Are Dairy Products Bad for Your Health?

New critics come out against milk

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Cow’s milk, those celebrities with the white mustaches tell us, does a body good. For years the alternative health crowd has disputed this claim, citing dairy products for a host of health ailments, including frequent colds, bronchitis, ear infections, and obesity. Now those concerns are spreading into mainstream circles: A 61-year-old Seattle man has filed suit against the state dairy farmers association and his local supermarket, among others, claiming that he might have avoided clogged arteries and a minor stroke if milk cartons had carried warnings about the dangers of fat and cholesterol.

Indeed, if this growing chorus of critics has its way and the dairy industry is forced to plaster warning labels on its milk cartons, there may not be enough room to list all the potential health risks. Consider this: As Becky Gillette reports in E Magazine (Sept.-Oct. 1998), recent studies show there’s growing evidence of much higher rates of breast and prostate cancers in people who have elevated levels of insulin-like-growth factor 1 (IGF-1), the hormone that increases milk production in cows treated with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). The hormone was approved for use in the United States six years ago after a study conducted by Monsanto (which makes the hormone) found no ill effects in rats. But now that study is under attack. As reported in Mothering (March-April 1999), a panel of Canadian scientists reviewed the study and “found previously unreported side effects in the data Monsanto had used to gain U.S. approval. Almost 30 percent of the rats had, in fact, developed antibodies to the hormone, meaning it was active in their bloodstreams.” As a result, Canada refused to approve rBGH, making the United States the only major nation to allow its use.

Monsanto denies that rBGH carries any health risks, because the hormone does not accumulate in the cow’s body. As company spokesman Gary Barton tells Gillette, “Milk has always had IGF-1 in it—it’s naturally occurring. The critics, who have been out there for at least 15 years, have leapt on these scientific articles and tried to make a link between rBGH, cow’s milk, and increased levels of IGF-1, when, in fact, there is no link.”

Nevertheless, the rBGH controversy has sparked a dramatic increase in sales of organically produced milk (a 67.6 percent rise in mainstream stores alone last year, according to the Organic Trade Association) as health-conscious consumers seek safer alternatives. But what they may not realize is that organic milk only protects them from the alleged side effects of rBGH, not from the effects of drinking liquid fat. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), one cup of whole milk has as much artery-clogging fat as five strips of bacon. A glass of 2 percent has as much fat as three strips.

While it is true that infants and very young children need fat for proper brain development, syndicated columnist Norman Solomon, writing in Alternet, argues that “after age 2, whole milk does more harm than good.” According to Solomon, milk is the foremost source of saturated fat congealing in the arteries of America’s kids. “Fatty streaks—an early sign of heart disease—are seen in the arteries of children as young as 10,” says CSPI senior scientist Margo Wootan. And a large percentage of America’s minority population suffers from lactose intolerance. As Dr. Dawne M. Carroll reports in Emerge (March 2000), “Lactose intolerance [inability to digest lactose] is seen in as many as 70 percent of African Americans, 90 percent of Asian Americans, 74 percent of Native Americans, and 53 percent of Mexicans. Only 15 percent of whites are lactose intolerant.”

Where, then, should you get your calcium? According to Mothering (July-Aug. 1998), “the answer is quite simple: from the same place that cows, horses, and elephants get theirs—the vegetable kingdom. Leafy and dark green vegetables are an excellent source, and we don’t have to eat the recommended daily allowances; the World Health Organization finds that most populations on calcium levels as low as 400 mg per day have no calcium deficiencies.”

So the next time you spot one of those clever celebrities with the white mustache, think green.