Sunday, March 1, 2015

Got truth? An honest look at the dairy industry.

I don't often write heated blog posts on controversial topics. I typically like to play nice and share yummy recipes and tips for raising a happy, healthy family. I'm a generally upbeat person who doesn't like to ruffle any feathers. A recent USA Today article, however, really got me worked up as I was reading it. I felt that if someone were reading this article and not paying attention to all of the details, they may come away from it with an incomplete and inaccurate picture of the dairy industry and the many alternative milks (soy, coconut, almond, etc.) that are now widely available.

The article, titled Coconut milk? Almond? Soy? How alternatives stack up, is all about dairy milk and the many dairy-free alternatives that are vying for space on store shelves. The reason I want to discuss this particular article is to stress the importance of paying close attention to the source of information and where they are receiving their funding. We can't just believe everything we read in the media. We really have to be our own health detectives and make the decisions that are best for our bodies and our families, instead of blindly following what we read.

In the article, Julia Kadison, CEO of the Milk Processor Education Program, says that milk is a "whole food that pretty much comes straight out of the cow". Let me start by saying that the MilkPEP is funded by dairy processors and backed by the USDA. The dairy industry spends millions of dollars every year telling us that milk is our best source of calcium, as well as other vitamins and minerals, so it shouldn't be any surprise that the head of an organization funded by U.S. dairy processors is touting the health benefits of dairy milk, but I am wondering how much time she has spent with dairy producers if she believes that the jugs of milk being sold at the grocery store are a whole food that "pretty much" came straight out of a cow. Let's put on our science hats for a few minutes (I don't know what a science hat looks like, but let's pretend)...

Happy cows?
Unless you are milking your own cows or buying milk straight from the farm, milk is in no way a whole food. They don't milk it directly into two-gallon jugs and ship it off to the grocery store. Far from it, actually. Most commercially sold milk that you buy at the grocery store has spent some time on the factory conveyor belt being pasteurized and homogenized. It is true that these technological advances keep milk fresh longer and make it less likely to transmit disease, but they are processing techniques that actually change the chemical makeup of the milk.

Pasteurization, developed by Louis Pasteur in 1864, is the process of heating milk to a high enough temperature that all dangerous bacteria are killed or inactivated (Margel, 2005). While beneficial in stopping the transmission of disease through cow's milk, the high heat also destroys healthful enzymes and proteins that are naturally occurring in raw milk (Margel, 2005). These enzymes help the body to assimilate the nutrients in milk, including calcium.

So even though milk is high in calcium, the removal of these beneficial enzymes through the process of pasteurization makes it less bio-available to the body and you don't reap calcium's full bone-building potential. This can also put unnecessary strain on the pancreas to produce the missing digestive enzymes (Fallon, Connolly and Enig, 1995). Certain minerals are lost during the process of pasteurization, as well, including vitamin A, B12 and E and biotin. Other vitamins and minerals are altered, making them less bio-available. This is why milk is often fortified with synthetic vitamin A and D (Haas and Levin, 2006).

Homogenization involves pumping milk that is under high pressure through tiny openings - so small that they break up the fat globules into even smaller globules that are surrounded by a film of protein that protects them from joining back together again (Murray, Pizzorno and Pizzorno, 2005). This prevents the fat-rich cream from separating from the rest of the milk and rising to the top as it naturally would. This is done because fat oxidizes and goes rancid easily. Homogenization slows this process, increasing milk's shelf life and improving its consistency (Margel, 2005). Because this process alters milk from its natural state, it is possible homogenization could have adverse health effects. For example, it may interfere with the body's ability to digest and utilize the fat in milk (Haas and Levin, 2006). This makes sense when you think about it. Once the fat in milk has been chemically altered through homogenization, it is no longer in the natural form that our bodies would recognize. Once it enters our system, it makes sense to believe that we may not be able to properly absorb this "unnatural" fat.

Straight from the cow to your local grocery store, right? Not exactly. Luckily, we have a wide range of options available. You can purchase milk that has been given the Certified Organic seal. Organic milk, while still pasteurized and usually homogenized, are free of synthetic hormones, pesticides, herbicides and antibiotic drugs and sometimes has the added benefit of coming from pastured cows.

You can also purchase raw milk, which has neither been pasteurized or homogenized. If you choose to purchase raw milk, I suggest buying from a trusted, reputable source. Know their technique and level of cleanliness. If the animals are clean and live in a healthy environment then their milk should be perfectly safe.

Yogurt contains healthy probiotics

There is also the option of only sticking to cultured and fermented dairy, such as yogurt, kefir and cheese. These can be found raw or pasteurized, but even the pasteurized versions provide beneficial bacteria that help to synthesize enzymes and metabolize lactose, making them easier to consume for some people who have trouble digesting dairy.

I make milk, too!
If you are intolerant to cow's dairy or choose not to drink it for other reasons, there are many options available. Goat's milk contains different proteins than cow's milk and may be better tolerated by those with allergies to cow's milk. It still contains lactose, but in lower levels than cow's dairy. Similarly, sheep's milk protein and lactose content is different than cow's milk and may be better tolerated by those who are lactose intolerant, depending on the severity (Schoenian, 2012).

I tend to discourage the use of soy milk as a milk replacement because of the phytoestrogens, which mimic our own body's estrogen. These pose a potential health danger because they are considered endocrine disruptors. Because of this, plain soy milk (not to be confused with soy formula) is NEVER an advisable milk replacement for babies or children.  The potential dangers vary depending on your age, sex and the amount you consume, but with so many other options available, I see no point in risking it.

Nut milks, such as almond milk, can be a good alternative to dairy milk

Nut milks (almond, cashew, coconut, etc.) can be a good option for those who do not to drink dairy milk because they do not contain the same proteins or sugars present in milk. They do have very different nutrient profiles than milk and also have their own unique health benefits. Coconut milk, for example, is a good source of certain vitamins, minerals and saturated fat (the good kind, not the Big Mac kind) and has antibacterial and antibacterial properties, but it does not provide the protein or calcium that dairy milk provides so you need to make sure you get those from other sources. You can get calcium from foods like salmon or sardines canned with the bones, oranges, broccoli and leafy greens. Meat, seafood, eggs, nuts and seeds are all great protein sources. Educate yourself on the nutrients and health benefits of any milk you choose to drink to determine which works best for your individual goals, needs and digestion. Your personal ethics may come into play, as well, because of the treatment of some dairy animals.

Coconut milk is nutrient dense and perfect for cooking
A registered dietitian in the article is quoted as saying "...the choices can also be confusing...You really do need to do some homework and look at the labels." The author points out that this dietitian has no ties to dairy or plant milk makers. Because she isn't receiving funding (directly or indirectly) from either side of the argument, there is no reason to believe her opinion is biased. In fact, I completely agree with what she is saying. I am no friend of the dairy industry, but that doesn't mean I believe plant-based milks are always a healthy option, either.

Unless labeled as "unsweetened" many alternative milks have added sugars. Many also use thickeners and stabilizers that can be gut irritants. Making your own almond or coconut milk (thanks to Wellness Mama for the recipes) at home is a great option if you have time, but we typically err on the side of finding brands that have the shortest possible list of ingredients and try to stay away from added sugars and known irritants like carrageenan. Trader Joe's, for example, sells a canned Lite Coconut Milk that is only coconut milk and water. That is definitely our go-to milk.

I am not trying to vilify dairy milk or become the new spokesperson for Trader Joe's Lite Coconut Milk (unless they are hiring...kidding). What I am really trying to get across here is that you need to take all sides of a story into consideration when you are making decisions about your health. You need to know the health benefits and concerns surrounding a given food or diet plan. You should also be curious about how and where your food was produced and even your own unique nutritional needs so that you can make the best choices for you and your family. Just because you read an article that says eggs are going to kill you as quickly than smoking, doesn't make it so (this has been definitively refuted, see this article from Mark's Daily Apple). Know the source of information and what they may stand to gain by voicing a certain opinion.

Read carefully and make informed decisions. Don't take things at face value. That goes for articles and food labels.

USA Today
Mark's Daily Apple
Fallon, Sally, Connolly, Pat and Enig, Mary G. (1995). Nourishing Traditions. San Diego, CA; ProMotion Publishing.
Haas, Elson and Levin, Buck. (2006). Staying Healthy with Nutrition. Berkeley, CA; Celestial Arts.
Margel, Douglas. (2005). The Nutrient Dense Eating Plan. Laguna Beach, CA; Basic Health Publications.
Murray, M., Pizzorno, J., Pizzorno, L. (2005). The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. New York, NY; Atria Books.
Susan Schoenian. (2012) Got Milk? Retrieved from

"Cows" Image Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut at
"Cow Milking Facility" Image courtesy of Detanan at
"Yogurt Stock Photo" Image courtesy of Master isolated images at
"Almonds in Glass Mug" Image courtesy of lobster20 at
"Coconut Halves" Image courtesy of zole4 at
"Lamb" Image courtesy of James Barker at
"Pouring Milk" Image courtesy of artur84 at