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. Belinda says:

    A poster made the comment that humans have evolved into complex beings. I work in the biotech industry and it's actually not an accurate statement. Humans have evolved, sure, but our DNA is basically the same as it ever was. And our ancestors did not chase cows in order to get their milk, or chase chickens to get their eggs, or even do alot of gardening. They ate what some would call a Paleo diet – meat, fish, fresh vegetables that grew naturally around them and easily attainable fruit. As for the Vitamin D debate, the best form of Vitamin D is sunlight. Unfortunately, we slather so much sunscreen on our children and scare them about how spending time in the sun is bad for them that it's no wonder they don't get enough Vitamin D. It's all about wisdom here. Learning to eat what your body was meant to eat, and teaching our kids about moderation rather than exclusion.

    I am now lactose intolerant, but I am not surprised that I am. I can't do cheese or yogurt either. So I get my nutrients in other ways. And it has been no hardship at all, simply a change of mindset.

  2. Stephanie Pittman says:

    I dont agree with the first 3-4 comments on this page, acually, I find milk and important part of our lives, we shouldn't ban dairy, look how far we've come with it? butter, yogurt,cheese,sour and whipped cream, we wouldn't even wouldv'e have SOY milk without milk. I don't know about you but i'm sticking with milk in my cereal.

  3. jay says:

    Humans were biologically not designed with proper enzymes to break down lactose (glucose+galactose) sugars. Furthermore milk has a highly acidic affect on blood pH, leading the body to leach calcium from bones to maintain the neutral ph required for life. This is why osteporosis is so prevalent in the US despite the fact that we drink enormous amounts of milk. Thus obtaining calcium from dairy is counter-productive, yet the lobbying of the dairy industry has entrenched milk as a staple in the "healthy" diet. Americas health problems stem almost purely from the politicization of food in my opinion.

  4. Your point on raw milk leaves out the feature of raw milk that keeps people driving hours to get it: the live enzymes. There are over 60 living enzymes that aid our digestion and immunity in raw milk; all are killed in the pasteurization process. If your raw milk farm has high standards of cleanliness, you're as safe from bacteria as you are eating storebought spinach or peanut butter (ahem), from what I can tell in the news.

    Skim milk contains powdered dry milk (not on the label b/c it's an "industry standard") which oxidizes the cholesterol, causing heart disease. Oxidized cholesterol is so unnatural, our bodies hardly know what to do with it. It is a major cause of arterial plaque. Also, homogenization has been pegged as one of the top contributors to heart disease. Often the only way to find organic, non-homogenized milk is to get it raw. Grass-fed milk also has the added benefit of CLA, a very healthy fat found only in grass-fed milk and beef.

    It would be great to see an article on the damaging effects of ultra-high-temp pasteurization, which is how almost all organic milk is handled, rendering it less nutritious than its conventional counterparts.

    re: Susan on freezing yogurt. I have (often) successfully made homemade yogurt from frozen Dannon plain yogurt, as well as freezing my own homemade to make more. The bacteria are clearly not dead, just dormant.

  5. Susan says:

    Thanks for all the helpful info on the effects of freezing and heating the bacterial content in yogurt. After reading alot of comments on this site, it never fails to amaze me hoe upset some people get over the subject of food! The people on this site get alot of information, and probably read other sources too. We all make the best decisions we can for ourselves and what makes sense to one, doesnt make sense to another. Why get so nasty with some of the comments?

  6. Terik says:

    Two countries that consume the most cow milk is U.S and Asia (all Parts), and why they are the same countries highest in Osteoporosis cases. If I show you the numbers your jaw will drop. We are the only species that drink milk all our lives, and drink another species milk. The most healthiest milk to drink is Almond milk, you can buy at most health food store or you can make it.
    Ingredients:
    Almonds
    Spring Water
    Real Vanilla Extract

    PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER:
    Blend ¼ lb almonds (unsalted)
    Add 2 ½ cups spring water
    Blend for 5 minutes
    Strain – this your milk replacement

    *Tip: Add maple syrup if you need to “dress up” the taste.

  7. betty allen says:

    I am surprised at the lack of scholarship and research in the article posted here. Shame on you FoodNetwork! It appears you have taken your facts from popular literature that has no scientific background. Research from the 1920s forward has consistently linked consumption of milk to several conditions that experts call "lifestyle diseases." Western society, until recently, has had the highest incidence of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and osteoporosis in the world. Well, maybe Sweden has us beat, but not by much. Study after study for at least 60 years has pointed to diet as the single culprit linked to all these conditions. No, milk does not cause all this, but the link between increased milk consumption and osteoporosis has been shown for just as long.

  8. betty allen says:

    Simply put, humans were not designed to process/digest cow's milk. But if you listen to me, you are doing no better at educating yourself than watching TV. Get a high school textbook on how the nutritional process works. Go to BBC.com and look at their educational site. Go to any library and pick up texts written to report on research. If you need specific titles, several people mentioned the book The China Study, It's a good book. Another is Fells Guide on nutrition, titled Nutrition for Dummies.

    As soon as we realize that what we hear on the TV and read in the newspaper is nothing more than a very cursory look at a topic chosen for its headline value, or paid advertising that supports a particular point of view, the sooner we will begin to take charge of our own brains.

  9. betty allen says:

    Nutrition is a vast and complex subject. The body is a miraculous thing. No wonder easy answers are accepted – the truth is very hard to understand and is changing daily. But since the 1920s studies have all said the same thing. Our meat, carb, and milk diet is killing us in greater and greater numbers. And all the miracle drugs in the world have not been able to slow the climbing death rate. Milk is not the only culprit. But it is one of the three top most dangerous foods.

  10. Tom says:

    I agree with most of what is being said here, but I haven't seen mention of the fact that cows milk albeit has many good vitamins etc does not digest well in the human stomach. I have done some research on this and found that after a certain age our bodies lose the enzyme required to break down this milk completely resulting in an indigestible sludge that inhibits proper nutrient absorption in the intestine. Does anyone have more on this. I have also turned to goat milk in recent years and yogurts because of the valuable digestive enzymes they provide and ease of digestion. Also a remedy to lactose intolerance.

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