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. Angela says:

    I agree with Cathie. I am going to drink what I want (Organic Valley Milk- absolutely best flavor around!) and not worry about the experts. Their opinion will change by this afternoon anyway :)

  2. Judith says:

    Pasturization was started to killl the tuberculosis bacterium, not bacteria in general. It was started during the epidemic of TB. Of course it still is a big problem, 2 million people a year die from TB world wide but the CDC is focusing on the flu with very small mortality. (But wait until they start givng flu vaccines.) Anyway, there is another way for lactose intolerant people to drink milk. Acidophillus tablets or milk that has Acidophillus put into it. Seattle had that available in every store, at 2%. New Mexico only sells 1% by one daily, and it is not as effective in 1% milk. Don't you wonder why girls are mensturating younger all the time, now at 8-9 years old. I believe it is the growth hormone given to cows to increase production. This article reads like it was written by the milk industry. Really plays down the Montsano's product injected into cow. Ever seen a cow's utter filled with milk, Now that they get the injection they can barely walk. It is very inhumane. We had no milk shortage that made giving these injections to cows. Keep searching for articles that are more informative.

  3. Marsha Hannon says:

    No matter what you eat or drink, there will be some negative report about what you are consuming. As for me, I do not drink alcohol, coffee, or soda, I only drink water, milk and fruit juice. I believe milk is much better for me than slamming down a few brain-draining beers or gulping toxic sodas…ha!

  4. Kelli says:

    Gee, I'm amazed that it's this complicated for everyone. Milk is just one of many ways for
    some of us, if consumed in moderation, to obtain basic nutrients. You can mix it up with
    other foods, etc. This is not new. The author was just trying to give people the up side option
    to get a one-stop dose of their daily nutrients.

  5. a batz says:

    Ok some of you got the picture here and others are set in there ways. Humans do NOT have enzimes to break down the nutrition in milk after about age 2. IF you are swayed by watching to much TV and want to drink it as the commercials from the dairy counsel suggest go for it, but your NOT doing yourself any favors and chubby ugly milk fattened kids are abundant because parents don't look into real nutriton and think everything on TV is the way to go. Wake up, why in the world would you drink liquid from a animals utter anyway???? It's time for people to get a grip and look past old wives tales on what's needed or good for you.

  6. liz says:

    ditto to Kem and Tamara. I read "Eat to Live" and it changed the way I look at food (the book references the China Study a lot, which I just bought). And to the poster who said that people have been drinking milk from cows, etc. for centuries… that is actually not true. In the past, and as recently as colonial times (if not more recently), milk was mainly used to make food (butter, cheese, etc.), it was not a common beverage. And keep in mind that human evolution has taken millions of years, by the time we domesticated animals, we had evolved to the "version" we are now – meaning that regularly eating animal products started AFTER we had already evolved to thrive on a plant-based diet of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds (grains). And even then, meat, particularly red meat, was not mass distributed/available until the industrial revolution.____And the reason cows milk has a lot of calcium is because they eat leafy greens – why not go directly to the source ourselves?

  7. Stefani says:

    judith… i believe that one of the reasons girl's are menstruating younger is simply that children continue to have a higher percentage of body fat at an earlier age. in order for a girl to start menstruation, she must have at least 17 percent body fat. the sooner she reaches that point, the sooner she will mature.

  8. Natasha says:

    Another point is that the nutrients in milk are often a synthetic form added back after pasteurization. With the high consumption of milk that is propagated towards children, it is not uncommon for kids to experience an overdose of vitamin D with similar symptoms to sunstroke. This info is in "Staying Healthy with Nutrition" by Elson Haas

  9. Susan says:

    Several frozen yogurt chains claim to have live cultures in their prodeuct even tho its frozen. When I contacted Dannon to see if I can freeze their yogurt, they said the culture would be killed. Whats the truth?

  10. danawhite says:

    Hi Susan – Toby and I did some research into this during our Frozen Yogurt Taste Test.

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