People of a certain age will remember those infomercials from the 1960s-1980s with the catchphrase “Drink a Pint a Milk a Day” and that was the government message for many years. Most people always believed that milk from cows is essential for bone health, especially in the elderly and in children. But in recent years, milk from dairy cows has come under attack, largely from alternative industries promoting a “natural” message. Is there anything to it? Who is right?
Why is Milk Under Attack?
The message is quite a simple one: drinking cow’s milk is unnatural and unhealthy, keep it in the cow, it’s called cow’s milk for a reason. Figures are trotted out about how the recent development of drinking cow’s milk goes against our evolutionary needs. It’s usually accompanied by an astounding statistic on the number of lactose-intolerant people worldwide and, of course, a list of alternatives. However, a cynic might suggest that this is simply industry propaganda designed to encourage people to buy alternative products.
What Does the Dairy Industry Say?
Many sources have challenged and will continue to challenge the misinformation about milk. Recently, The Dairy Council felt the need to express its own concerns about this misinformation. They stated that it undermines attempts to encourage people to eat a healthy and balanced diet.
The problem is that there is incorrect mainstream information about nutrition, thanks in part to the media organisations who demonise words such as “calorie” and “fat”, making them sound like deadly things we need to avoid. In reality, we need a minimum amount of fat and sugar every day and need to consume a minimum number of calories daily to keep our bodies healthy.
This, in turn, makes it easy for suppliers of alternative products (particularly in alternative industries such as organic, alternative medicines and others) to exploit those fears. Diet fads, social media and a lack of information about scientific and nutritional concepts mean that such myths perpetuate unchallenged and unexamined.
What Does Evolutionary Theory Say?
Bodily tolerance of lactose is common in people who have a long tradition of rearing cattle. This includes most British people and others with northern and western European ancestry. It’s rare in ethnicities whose ancestors have only come to domestic cattle relatively recently, such as people with Chinese ancestry.
Genetic studies demonstrate that the genetic mutation associated with the ability to digest lactose arose around 10,000 years ago, but only in populations with a western and northern European genetic ancestry. In the Far East, it rose only to prominence around 3,000 years ago. Where it has occurred the population seems to have benefited in terms of health and survival rates. Evidence suggests it was genetically advantageous for humans to consume cow’s milk where it was available, over those areas where it was not.
The Health Benefits of Milk
It’s become more common to hear how dairy is a cause of health conditions such as heart diseases and particularly obesity. While they certainly contain fats, milk can be consumed as part of a healthy diet without increasing risks of illness. Consumed in moderation, milk is healthy, especially when limited to the things that most of us use it for anyway – on our cereal and in our tea and coffee. Some studies suggest that milk can help weight loss because of the other nutrients it contains:
• Calcium vital for building and maintaining strong bones; it’s also good for the teeth
• Protein is a source of energy and helps build and repair muscles
• Potassium which is good for blood pressure
• Phosphorus which also helps to strengthen bones
• Iodine required to stimulate the thyroid which controls the metabolism
• Vitamins A, B2 (also known as riboflavin), B3 (Niacin), B12, D