Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Food Myths Debunked: Got Milk? Part One

Since we got our grass fed beef (and may I just say it is hands down the best beef I've ever had), I've been thinking about cows. And this logically has lead me to think about milk. Recently, I've had two very dichotomous experiences with milk: my vet recently got a cow and has been enthusiastic about her family's experience with fresh milk and I got a newsletter in the mail from the school district with an article about how they add sugar to the milk to get kids to want to drink it. So here we have two extremes: milk in its raw form as it has traditionally been consumed and milk that has been pasteurized, homogenized, fortified, and laced with sugar. So, is milk good for us? Let's explore. (An important note: I'm going to limit this particular discussion to cow milk—good old "moo juice"—and I'll save the discussion of other dairy (cheese, yogurt, kefir, goat milk, etc.) for future posts.

It is likely that humans originally domesticated hoofed animals for milk, not meat and shepherding preceded agriculture by hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Humans began domesticating and milking cows about 8500 years ago in Mesopotamia. Unlike goats and sheep which tolerate rough climates and poor forage, cows are a bit more delicate and produce best on plenty of fresh grass. So, domesticating the cow gave us access to plenty of milk—but was that a good thing?

Critiques of milk fall into three major categories: milking is inhumane to cows, dairy farms pollute the earth, and milk is unhealthy. While it can be true that industrial dairies are bad for cows and the earth, the same cannot be said of traditional dairy farming (as we'll discuss further in a moment). Critics link dairy products to acne, allergies, anemia, eczema, asthma, constipation, IBS/IBD, obesity, and breast cancer. They cite the problematic components of milk: bacteria, viruses, allergenic proteins, lactose, growth hormones, antibiotics, cholesterol, and saturated fat. So let's look at each of these concerns.

To address the first two critiques, we need to look at the industrialization of the dairy industry. This really could be a blog post all on its own but we're going to condense it down considerably (See my previous post about beef—the commercial beef industry and commercial dairy industry share many of the same problems). Industrial confinement dairies keep cows indoors and feed them grains, corn, and soybeans. Confinement increases disease requiring the use of antibiotics. Eating grain, corn, and soy gives cows acid indigestion and ulcers (the four-part bovine stomach is designed to digest grass, not grain). Cows in industrial dairies are often given growth hormone to increase milk production to unhealthy levels and requiring them to be milked up to three times a day, which greatly increased the incidence of mastitis (breast infections). The manure lagoons from industrial dairies pollute the environment. Traditional dairy farming is very seasonal—the cows graze on grass out in pastures and produce an abundance of milk and cream when the weather is pleasant and are "dry" in the winter while pregnant cows are moved indoors and fed grass hay. Cows grazing on pasture are healthier than those in confinement and proper pasture management is actually beneficial to the environment. For more detailed information about the industrialization of dairy farming (as well as tons of other foods), I highly recommend the book Real Food: What to Eat and Why by Nina Planck.

The third critique about milk, that milk in unhealthy, is a major topic and I will address it in my next post so stay tuned for Got Milk? Part Two!