The quick answer: Today’s milk may not be the perfect food.
Mankind has safely consumed the milk of cows for millennia; that’s how I read the history. The Bible raises no issue with milk; in fact, the Promised Land is described as a land of “milk and honey.” The early Pilgrims enjoyed milk from goats and cows. Some of what we know of them comes from the division of the common herd in the 1627 Division of Cattle. A century ago milk was described as “the perfect food” and people were encouraged to drink a quart daily. But this was all before the Industrial Revolution turned the family cow into a business. The industrialization of milk caused rising concern about the healthfulness of modern milk. Look at what thoughtful people are writing:
- The Milk Book: The Milk of Human Kindness is Not Pasteurized, Dr. W. C. Douglass II, 1984/2003
- Don’t Drink Your Milk, Dr. Frank A. Oski (past chief of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins) 1996
- Milk-The Deadly Poison, Robert Cohen, 1997
- The Untold Story of Milk: Green Pastures, Contented Cows and Raw Dairy Products, Ron Schmid, 2003
- Devil in the Milk: Illness, Health and the Politics of A1 and A2 Milk, Keith Woodford, 2007
- The Untold Story of Milk, Revised and Updated: The History, Politics and Science of Nature’s Perfect Food, Ron Schmid, 2009
- The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Emerging Battle Over Food Rights, David Gumpert, 2009
- Whitewash: The Disturbing Truth About Cow’s Milk and Your Health, John Robbins, David Gumpert, 2010
The Industrialization of Milk
Here are three positions on milk:
- Milk’s bad: Some, especially vegans, argue against the consumption of animals and their products, including milk. No other mammal, they note, drinks milk beyond the first year, or consumes milk from another species.
- Olden is best: Others argue for dairy products from healthy animals, processed traditional ways (no pasteurization, homogenization, manipulation of fat content, etc.).
- Milk’s OK: The dairy industry spends billions encouraging us to drink modern milk, including versions altered to reduce fat.
To understand what is right for your family, we should look at the history. The drive to reduce the cost of mass produced food is unrelenting and can lead to unhealthy practices—this is a repeating problem with modern food. Beginning in the 1800s, distilleries for alcoholic drinks were located near cities and a market was sought for the used, fermented grains. Someone had the bright idea to build dairies next to the distilleries and feed the discarded mash to milk cows. So cows were taken from the pasture to the city and fed distillery swill. The cows weren’t healthy and neither was the milk—they couldn’t make it into butter or cheese but they could sell it as “swill milk.” During this time child mortality was on the rise; by 1840 half the deaths in the major east coast cities were of children. Milk wasn’t the only cause, but swill milk from diseased cows was judged to be a significant cause of infectious disease in children and concerned citizens cried for reform.
Pasteurization: Two reform programs were proposed, which typify how we approach food today. The programs had contrasting philosophies but the men behind them had something in common—each had lost a child to milk-borne disease.
- Dr. Henry Coit, in 1889, proposed that milk be collected only from healthy cows using sanitary methods, and that dairies that met the necessary hygiene standards be certified. A committee of volunteer doctors was assembled to implement a certification program.
- Mr. Nathan Straus, a co-founder of Macy’s, proposed a solution that was simple, cheap, and quick: pasteurize the milk.
Pasteurization won out—simple solutions usually do—and combined with other public health improvements (potable water and sewers) child mortality began to fall. Lost in the public debate were several key facts: First, pasteurization reduces bacteria but does not sterilize, so standards had to be set for how much surviving bacteria milk could contain (quite a bit is allowed). Second, though pasteurized milk has fewer bacteria, it still contains the carcasses of dead bacteria, a cause of immune system inflammation. Third, the heat of pasteurization changed the nature of milk; for example, it reduced the available vitamins, as well as enzymes beneficial to the lactose intolerant. This was a new product, untested by time. In California a doctor named Francis Pottenger placed cats on a diet that included either raw milk or pasteurized milk. The cats eating the raw milk were healthier and lived longer, but few have heard of Pottenger’s cats.
The battle over pasteurization left a legacy in public health departments—for generations afterward, they would vehemently oppose the right of citizens to consume raw milk. The government vendetta against California’s Alta Dena Dairy that forced them from the raw milk business is a matter of record.
Homogenization: Milk could now be shipped further distances, thanks to the longer shelf life from pasteurization, so the separation of milk and cream became a cosmetic issue. The solution was homogenization, a process where milk with cream is pumped at high pressure through very small holes. The fat is broken into smaller fragments that now remain in solution, rather than floating to the top. These fragments tend to quickly oxidize but if the milk is then cooked (pasteurized) this is prevented, though you now have a new fat molecule unproven by tradition. The public resisted homogenization in the beginning, but it gained acceptance in the years around WWII. Some have linked the rise of atherosclerosis and heart disease to pasteurized and homogenized milk, but other risk factors, including increased intake of sugar and trans fats (from the hydrogenation of processed vegetable oils), and the rise of cigarette smoking confused the issue.
Milking Pregnant Cows: It’s known that milk and dairy are a risk factor for breast cancer, which raises a question about bovine hormones in milk. The practice of milking cows deeper into the next pregnancy began in the ‘20s when milk prices were low and dairymen were struggling. It was another of those untested experiments to reduce cost. Hormone levels, including estrogen and progesterone, soar as pregnancy progresses, and are in the milk we drink. This introduces a new hypothesis: Is there a link between certain cancers (breast, prostate, colon, ovarian, and testicular) and these ingested hormones?
Gammaa Davaasambuu, a PhD from Mongolia, is studying the subject, using data from Harvard’s Nurses Health Study. Read about her work here. In the US cows are milked 300 days a year, deep into the next pregnancy; as a result this milk contains 33-fold more hormones (per one study). In Mongalia, by tradition, cows are milked just 150 days, so milk is relatively free of hormones and is neither homogenized or pasteurized. Dairy foods account for 60-80% of the hormones we consume in the US. When Monigolian children are given our milk, their serum hormone levels rise. How to reduce hormone ingestion, until more is known? Drink less milk. Another option, drinking reduced fat milks (hormones are carried by the fat) may introduce other problems, discussed in the next post.
Milk-related diseases: It’s strange this popular drink has so many disease issues not resolved by proper scientific research. Here is a partial list of disease concerns that merit further study:
- Milk, or a virus in milk, is thought to play a role in juvenile type 1 diabetes.
- Children's runny noses and chronic ear aches are sometimes linked to milk intake.
- Homogenized milk is theorized to be a cause of atherosclerosis of coronary arteries.
- Osteoporosis, in the Nurses Health Study, is linked to milk intake. Milk contains calcium, but it also contains protein that tips the acid balance and interferes with calcium absorption.
- Higher intake of milk, as noted, is tied to increased risk of certain cancers.
- Intolerance and allergies: About ¾ of the world population is lactose intolerant or allergic.
Monsanto and rBGH: The controversial use of Monsanto’s recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST, or rBGH) to increase the milk output of cows is well published. Thanks to the public's response, the practice is in decline so is not discussed in this post, except to note the power of an aroused public.
The Bottom Line
I like whole milk. I enjoy it on my breakfast compote and it’s also a good drink to cleanse the mouth of flavors (most flavors are fat soluble). I like cheese too. So what is my position on milk? Here it is:
- I drink it sparingly; I’ve started to date cartons I open, to track my intake. My goal is to drink less than ½ gallon weekly. This goal reduces animal protein intake per Healthy Change #20: Eat twice as much plant protein as animal protein.
- We try to buy less-processed milk. We haven’t converted to raw milk yet, but I’ve tried some and liked the taste. I wish it were more available, which would also make it more affordable. One thought on price: If you look at the price of dairy (cheese, butter, and milk) in the circa 1936 ad from Heavy’s Market shown here, you’ll see they’ve actually dropped in relative price over the 75 years.
- I dream a dream, that one day we can all buy milk like the people in Mongolia—from healthy pasture-fed cows, free of bovine hormones, not homogenized, and not so full of bacteria it must be pasteurized. I would pay more for good milk.
Please comment: Share your milk experience. Have you a solution to the possible problems of modern milk?
Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.
Photo from the State Library of South Australia.