So, as I stated before in some of my previous blogs, there are many variables which are not being accounted for in the evaluation of the rates of disease and consumption of dairy. It is my belief that these variables are the greatest determinants of the discrepancy between the health of communities and their dairy consumption. One such potential variable is the quality of their milk.
This leads us to a third major argument against milk. This is the statement that, “by removing milk you reduce your exposure to the toxic byproducts of the modern agricultural practice.”
While I am not inclined to disagree entirely, we must bring this statement into the appropriate context before deciding how it affects our decision to use dairy in our diet. One important factor to analyze is its relative toxicity compared to other sources of food produced by modern agricultural methods. It is not deniable that the agricultural practices of our dairy industry, not to mention processing and packaging, have changed over the past century. However, the agricultural practices of the non-dairy industry have changed as well, and while it is the case we must be careful of the methods used to produce our dairy, this is the case for all foods.
As far as livestock industries go, the dairy industry allows far less hormonal supplementation and is more supportive of healthier feeding practices. The steroid hormones, which are not permitted in the use of dairy cattle, are found in high concentration in the meat of the animals raised for slaughter (2). The reason for the better care and practices for dairy cattle is due to the fact that the longevity of the cow is important to the production cost. In livestock raised for meat, the focus of the practices is to get the animal as large as possible, as quickly as possible. The health and longevity of the animal are almost inconsequential to profit. This has lead to very different standards for feeding and medication. The methods of care used by many of the large farms in the conventional meat industry promotes the rapid spread of disease, however the cows are always killed before they become morbidly sick (3). This sort of practice would never be allowed for dairy cattle. Considering the short period of time cows are able to produce milk before becoming too sick to continue, it has proven to be a more cost effective practice to keep them healthy long past their maturity.
As far as chemical contaminants, the majority of the chemical growth stimulants and chemical toxins in our food are found in plant produce. While there are some protective regulations about the feed of livestock to protect us, in the produce industry the task of disposing of these chemicals falls to the consumer. However, simply washing chemicals off the surface of the plant has been proven to be largely ineffective, as it has been found that the flesh of fruit routinely contains more pesticides than milk (4).
The USDA randomly tests foods for pesticide residues and consistently finds that dairy products have the lowest presence, while fruits and vegetables are the highest (5). The medicines and hormones used in livestock are concentrated in the tissue, especially the fat. Also absorbed into the tissue are certain hazardous and banned chemical commonly broken down and absorbed by the plant life the livestock consume (6). As I am a strong believer in the importance of high quality animal proteins for human nutrition, I think it is an advantage that these toxins are filtered to some extent by the cow during their milk production. In this way the toxin content relative to the nutrition content is far superior in the milk than the flesh or the green foods. The milk is relatively lower in fat soluble toxins and higher in fat soluble vitamins than the other animal sources. This will, in effect, lower your exposure to the toxic substances while still eating foods with the same nutritional value.
Another benefit of the filtration inherent to milks production is the reduced exposure to radioactive isotopes which have found there way into our food sources. For instance, there is some concern about the radiation from the recent nuclear reactor disasters contaminating seafood. Whether or not these concerns are well-founded, it is the case that human toxins find there way into the water and then into our soil, eventually filtering into the entire ecosphere. Milk has been conclusively proven to protect against the accumulation of strontium 90, which is a radioactive isotope that poses the greatest threat to humans through dietary exposure (7,8).
So what is the best choice with respect to dairy? There are a lot of studies out there regarding which practices are best for the production of healthy milk and even some studies evaluating the health of milk. Sometimes it is even the case that evaluators of such studies can be influenced by the agricultural methods employed by the manufacturers of milk in a specific community (9). Whether or not the difference in the milk produced by the cows raised under conventional or alternative agricultural conditions effects health in a positive or negative manner is a subject of much debate. I personally choose to purchase milk produced by farms which use minimal processing and methods of raising the cattle as similar to “nature” as possible. The dairies from the traditional Amish and Mennonite cultures utilize procedures which I find particularly attractive. Grass feeding (10), pasture raising, no growth stimulation, no using chemical feed or pharmaceutical agents, low heat pasteurization, no homogenization, and an organic certification are all aspects I look for as a priority. While the Amish and Mennonite cultures are known for this, there are many dairy producers which observe these practices that are not of any particular religious affiliation. Unpasteurized milk is available in some states and a controlled substance in others. Weighing the pros and cons of these methods is something you can look into if you would like.
The containers which hold the milk can also be a source of irritants and toxins. Glass containers or BPA free plastics are the safest packaging as far as our current understanding suggests.
Another nutritional feature of milk is casein, its major protein, which has been shown to reduce cortisol levels, the hormone commonly associated with stress (11). However, there is some concern that the cows bred to produce higher quantities of milk have developed a mutation which makes them produce a beta casein protein that may be irritating to some individuals (12). This is an area of current research which deserves more attention, and I hope the findings will influence the practice and labeling of the foods effected. Finally there are many additives to dairy products, including synthetic vitamins, and any number of them are irritants of varying degrees depending on the individual. I cover some of the most important ones in Part IV of The Foundation For Human Nutrition series.
While it is more expensive to purchase milk that has been produced in a way that avoids the above mentioned irritants, I still find that the relative cost of nutrition is rather low. For instance, a half gallon of 2% milk costing $5 contains approximately 935kcal or over 1/3 of a 2500kcal diet. Many dairy products, especially milk, also represent a conservation of time and energy as they are easy to prepare and easy to take on the go. If someone is eating three evenly portioned meals per day, this would mean that, at the highest standard of food production, they are able to spend as little as $5 on at least one of them. It would be hard to find a meal of equivalent nutritional value which is organic and as ethically produced at a similar price. If you are drinking the less expensive milk you will find a similar saving in comparison to the price of conventional meals. The argument that milk should be avoided due to its toxin levels, or its high cost when free of toxic industrial practice, is not accurate when comparing it to alternative foods of similar production standards. You can not compare the nutritional, toxic, and monetary value of conventional milk with organic local produce.
Important points to take away are that the pesticide presence in conventional grains, fruits, and vegetables are higher than those of conventional milk and meat. The use of chemical agents to increase the profitability of agriculture is in all agricultural industries. While these toxins can be concentrated in the flesh of the livestock, the cow often reduces the content of various agents during milk production. So while I would agree that the modern agricultural methods do decrease the quality of the milk, removing milk from your diet is not the most effective method of removing these toxins from your life. This is due to the fact that the toxic effect of modern agriculture impacts other foods in some ways more significantly than milk.
We can choose to buy foods that exclude the use of toxic materials during production. It is important to be aware we are still dealing with the general growing presence of toxins in the environment which is transferred to our foods. However, the toxins present in the area of production is the most important factor in determining the toxicity of the food. Milk has the benefit of having traveled through many filters, including the filtration the animal gives in order to protect the milk from environmental toxins the mother encounters. We must remember that an optimal diet is one that best meets our needs given our access, so we must make the best choices we can. In my opinion, milk is an excellent choice for most people.
This concludes the first three parts I have dedicated to the myths and misconceptions commonly portrayed about dairy and its influence on health. Before continuing this series with some information on Lactose intolerance, I am going to bring our attention to another important topic in health today known as “Chronic Stress,” which I will soon cover in greater depth.
(1)Steroid hormones are not used In Dairy
(2) Hormone use and effect on livestock
(3)Grain fed animals are sicker and higher morbidity
(4) Pesticides in milk
(5) Pesticides highest in fruits and vegetables and least in milk and meat mith grains in the middle
(6) DDT Exposure
(7) Strontium 90 exposure reduced by milk consumption
(8) Milk protective against strontium 90 accumulation
(9) Review of studies regarding obesity and cvd and milk consumption mentions the need for considering grass vs grain fed etc.
(10) The lipid content of grass fed milk
(11) Casein reduces stress hormones
(12) Beta casien from specific cow breads popular in america could be detremental