higher risk for this type of fracture than those with the lowest consumption.”

Another hot topic in the dairy debate centers around its role in inflammation, allergies and asthma. According to the Arthritis Foundation, a study published in The Journal of Nutrition in 2015 found that eating dairy foods increased low-grade inflammation in a small sample of German adults. And a survey of more than 40,000 people with osteoarthritis found that those who ate more dairy products were more likely to need hip replacement surgery. The foundation claims that some people experience improvement in arthritis symptoms when they avoid casein, which is found in dairy products. On the flip side, a 2017 review of 52 clinical studies, published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, concluded that dairy might have anti-inflammatory effects.

What about eczema? Although there’s not an abundance of solid evidence out there that says milk increases the risk of eczema or makes symptoms worse, one study, published in May 2019, in the Journal of Microbiology, Immunology and Infection found a higher rate of food sensitivities, especially to milk, in children with eczema compared with those without the skin disorder, and this appears to increase the risk of nasal allergies and asthma as well.

The USDA has promoted milk as a healthy food for decades and even requires it in school lunch programs, pushing it higher on the list than water. This agency’s 2015-16 Guidance for the National School Lunch Program states, “For all grade groups, one cup of fluid milk must be offered daily as a beverage, including flavored milk, and while water must be made available to students during meal service, school food authorities shall not promote or offer water or other beverage as an alternative selection to fluid milk on the meal service line. Water is not a food component or food item for the reimbursable meal.”

It is also interesting that the Mediterranean diet, a way of eating that has garnered a boatload of solid research on its health benefits, doesn’t include much dairy. Although here is where the liquified nut beverage I mentioned earlier might fit right in. However, there is a “new” version, called the MedDairy Diet, that includes up to three servings of milk products. This new dairy-infused diet plan stems from 2018 research done in Australia, suggesting that the “Mediterranean Diet supplemented with dairy may be appropriate for improving cardiovascular risk factors in a population at risk.” Ironically, this research was supported by a Dairy Australia Research Grant.

It is intriguing that although we as a species have been consuming this bovine beverage for eons of time, we still don’t know much about whether it indeed “does a body good.” Until science catches up, I guess there’s no point in crying over spilled milk.

Kimberly Drake can be reached at [email protected].

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