The battle for consumer influence is rarely more virulent than that currently raging in the dairy sector. Industry bodies and nutritionists have long touted the healthiness of the White Stuff so that now the benefits of drinking milk are common knowledge. But a growing body of dissidents argue that milk is a root cause of numerous ailments. just-food.com’s Hugh Westbrook takes a look at the issues.
Many people are astonished that the benefits of drinking milk should be called into question. Most of us were encouraged to drink milk from an early age and its many health benefits, particularly with regards to calcium, go unquestioned by the majority of people. But should consumers accept such “common knowledge” as fact? What are some of the claims levelled at milk, and what motivates these claims?
To some people, milk is the root of all health ills, and one has only to stop drinking it to rid the body of any number of ailments. Among the most popular claims are arguments that it increases, rather than decreases, the risk of osteoporosis; that it causes respiratory problems and that it can increase the risk of cancer. Other opponents claim it is responsible for diabetes, obesity, acne and even increased flatulence, and so the list goes on.
And now for the science…
Milk proponents claim the evidence for these claims is anecdotal and has no scientific basis, but those putting forward the claims would disagree, and cite a growing body of peer-reviewed scientific research to back up their claims. It is therefore worth examining some of the issues in a little more detail to try and see where the truth lies.
Many people claim that too much protein, taken in through milk, can accelerate bone loss and lead to osteoporosis in later life. They point to the high incidence of osteoporosis in certain European countries and North America, adding that in countries such as China and Japan, where dairy intakes are much lower, so is the number of osteoporosis cases.
The British Dairy Council counters that in certain European countries, there is less exposure to sunlight than in countries where osteoporosis is lower, and it points out that sunlight is needed to generate vitamin D synthesis in the skin, which is necessary for the absorption of calcium.
The National Dairy Council in the US meanwhile adds that studies on the subject present contradictory findings, and that while the high levels of protein in milk may lead to a loss of bone density the large amounts of calcium ought to offset that. It adds that an individual’s genetic make-up can affect calcium absorption, and recommends exercise to help keep bones strong.
Not just black and white
These findings indicate immediately that any debate about the role of milk in diet has to be more than black and white. Nutritionists are always keen to stress the need for a balanced diet and the varied influnces which may affect somebody’s health, and would therefore be unlikely to home in solely on milk. Those in the anti- brigade may not however look beyond milk as being the prime culprit.
Claims over prostate cancer are quite specific. Robert Cohen, the executive director of anti-milk body The Dairy Education Board in the US, explained to just-food.com that the presence of a growth hormone, IGF-I, is present in both cow’s milk and human’s bodies, and the intake of cow’s milk therefore increases the amount of IGF-I in the human body, which scientific journals have identified as the key to prostate cancer.
This claim may depend on how you interpret the data, however. Indeed, various bodies in the US have said that such claims are an abuse of the available scientific data, or that the available data is not in itself enough to support such claims.
Judy Buttriss, science director of the British Nutrition Foundation, summed up a countering position succinctly for just-food.com. She said that even if the hormone is present in milk, “when a protein goes into the body, it is broken down into its component amino acids as the body can’t absorb whole proteins, so the chance of a whole protein getting in are very remote. Even if it did, it would then have to be transported to exactly the right place.”
Behind the arguments
So what prompts these claims and what are people actively doing to counter them? In many ways, some of the anti-milk messages are prompted by particular lifestyle choices. The American pressure group PETA, which has hit the headlines for its anti-milk campaigns directed at schoolchildren, also promotes vegetarian and vegan lifestyles. The Dairy Education Board’s Cohen writes meanwhile that his initial interest was sparked by worries he had over modern milk production methods. It is clear, therefore, that anti-milk sentiment is initially triggered by genuine concerns. However, it is less clear why these concerns should sometimes manifest themselves in quite heated protests.
Judy Buttriss is angered by what prompts some of these protests: “I find it unacceptable when people knock very useful food for ideological reasons. I think it is unjustified. Milk is a very rich source of nutrients, and if they do not come from there they need to come from somewhere else.”
So what can be done to counter the milk accusations? The UK’s Dairy Council has been running an aggressive campaign promoting milk as The White Stuff, which has added 38m litres of milk to the market in the first 12 months. As well as pushing the benefits of milk, the approach of using cartoons and celebrities aims to make drinking milk ‘cool’ and so more acceptable to young people who are still making decisions about how they wish to live.
Functional food threat
Those working in the industry also face an extra threat from products directly aimed at milk’s calcium niche in the health market, with some cereal bars, orange juices and mineral waters now being fortified with calcium. However, nutritionists have pointed out that the absorption rates from such functional foods are not yet known.
It seems astonishing that something that seems so pure and unsullied as milk should inspire such passions. In many ways, milk is at the forefront of many of the ideological food battles that go on today. On the whole, the scientific research seems to be in favour of milk drinking at present, but as the opponents continue to gather their evidence, who is to say that this view may not change in years to come?
By Hugh Westbrook, just-food.com correspondent
The Dairy Council (UK): www.milk.co.uk
The British Nutrition Foundation (UK): www.nutrition.org.uk
National Dairy Council (US): www.nationaldairycouncil.org
The Dairy Education Board (US): www.notmilk.com
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals: www.milksucks.com