Food and Cuisine no image

Published on December 17th, 2007 | by Stephanie Evans

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Throughout the world, what enjoys a pure and wholesome image as the basic, life-sustaining nourishment needed from the time of infancy?  Milk, of course!

And the dairy industry goes to great lengths to promote milk as an essential and complete food for those of all ages.  The average American consumes over 550 pounds of dairy products annually—that’s one-third of the adult diet, and one-half to two-thirds of the dairy intake of U.S. children.  Clearly milk is a staple of the American diet, but recent controversies surrounding  the production methods and alleged health benefits have more than spoiled its once lily-white image.

Findings

The National Dairy Council recommends three daily servings of milk and milk products to provide nutrients essential forOld-Time Milk Bottles healthy bones and teeth.  According to dairy advocates, drinking this recommended daily allowance provides enough calcium to prevent osteoporosis, the weakening of bones later in life.  Despite these recommendations, cow’s milk remains a nutritionally perfect food for cows to feed their own calves, but provides a less-than-perfect nutrient source for humans.

Harvard University studies conducted in the early ‘90’s show that the highest rates of osteoporosis occur in the U.S., England, and Sweden, where milk consumption rates are the highest. Researchers believe that these findings suggest a causal relationship between the osteoporosis and the high protein content of cow’s milk.  Too much protein in the human body causes an overabundance of acid to be released.  This excess acid can only be neutralized by the leaching of calcium stores from the bones, which decreases bone density over time.  In addition, the presence of excess protein inhibits the absorption of calcium.  Cow’s milk and its derivatives are also high in saturated fats and cholesterol, making them difficult for humans to digest.  Dairy products are the guilty culprit of many gastrointestinal problems and food allergies, and have been linked to the high percentage of heart disease and obesity in the U.S.

Like everything else in our meal plan, milk is best consumed in moderation.  But milk produced under the supervision of corporate-owned dairy producers can contain a slew of residues from synthetic hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides you wouldn’t want to consume even in moderation.Dairy industry advertisements paint a sublime portrait of cows frolicking in spacious pastures, content to produce a pure and wholesome beverage for the benefit of our strong bones.  The grim reality directly opposes this pastoral picture – in actuality, most dairy cows have very limited access to the outdoors and are administered synthetic growth hormones that artificially increase milk production.

Hormones and Antibiotics

Cows in PastureBovine hormone use is a self-sustaining cycle with very negative ramifications.  Cows that are given Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH; also referred to as rBST) are pushed to produce up to 10 times more milk than they would under natural circumstances.  The cow’s udders become heavy and painful from the stress of overproduction and often drag the ground, frequently becoming infected in the process.  Mastitis, inflammation of the mammary glands, is also very common in growth hormone-treated cows.  To control these infections, farmers routinely administer antibiotics and trace amounts later show up in the milk products consumers take from the shelves.  Human resistance to antibiotics has been directly linked with the presence of these residual substances. 

BGH use on dairy cows has been banned in Canada, the EU, Australia, and New Zealand, but the U.S. FDA does not require special labels for products from BHG-treated cows.  No studies to date have directly established risks from human consumption of BGH, though some research shows that milk produced with artificial hormones contains elevated amounts of Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF-1), known to raise the risk of some cancers.

Despite these recommendations, cow’s milk remains a nutritionally perfect food for cows to feed their own calves, but provides a less-than-perfect nutrient source for humans.

Environmental Impact

The environmental impact of the dairy industry’s process is another important issue to consider.  The daily food and water resources required to feed one cow exceed the daily amount of milk produced by that cow.  A single cow produces 120 pounds of waste per day and improper disposal contributes to the pollution of underground water, in addition to nearby rivers and streams.  The microbial fermentation that comes courtesy of a cow’s digestive process produces as much as 100 gallons of methane per day.  The methane emissions from one cow are higher than those produced by a car!  California’s Central Valley houses a majority of the state’s dairy farms and consequently, has some of the most polluted air in the nation.

Organic Options

The controversial issues surrounding milk production provide evidence that seems to leave the conscious consumer with very limited options.  Buying organic dairy products is the best way to avoid drinking milk produced with the use of synthetic hormones, antibiotics, or pesticides.  While hormone-free milk does not exist because growth hormones are naturally secreted by cows when they lactate, an organic dairy does not use synthetic substances on its cows, or feed them pesticide-laden grain.

In general, organic dairy producers make a stronger commitment to ensuring the well-being of their animals.  They also tend to make responsible choices for the environment, but keep in mind that an organic seal doesn’t guarantee a sustainable operation.  As more major corporations enter the organic market, consumers must conduct a little research of their own on the business practices of producers they choose to support.  The Eat Well Guide is a site hosted by Sustainable Table that allows U.S. residents to search by state for sustainable farms in their area.  Sustainable Table also has a map that U.S. residents can use to search by state for locally accessible hormone-free milk.

  • Supporting Sustainability: By keeping yourself informed and supporting only sustainable dairies, you help to promote structural changes in the industry.
  • Non-Dairy Options: By reducing your consumption of dairy products and substituting any number of the available grain and nut milks on the market, you reduce your intake of fat and cholesterol, and give your Leafy Greensdigestive system a break.
  • Alternatives: You may also find goat’s milk to be a satisfactory alternative—it’s much easier for humans to digest and the production process causes considerably less damage to the environment.
  • All Natural: You can obtain much of the calcium that your body requires by drinking no milk and relying on leafy greens, dried fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, and calcium supplements.  And while you can’t exactly dunk a cookie in these alternative options, you can depend on them as a healthier and more sustainable source of nutrients.

Article Contributors: Julie Reid



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