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Cow’s Milk’s Murky Health Benefits

Overall Gains Udderly Uncertain

Cow’s Milk’s Murky Health Benefits

By Jessica Scarpati –

Before the Broadway hit Hamilton cemented Aaron Burr’s place in pop culture, the disgraced vice president’s name was on everyone’s lips in an entirely different context. In an instantly iconic 1993 television spot, a history buff frantically tries to answer a radio call-in show trivia question ― who shot Alexander Hamilton? ― only to be thwarted by a mouthful of sticky peanut butter.

“Got milk?” the next screen asks, launching what would become one of America’s most memorable advertising campaigns. Despite wielding the superstar power of Beyonce and Britney Spears in ensuing ads, the campaign ultimately wasn’t powerful enough to reverse a nationwide trend: Since the 1940s, Americans drink less and less cow’s milk each year.

Dairy’s decline has only accelerated since then. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that the 2010s marked the sharpest plummet in per capita consumption of cow’s milk in six decades.

It’s no wonder, then, that the dairy industry is trying to milk its most popular campaign once again. Although now wrapped in sarcasm and satire with a mock PSA about “milk shaming,” the message is the same: Don’t deny dairy. Love lactose. Drink more milk.

The message: milk does a body good has been hammered into our collective conscience since childhood. But how true is that? The answer to that question is, well, as clear as milk.

“What are the unique nutrients that dairy has that nothing else has? Nothing,” Stanford nutrition researcher Christopher Gardner said in an interview with Discover Magazine. “It is true calcium is easier to get from milk than just about anything else. That is totally true. But you can get calcium from lots of other things.”

Plant milks ― such as soy, almond and oat ― are often fortified with calcium and vitamin D, for example. Other promising non-milk sources of calcium include chia seeds, canned salmon or sardines (with bones), tofu, white beans and collard greens. In addition, other types of dairy products, such as yogurt and cheese, are rich in the same nutrients too.

Even for children, nutrition experts say cow’s milk isn’t some magical elixir. While it can be a helpful source of calories and protein for picky eaters, milk’s role in bone growth might be overhyped. On one hand, vegans, vegetarians and pescatarians are more likely to suffer a broken bone. But science has revealed that physical activity, particularly weight-bearing exercise, is now thought to be just as important as calcium intake over a person’s lifetime.

Do kids really need milk? No, of course they don’t,” Amy Lanou, a nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, told Live Science. “The best way for kids to take good care of bones is to go outside and play.”

It’s not just that we don’t need cow’s milk, experts say. It is also linked to some serious health risks.

“Commercial cow’s milk contains sex hormones such as progestin and estrogen because cows on factory farms are pregnant for most of the time they’re milked,” reports The Washington Post. “Some evidence suggests that these hormones could stimulate the growth of cancers. Large observational studies have linked milk and dairy intake to higher rates of breast, prostate and testicular cancers.”

But like many aspects of nutrition science, these studies are based on correlation ― not a clear cause-and-effect relationship. In fact, the Post points out, that a 2019 scientific review of other studies involving 22,000 people found those who consumed cow’s milk and other dairy products actually had a lower risk of developing colon cancer.

Meanwhile, the use of synthetic hormones in dairy cows raises other questions.

“When we look at cancer risk, we’re really looking at the fat in dairy, which contains estrogenic hormones,” registered dietitian Julia Zumpano explained on Cleveland Clinic’s Health Essentials blog. “Cows that are given these hormones have an increased risk for infection, so they’re more commonly given antibiotics. This poses concerns about promoting antibiotic resistance, which has not yet been concluded in humans.”

For its part, the dairy industry counters that antibiotic anxiety is unfounded.

Cows being treated with antibiotics are separated from the rest of the herd to ensure their milk does not enter the milk supply,” Dairy council of California asserts. “Every tanker of milk, whether containing conventional or organic milk, is tested for antibiotics. The whole load will be discarded if it tests positive for commonly used antibiotics, leaving the farmer financially responsible for the full tanker. State regulators apply additional penalties such as fining the farmer and/or revoking his license to sell milk if additional tests are positive.”

The news isn’t all bad, though. Science has come around on cow’s milk and heart health. Long vilified for its saturated fat content, full-fat cow’s milk was found to have no significant effect ― good or bad ― on a person’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease, according to a study of more than 130,000 people by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Bottom line: Don’t sweat that splash of milk in your coffee or bowl of cereal. Most importantly, be sure you stay active and keep it moo-ving.





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