Every Tuesday I am going to address one specific myth, urban legend, conspiracy theory or piece of pseudo-science. This time we are going to evaluate the claim, that milk is poison and kills people.
Till Milk do us Part
Yep. You read correctly. The greatest menace of humanity are not guns and wars, but your daily cup of milk. This sneaky, fluid, white killer will make you suffer and be responsible for your slow and painful demise in the end. And there goes your happy day. Or does it?
If you are travelling into the abysses(1) beyond evil mainstream media, you will find claims like the ones stated above quite often. Ok, maybe I have exaggerated a little bit, but the general attitude of many esoteric, ecological-thinking or health-concerned citizens is not too far away from the apocalyptic world view of my first sentences.
But maybe there is more to it. Maybe you will not die an incredibly painful death, if you are drinking milk on a regularly basis. Maybe, the world is not so much black and white but merely grey after all.
So, let’s take a look at some facts.
Milk is considered high-quality food by many nutritionists. It is an incredibly good source of biological value proteins, essential minerals and important vitamins(2). Currently, it is hard to imagine a decent diet without any kind of dairy products. But what about the vegans, you may ask? Well, I said, it is hard, not impossible. I will cover the challenges of a vegan diet probably in a future post, so I’m not going to discuss this more detailed at this point.
Profile of a Killer
So, what about health effects of milk consumption? Well, this is the aspect, where it gets a bit tricky. There is indeed a broad scientific consensus, that drinking milk is beneficial to young children. Whatever the reasons for the avoidance of cow milk may be, one should be aware of the consequences. In children with ages between three and ten years, the abstinence from milk is associated with a smaller stature and poor bone health(3). So if a child is not suffering from any kind of lactose intolerance, it is probably still a good idea, to provide milk for a healthy diet and to prevent any kind of detrimental consequences. Currently scientists are concerned about the level of calcium intake, because many children and adolescents do not receive the recommended amounts. This is something, which has to be addressed, so parents can adjust the diet of their children accordingly(4).
Some of you may think, this still sounds like there is a big BUT, which needs to be considered as well – and you are absolutely right.
You will have noticed my sole focus on children and adolescents – there is indeed a reason for that. While most of them are able to digest milk during the early years of their lifespan quite well, this ability may fade with their transition into adulthood. Most of the adults alive today have switched off their lactase gene (the one which is responsible for digesting dairy products). Not by choice, of course, but that’s just something which happens quite often as you get older. Only 35% of adults are still able to properly digest milk products. This has a lot to do with the nutrition of our ancestors and their migration patterns. Lactase persistence is still quite common among people from northern countries like Scandinavia or Britain (about 90% can digest dairy products there), but far less prevalent in southern parts of the world (only 40% in Greece and Turkey)(5). So, depending where your ancestors lived, it might be more or less likely that you are able to eat milk products past adolescence.
In addition to that, the consumption of dairy products, especially milk, can actually be quite detrimental to the health of an adult human being. Some research found a higher rate of death correlated to increased milk consumption and in contrary to popular believes there was no evidence for a lower risk of bone fractures and osteoporosis(6). But this is merely a correlation, not causation. Very important difference. This seems to be quite consistent with a meta-analysis, which stated that its findings do not support an increased milk intake to prevent hip fractures in adult women. Although the authors were not able to exclude possible health benefits in adult men, they explained that more data is still needed to come to a final conclusion(7). Some researchers even argue, that its not about the calcium intake which reduces bone fragility, but the recommended amount of vitamin D one gets. Women whose intake of vitamin D was at ≥ 12.5 μg per day had their risk of hip fractures reduces by 37%, while the consumption of milk was not connected to any risk prevention at all(8).
There is also no significant evidence for the prevention of colorectal cancer in association with increased calcium consumption – and it cannot be excluded, that there might be a weak or modest impact regarding the occurrence of said cancer(9). Isn’t this lovely. Either it helps you or it kills you. Science can be weird sometimes.
In general, it seems reasonable to assume, that the promoted health benefits of a diet including diary products are not as significant after all. The current state of evidence supports a quite neutral approach regarding milk consumption(10).
Yes, it provides many important nutrients, which are considered as part of a healthy diet.
No, after reaching adulthood it’s probably not necessary to continue eating dairy products, if you are able to compensate their nutrients with other kinds of food. Any claimed health benefits are still quite vague – as well as their detrimental counterparts, so more research is needed to resolve this matter.
There is one aspect you should keep in mind. Remember when I told you about the benefits of consuming dairy products during childhood and adolescence? Well, there is one important disadvantage: the risk of having symptoms of acne is increasing with milk consumption. This holds true both for boys and girls(11)(12). Either you will be skinny and fragile, or your face looks like the surface of the moon. Being a child must be super fun.
Not a Killer After All?
Apparently, milk consumption is not as bad as PETA and their co-conspiracists will make you believe. At least when it comes to human health.
Nevertheless, it’s time for another but. Consuming diary products is mostly an ethical choice. Most of the milk we use is produced by turbo cows, or the Holstein Friesian cattle to be more precise. In 1955 a cow was able to provide about 4000 litres of milk each year – HF-cows deliver 15.000 litres now(13). They are being kept in a constant pregnant state and you can imagine, that their lifespan is not really extensive in the end. Not to mention the way the animals are kept and treated.
Humans are the only animals which are consuming the milk of other animals. But humans do many things other animals don’t. We are the only ones using planes – it is not necessarily a bad thing being the sole agent of a specific action.
It mainly depends how you are viewing animalistic suffering. I have lived for more than eight years as a vegetarian before I started to eat meat again (and currently, I’m considering of refraining from it one more time) – so I have deep respect for every vegetarian and vegan, because I know how difficult this way of live sometimes can be.
Dairy production may not kill you, but it’s safe to say, it harms other animals in the process.
I’m not in the position to judge anybody for their life choices – I’m merely presenting facts based on scientific research.
What to do with it, is up to you.
PS: Die deutsche Version wird zukünftig erst am Donnerstag erscheinen. Aus dem Debunk-Dienstag wird also der Debunk-Donnerstag. Dafür wird sie gelegentlich etwas ausführlicher oder spezifischer auf den deutschen Sprachraum bezogen. Ansonsten bleibt alles beim Alten.
Feel always free to discuss my ideas and share your own thoughts about the things I’m writing about. Nobody is omniscient and if we all walk away a bit smarter than before, we’ll have achieved a lot.
Thanks for reading and stay healthy.
Make sure, to check out #steemstem for more science related content.
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