Milk: Good or Bad?

by in Healthy Tips, September 1, 2009

Cereal with Milk
We’re talking about cows’ milk, that is. Many folks view milk as wholesome and healthy. Others, meanwhile, warn us away and say it’s full of hormones or might make you phlegmy. So what’s the deal with milk: does it do your body good or not?

Nutrition Basics
The healthy nutrients in milk speak for themselves — protein, calcium, vitamins A, D, B12 and riboflavin and the mineral potassium. Sure, you can get these nutrients from other foods and beverages, but milk offers them all in one package. Plus, vitamin D, which helps you absorb calcium, is harder to come by in other foods, and recent studies have shown that many people (especially children) aren’t getting enough.

If you’re eating the skim variety (a.k.a. non-fat milk), it contains only 90 calories and 8 grams of protein and provides 30% of your daily calcium and 25% of your daily vitamin D. Of all the milk varieties, whole milk is the highest in fat and calories (146 calories and 8 grams of fat); reduced fat (a.k.a. 2%) and low-fat (a.k.a. 1%) have less. Most health pros recommend that adults and kids older than two stick with skim or 1% to avoid the extra calories, cholesterol and saturated fat.

The Hormone Issue
Many milk naysayers worry most about the unnecessary hormones. Cows naturally produce the hormone bST to stimulate milk production. Some dairy farmers rely on a synthetic form of this hormone, rBST, to boost their cows’ milk generation. Many health and food safety advocates question whether these extra hormones disrupt our own healthy hormone levels and, in turn, might lead to cancer or other medical problems. Some countries have banned farmers from using rbST on their cows, but other agencies, including the World Health Organization, say that rbST is safe. Here in the U.S. it’s still allowed. If you’re worried, the best thing to do is only buy milk that’s rBST-free (it will say on the label) or organic.

Organic or Conventional?
When a milk is labeled organic, it means that the dairy cows spend at least half the year out on pastures (so they can eat plenty of grass) and there’s no use of synthetic hormones (like rbST). Today, 3% of the milk in America is organic, which is on the rise from years past. Most major supermarkets carry some kind of organic milk, but the price tag is often higher.

There’s been a lot of debate lately about whether organic food is any better for you. Some research supports the theory that organic milk contains more nutrients and antioxidants like vitamin A, lutein and omega-3 fats, but there’s nothing conclusive yet.

When shopping for organic, local milk is another option to consider. Many smaller farms may not spend the time and money required to get certified “organic” but do follow organic practices. Local milk can be hard to find sometimes. In Connecticut, where I live, a few small dairy farms have joined forces to provide their milk to large chain grocery stores; check out the Connecticut Farmer’s Cow website. Keep an eye on your dairy case and you might see some more local options. If you do, you can always call them up to ask if they follow organic practices.

What About Raw?
Nearly all the milk sold today (95% to be exact) is pasteurized, which means the milk was quickly heated to just over 160-degrees to kill off any harmful bacteria. Pasteurization also lengthens shelf life and freshness. (TIP: Always check the sell-by dates at the store; many markets push the older milk to the front to sell it before it expires.)

Raw milk, meanwhile, is just that: raw and unpasteurized. Advocates claim that not pasteurizing means better flavor and nutrient quality. There’s strong evidence to show that pasteurization doesn’t actually affect your milk’s protein, vitamin or mineral content, and the FDA and CDC actually warn the elderly, young children, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems to avoid raw milk because of the bacteria risk.

Other Milk Concerns
There are countless theories that blame everything from acne to bed-wetting on drinking milk. Here are some of the things I’m asked about most.

Lactose Intolerance: Some people can’t digest the lactose in milk (lactose is a natural sugar) because they don’t have a certain enzyme you need to break it down. If that’s you, look for lactose-free dairy products; they’re available in most stores and contain all the same nutrients as regular milk. You may find that you can tolerate small amounts of dairy without a problem. Since every case is different, be sure to check with your doctor and registered dietitian to make choices that work for you.

Acne: Have you ever heard that drinking milk makes you break out? Well, a few studies have found that it’s possible. Researchers think it’s the hormones in milk that cause flare-ups in people with acne-prone skin, but there’s no solid association yet. If you’re battling acne, you may want to experiment by limiting the dairy you eat to see if there is a benefit (be sure get milk’s nutrients from other sources while you’re at it).

Mucus and Asthma: Some folks blame milk for increasing mucus production in the nose and throat and possibly worsening asthma symptoms. Yes, I’ve heard people complain that they’re nagged with extra phlegm or a cough after eating a lot of cheese or drinking milk. So far, however, there are no research studies that prove the relationship between dairy and mucus or asthma.

The Bottom Line
Cow’s milk can certainly be part of a healthy diet, and all types contain important nutrients like protein, calcium and vitamin D. Most complaints against milk relate to the potential side effects from added hormones. If this concerns you, buy hormone-free or organic milk (which doesn’t contain added hormones either). If you skip milk because you’re lactose intolerant or avoid animal products, make sure to get nutrients like calcium and vitamin D from your other foods.

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Comments (54)

  1. Tamara says:

    Even if we drink organic or "raw" milk, it isn't very natural for humans to drink milk at all. We were made to suckle for a year or two, then stop….hence why 25% of the world's adult population is lactose intolerant (only 11% in the US, because Westerners have learned to tolerate dairy over the centuries).

    Consider: one cup of skim milk has about 300 mg of calcium. One cup of cooked spinach contains about the same. I'm by no means anti-dairy. but since I have to live without it I have learned to get my vitamins elsewhere.

  2. Sarah Marie says:

    I agree with Tamara, and I think it would be interesting to see an article on healthyeats that delves into the issue she raises a bit more. Should humans leave cow milk for baby cows, and seek plant-based forms of calcium, vitamin D, etc?

    I've also read that milk protein actually leaches calcium from bones, contrary to what the milk industry would have us believe.

    I'm lactose intolerant and among those who claim dairy leads to excess mucus production — I definitely have trouble breathing through my nose after ingesting dairy.

    • Sara says:

      Milk protein leaches calcium from bones?
      If that's the case, it would be with other forms of dietary protein as well, not just casein. .
      I have heard that coffee and teas can bind calcium in dairy products if you eat them at the same time or within a few hours and cause it not to be absorbed.

      I personally think its weird to drink cow's milk. Its not the most sanitary thing as it can contain pus if the cow is not treated properly.

  3. Stephanie says:

    agreed!!

  4. Kem says:

    Reading The China Study will put you off milk and other animal proteins.

  5. Sarah says:

    People have been drinking milk from cows, goats, sheep, etc. for centuries. It's just another thing that humans aquire from these animals. Same as eggs from chickens. I mean, people are entitled to their own opinions, but I find it funny that people say things like, "We shoudln't drink cows milk because we don't drink people milk anymore." If that were the case, then maybe we shouldn't eat chicken eggs anymore. I say this, of course, because as mammals we were once just simple eggs. By eating chicken eggs wouldn't this be some form of "cannibalism" because we're (in a sense) eating ourselves?

    This may sound childish or ignorant to some people, but I think it's a valid point. To me, it's rather silly to say things aren't "natural" when there isn't really much evidence to prove it true.

  6. Regan says:

    Lots of good clarification here… thanks for sharing with your readers.

    One additional point to add on lactose intolerance… as you point out, there are many lactose-free milks on the market, but many people don't realize that two favorite dairy foods are naturally lactose-free or contain beneficial bacteria to help in the digestion–in this case, aged cheeses [like Cheddar] and yogurt, respectively.

    These 2 foods contain the same nutrients as fluid milk, but are often better tolerated by folks who may be lactose intolerant. Fortunately, food companies like Cabot Creamery in Vermont have done a great job of reducing the fat in their cheeses, while maintaining great taste… so nutritionally, it's an easy substitution for folks who can't, don't or won't dry milk.

  7. Kerry Kyle says:

    This doesn't go into ULTRA Pasturization which is a big topic with many claims on both sides of the fence. As nice as this summary is, it's just not complete without explaining the pros & cons of Ultra Pasturization

  8. Cathie says:

    I just read yesterday on AOL that skim milk is too processed and loses the strength of nutrients and that whole milk is better than skim. I'm going to quit reading and do what I want.

  9. ynpgal says:

    I think the earlier poster was just pointing out an obvious animal (which we humans are) fact. Babies drink their mother's milk, wean off of it and carry on to eat other things. Humans are not only the only species that continues to drink milk after toddlerhood, but we drink ANOTHER SPECIES mile, ta-boot! Milk is for babies. Oh, and make that milk from their own species is for their own babies. Humans for humans, cows for cows.

    That's all the poster was saying.

  10. laura says:

    everyone talks about what is natural. humans have evolved into extremely diversified levels of eating and everyone debates what is "meant to be". if we look at animals in the wild, using the natural selection of things, at the instinctual way animals survive… compare ourselves to these animals. who do we resemble most? how are they living a healthy existence? they can't butter toast. they eat from nature whether they pick it or hunt it. we should start there.

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