What’s the matter with milk?

Superfood or poison? Nature’s gift to mankind, or yet another example of human beings’ dysfunctional relationship with Nature?

A glass of milk brings more controversy, questions and confusion nowadays than it does nutrients. Raw or pasteurized? Organic or conventional? Cow or goat? Indulge or abstain?

For me, the tipping point in absurdity was reached with this news that camel milk is about to take over Europe as the new food fad. “High in Vitamin C and low in fat it is also more digestible than cow’s milk and suitable for the lactose-intolerant”, reported “The Sunday Telegraph” last month. It added that “United Arab Emirates-based firm Camelicious says it is only waiting on checks by EU health and hygiene inspectors and hopes to begin exports to Europe next year”.

Talk about adding to the confusion—although that concern will spread most likely to the limited crowd of health-conscious happy fews who can actually afford the precious secretion from camels’ tits imported from some far-away desert.

At any rate, I’ve been meaning to write about milk and the issues surrounding it for quite a while and have been holding back for the sake of research. Several weeks into it, however, I must admit that clarity about milk still eludes me. Every point of view seemingly rests on its own arsenal of reputable scientific studies, and so do its rivals. Whom to believe? The best I can do is map out the complex field of conflicting theories that abound out there. May you find here a trail that leads you to the truth that works for you.

Milk or no milk?

YES. Humans have relied on ruminant milk for millenia (as early as 8,500 BC in Mesopotamia where sheep and goats abounded) to meet their needs in calcium, vitamin D and protein. Essential to promote the proper development of young children, milk is also a major factor in giving adults strong bones and contributes to reducing the risk of colon cancer. Consumed regularly, low-fat milk helps lower cholesterol and the risk of stroke and heart attack. Rich in potassium and magnesium, milk is also credited with helping prevent hypertension.

NO. Cow milk is designed by Nature to support the growth of new-born calves until they reach grazing age, not to feed humans. Adults are especially ill-equipped to digest milk. Children are endowed until the age of 4 or 5 with lactase, the enzyme that is necessary to metabolize lactose (milk sugar). Lactase activity then declines into adulthood, leading to varying degrees of lactose-intolerance depending on ethnicity: it is estimated that 20% to 40% of Caucasians are lactose-intolerant, while up to 90% of Blacks, Native American and Asians are affected.

Cow milk lactose is a BIG molecule that compromises the optimum health of young children whose lactase is designed to metabolize human milk. Many studies link the consumption of cow milk to allergies, ear and tonsillar infections, bedwetting, asthma, intestinal colic, intestinal irritation, intestinal bleeding, anemia and diabetes. In adults, the problems seem centered more around heart disease and arthritis, allergy, sinusitis, even leukemia, lymphoma and cancer.

Finally, “each sip [of milk] contains growth hormones, fat, cholesterol, allergenic proteins, blood, pus [white-blood cells], antibiotic, bacteria and virus”, in the words of Robert M. Kradjian, MD, a vocal adversary of milk, in an unveiled reference to salmonella, listeria, E. coli, and staphylococcal infections that have been traced to milk (either raw or pasteurized) throughout recent history. Glorified snot, in summary, as someone once told me.

Raw or pasteurized?

Milk fans counter Dr. Kradjian’s argument with two adversarial positions.

On the one hand, they argue that pasteurization and ultra-pasteurization, processes that heat the milk briefly to kill bacteria and pathogens, are designed precisely to prevent such epidemics, making the milk clean and consumption-ready.

“Not so fast!” respond the proponents of raw milk, at the other end of the spectrum. Milk is the perfect food, they claim. To the point that, according to them, it would possible to live off it as one’s only food throughout one’s life. Some conditions must be strictly met, however:

  • to be healthy, the milk must be consumed intact, as it was designed by Nature,  fresh from the cow’s udder, packed with all the enzymes and nutrients (including “good” bacteria) that guarantee its proper metabolization and digestion. Through heat, the pasteurization process destroys the enzymes and most vitamins, hence the problems typically denounced by the anti-milk crowd. Raw is where it’s at.
  • unpasteurized healthy milk obviously requires healthy cows, eating a healthy diet and leading a healthy lifestyle: pasture-raised, grass-fed and spared the antibiotics and growth-hormones that befall the gigantic herds of industrial dairy farms. In other words, healthy raw milk necessarily implies organic farming practices that only small operations can provide with integrity.

Organic or not?

Consumers caught on this latter argument early on. Even when safely pasteurized, they reasoned, milk must be healthier when produced by healthy, happy cows rather than by confined animals that are stuffed with pesticide-laden feed, antibiotics and artificial growth hormones (note that the United States is in the minority among industrialized nations by allowing the use of synthetic growth hormones to artificially stimulate milk production in dairy herds; the practice is prohibited in Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and in the 27 countries of the European Union). Over the past decade, organic milk production has enjoyed one of the fastest growth among all organic agriculture segments, despite a steep price premium (up to twice as much) justified by the relatively higher production costs of small-scale operations.

Things started getting complicated when some industrial dairy farms, lured by the promise of this emerging market, tried to enter the fray with a view to improve their margins. The only way to achieve this was through bending the organic label requirements so as to incur as small a production cost increase as possible. This strategy included keeping massive herds (thousands of heads), giving them a strip of raw dirt as a way to comply with the “pasture grazing” requirement, and feeding them grain. Under the Bush administration, the USDA never bothered to enforce its own regulations.

Simultaneously, the milk lobby PR machine went into action, supported by such organizations as the Center for Global Food Issues (CGFI), disparaging the claims that “organic” milk held higher health benefits than “regular” milk. Studies were published to demonstrate that there is no difference in nutrient content and that the genetically engineered growth-hormone rBST, designed to increase milk production, is as harmless to consumers as natural growth-hormones that are a normal occurrence in milk.

The public grew confused as to what “organic” actually stands for and whether the price premium is justified. In 2008, the Cornucopia Institute published a scorecard that sheds the light on the practices of 110 dairy brands of organic milk and is still considered the best reference available to consumers.

The public scored a victory this year when the USDA passed new regulations, effective as of last June, designed to tighten the requirements imposed on dairy farms to earn the organic label. The main one is that ruminants must obtain 30% of their dry food intake from grazing, which means that they must feed in a pasture at least 120 days a year. Existing organic farms have until June 2011 to comply.

Cow or goat or sheep or… ?

If all of this is giving you a headache and only reinforces the eco- and heath-anxiety you may feel when standing in the dairy aisle at the supermarket, here is one alternative to consider: goat milk (or sheep milk, although it is harder to come by).

Goat milk represents about 75% of the world milk market, although it’s hard to tell from our Western-world vantage point. Their milk is significantly more nutritious than cow milk. It is also a lot better suited to human digestion than cow milk (much smaller molecules and only 2% curd, as opposed to 10% in cow milk). In fact, it is closer to human milk, including a similar alkaline reaction (cow milk is sightly acidic).

Now, conventional, organic or raw goat milk? Most likely, availability at your local store will be the deciding factor. Otherwise, see above.

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