Milk and dairy – good or bad?

This article is about nutrition rather than animal welfare, ethics or environmental concerns, all of which are valid and interesting separate discussion topics.

Something I come across lots with new clients and fitnat followers is the exclusion of milk and dairy produce from the diet. It’s hardly surprising when there’s so much hype about dairy being ‘bad for you’ and milk being ‘meant for baby cows, not humans’*, along with supermarket shelves stacked with milk alternatives.

But is milk and dairy really bad for humans or is it a bit of a fad or a myth?

*If milk is meant for baby cows, not humans then aren’t berries meant for birds, not humans? Is there a food that grows in the wild that’s specifically for humans? The success of the human species is down to its ability to adapt to and make use of whatever food sources are available in its area.

History of dairy consumption

As far back as 8000 BC, that’s 10,019 years ago as I write, people in what is now the middle east were drinking goat’s milk and making other dairy products from the milk.

Drinking an animal’s milk gives a far longer-lasting source of nutrition than killing that animal and eating it, plus the animal’s shorn fur could be used for clothing and other useful items. It wasn’t long before other populations took up livestock farming on larger scales and subsequently drinking the milk of goats and other ruminants – cows and sheep increased hugely; this included farmers in northern Europe.

As a result northern Europeans and some other populations developed the enzyme ‘lactase’ that allowed them to digest the lactose in milk, this is called being ‘lactase persistent’.

Now less than 5% of the population of the U.K. (for example) are lactose intolerant. Most of us have the advantage of inherited genetic variation and can drink milk and eat dairy without problems, in fact with immense benefit.

Why is milk and dairy waning in popularity?

It wasn’t many decades ago in the UK that milk was seen for what it is, a highly nutritious staple, a useful source of protein, calcium, phosphate, B vitamins and iodine.

Back in the 70s, if you were around, you’ll remember ‘The Humphreys’ who were a secret mob who went around with big stripey straws (paper ones in those days) slurping people’s milk. The slogan was ‘Watch out there’s a Humphrey about!’:

Of course this was clever advertising and there was an element of post-war ‘nourish the people’ness at play, but it would have absolutely ramped up people’s health. Milk was put in a very positive light, as opposed to now where you’d think it was cyanide.

The ‘clean eating’ movement has bad-mouthed milk and dairy, blaming it for everything from acne to IBS to arthritis to you-name-it, and we’ve seen a beyond-belief rise in variety and sales of plant-based milk and dairy alternatives; Sainsbury’s alone stocks more than 60 varieties.

The public can’t really be blamed for thinking that real milk and dairy is the enemy, and they’re duped into buying substandard liquids at a huge price. So badly are they duped that one Belgian couple lost their son because they fed him an alternative diet that included nut and quinoa milks.

Are milk and dairy alternatives as good as the real thing?

Are these pseudo milk-and-dairy products all they’re cracked up to be?

Not really, simply because they’re not a patch on the nutrients contained in real milk.

Take almond milk, which is the biggest-selling alternative milk; look at the label of something like Alpro and you’ll see that very little of the liquid is almond, actually about 2%, the rest is water, gums, sugar and oils.

Oat milks such as Oatly, contain about 10% oats and the rest is a mixture of oils and additives, thus:

Oat Base (Water, Oats 10%), Rapeseed Oil, Acidity Regulator (Dipotassium Phosphate), Calcium Carbonate, Calcium Phosphates, Iodised Salt, Vitamins (D2, Riboflavin and B12)

Rice milk is also nutritionally incomparable to real milk, with its following ingredients (Rude Health brown rice milk):

Spring Water, Organic Brown Rice (17%), Organic Cold-Pressed Sunflower Oil, Sea Salt.

Not forgetting that sunflower increases the ratio of Omega 6 fatty acids in the diet when most people’s fatty acid intake needs less Omega 6 and more Omega 3.

Soya milk again has a fairly low level of beans to water, this is Alpro organic soya milk’s ingredients:

Water, Hulled Organic Soya Beans (6.5%).

Some pseudo milks are fortified with ‘some’ of the vitamins and minerals you’d find in proper milk, but not all of them – very very few contain the vital iodine, for instance, although Oatly contains iodised salt. But a fortified plant milk can’t be certified as organic, so plenty of companies forego the fortification in order to increase sales by labelling the product as organic (see the Alpro soya milk above). And it is all about sales, not health.

Looking at coconut milk, which the clean eaters are fond of using in porridge and overnight oats and, well almost everything; coconut milk has 18g of fat per 100g and 16.6g of that is saturated. Whole milk has 4g of fat per 100 and only 2.4g of that is saturated. Coconut yoghurt has 23g of fat per 100g, 20g of which is saturated. Whole-milk natural yoghurt has 5g of fat per 100 and 3.6g of that is saturated. Saturated fat is fine, in moderation, but it’s not something to be drowning all your food in in the name of healthy eating.

Of course dairy doesn’t just mean milk, it means fermented milk products such as yoghurt, as well as butter and a huge range of cheeses. Fermented milk products have even more health advantages because they supply the gut with beneficial bacteria. Plus even lactose intolerant people can often tolerate fermented milk products, butter and cheese and reap the significant health benefits.

What are the nutrients and health benefits of milk and dairy?

Milk is a complete protein, which means it has a full set of essential amino acids. It has a string of vitamins and minerals, most prominently vitamins B2, B12 and D, calcium, phosphorus and iodine.

Vitamin B12 is vital for healthy nervous system functioning as well as to produce healthy red blood cells and to offset homocysteine. Iodine is essential for proper thyroid function, and the thyroid plays a huge part in metabolism and many other body functions such as temperature control and oxygen use. Dairy is the main source of iodine in western diets and now people are shunning milk and dairy there will be many unhappy thyroid glands.

Most people know the benefits of calcium and vitamin D and how they work in unison (nature cleverly puts them together in real foods).

Vitamin B2 plays a part in energy production and iron metabolism, and phosphorus makes up all of our cells as well as strengthening bones. Strong bones are pretty crucial to good living.

Yoghurt
Yoghurt, as stated earlier has immense health benefits. Yoghurt and cultured milks such as kefir contain probiotic organisms and bioactive fats which are made by the probiotic organisms – bioactive fats play a part in preventing and reducing inflammation. Lactose levels are lower because the bacteria digest it before you do so cultured dairy is usually well-tolerated.

Cheese
Cheese is another source of probiotics when it’s properly produced; fermented and aged cheeses such as good Cheddar, feta, mozzarella, Gouda, blue cheeses, Brie and similar soft cheeses can all make the gut a happier place. And when the gut is happy that happiness transfers to the rest of the body.

Like milk, cheese provides a good amount of the fat soluble vitamins A, D E and K as well as calcium, phosphorus, B12 and protein.

Butter
Butter is a good source of vitamin K2, which is important for strong bones. It’s also a good source of vitamin A and has some vitamin E and D.

Contrary to popular belief butter is not made of entirely saturated fat, it also has a good amount of monounsaturated fat as well as some polyunsaturated. One of its best features is its butyric acid, which is a fatty acid that has anti-inflammatory effects and is also produced by friendly gut bacteria as they feed on the fibre we eat.

So butter, while it’s a high calorie food to be eaten in moderation, is not at all the health demon people think it is.

Is all milk and dairy made the same?

No, neither by nature nor by man. The nutrient profile of milk is affected by the breed of cow that produced it, whether that cow was pregnant or not when it produced the milk, what the cow was fed on – be it grass or man-made feed. This is why organic milk can be more nutritious because it means the cows must eat grass for at least a third of the year and ‘grass-fed’ dairy has greater nutrient content. The time of year and all the other variables mean the cow’s body produces a slightly different, but natural, variation of milk.

In terms of man-made differences pasteurisation is the norm, at least for milk. That kills some of the natural bacteria – good and maybe not so good. Raw milk is available in the UK but only directly from the farm or farmer, not from shops or supermarkets. Raw milk dairies have stricter hygiene rules and testing procedures than pasteurised milk dairies but whether to drink it is entirely down to the individual. Best avoided by pregnant women, young children or anyone whose immune system is compromised. It is, however, delicious.

Most of the milk, in the UK at least, is homogenised. That means the milk is squirted through a machine with tiny nozzles at very high pressure so the cream part of the milk is dispersed and the consumer is not put off the milk by seeing a layer of cream – madness! Read more about homogenised v unhomogenised milk.

What about hormones and stuff?

It’s a common misconception that cows are pumped with hormones and antibiotics, while this can be the case in the USA it is very much not the case in the UK. Routine use of antibiotics is not UK practise in dairy herds and the use of growth hormones was banned by the EU over 20 years ago.

Milk contains the naturally occurring hormones oestrogen and IGF1. IGF1, which is a growth hormone, also occurs in meat and other proteins, including plant proteins. Drinking oestrogen in milk does not mean it affects our own hormone levels because it’s broken down by the liver before reaching the bloodstream, unless you have 100 times the amount of oestrogen than you’d get from drinking milk, which is unlikely.

When it comes to IGF1, drinking milk only raises the naturally occurring hormone by 2–10% above fasting levels and again it’s not just milk but all proteins that do this. Plant proteins do it to a lesser degree and at any rate there is no definitive evidence that this is a bad thing, in fact in can be good for people who want to ‘grow’, such as those trying to build muscle or stay strong and robust.

Should you consume milk and dairy produce?

Sal drinking from a milk bottle
Sal drinking from a milk bottle
‘Should’ is a strong word! It’s up to you as an individual, but before eliminating milk and dairy it’s good to know the facts.

This article is very pro milk and dairy as a deliberate contrast to the plethora of unfounded claims made against what is a highly nutritious food source. Milk is very much on the agenda at fitnaturally, as are all natural, real and nourishing foods. Like any food, it’s entirely up to the individual to choose whether to consume it or not, based on personal taste, ethics, environmental concerns, properly diagnosed intolerances and so on. When deciding whether to cut milk and dairy from your diet you can consider the following:

  • Have you been diagnosed as lactose intolerant by a qualified medical practitioner? If so, you should follow their advice or the advice of someone qualified in nutrition.
  • If you really do have symptoms of lactose or dairy intolerance you should seek qualified diagnosis, that’s not from one of the many shonky allergy testing places but by the NHS or equivalent.
  • If you don’t like milk and dairy, or if you disagree with it ethically or environmentally that’s your personal choice and right. But you should ensure you get adequate amounts of its nutrients from your diet, not overlooking iodine in particular, which is difficult to find elsewhere in a mainstream diet.

If you love and embrace milk, as we do, there’s plenty of evidence that upholds its benefits and contrary to popular belief milk isn’t a contributor, in its own right, overweight and obesity (that’s generally down to overeating, unfashionable as it is to say so). Have a look at this study about milk and obesity in children and adolescents.

To sum up

The proven and widely know benefits of dairy consumption outweigh its growing reputation for harm. Always research the facts or consult someone who is qualified in nutrition before deciding to eliminate widely accepted and well-used natural foods from your diet.

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