A 2005 report on Canadian Food Trends estimates that fluid milk consumption will decline 15% by 2020, with milk alternatives gaining in popularity. While lactose intolerance, veganism, allergies and personal preference have likely all contributed to decreasing fluid milk intakes in Canada, we wonder whether the pervasive anti-milk information on the internet has anything to do with it.
Is milk really as bad for you as the anti-milk movement would lead you to believe? What is the evidence to support their claims, if there is any at all?
You do not absorb the calcium from milk.
Most convincing fallacies have an element of truth, and this one is no different. Anti-milk propaganda touts that you only absorb 30% of the calcium in milk. That you do not absorb all of the calcium in milk is true, however, you do not absorb 100% of the calcium found in any food! As a general rule, one serving of milk will provide you with more absorbable calcium than a serving of most other foods.
For more information on how much calcium is absorbed from different foods, see this chart from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (1). Your vitamin D status will also affect calcium absorption (2). While milk is fortified with vitamin D in Canada and many other countries, vitamin D supplementation, particularly in the winter, is a good idea for most people.
Milk is an “acid food” that steals calcium from the bone.
Milk has been classified by some as “slightly acid producing” and this has been erroneously linked to poor bone health. A recent review by Fenton and Lyons (3) debunked this – the reality is that milk products do not make your body acidic and milk does not negatively impact the levels of calcium in your bones. Furthermore, no evidence has linked the dietary pH balance of your body with bone loss, nor shown any protective effect of the so-called alkaline diet (4).
There are hormones and antibiotics in milk that can cause cancer and hormone disorders.
This is a tricky because it varies depending on the country you live in and their governmental regulations. In Canada, there are six growth-promoting hormones that have been approved for use BUT they are only approved for use in beef cattle. In the U.S. a synthetic hormone, bovine somatotropin (rbST) is permitted in dairy cattle, however, rbST is not permitted in Europe or Canada. There will be some naturally occurring hormones present in milk at very low levels, however, these will not negatively impact your health. Furthermore, many foods contain naturally occurring hormones or plant versions of hormones.
With respect to antibiotics, in Canada, milk cannot enter the food supply from a cow that is undergoing antiobiotic treatment. If a cow has had antibiotics, the treatment must be completed and the cow subjected to a withholding time; whereby, their milk must be discarded until the drug has been cleared. It is also important to note that milk samples from all dairy farms are tested frequently to ensure compliance. If you are still concerned, you can buy organic milk, which ensures no antibiotics or hormones have been added (5).
Finally, to date there is no evidence that milk products contain levels of hormones or antibiotics that increase the risk of cancer or hormone disorders in humans. The primary health concern with milk is lactose intolerance, where individuals do not produce sufficient amounts of the enzyme lactase to digest the milk sugar.
Milk is fattening and provides unnecessary calories.
The claim that milk is fattening is also untrue. Although some dairy products can be high in fat (cheese, ice cream, cream, butter, etc.) this is not the case for milk. A smart consumer can purchase skim milk providing 0 g of fat and only 80 calories per 240 mL serving. Milk is also high in protein, vitamins and minerals. Interestingly, there has also been research linking low fat dairy products to lower body weight. A recent systematic review looked at 19 studies – 9 found dairy products helped reduce weight gain, 7 had no effect and only one found an increased risk. Two studies found that the protective effect was related to the type of dairy food (6). Overall this suggests milk consumption will not lead to weight gain and may even have a protective effect.
No Baloney’s advice. If you like milk, drink up and don’t buy into the anti-milk hype! If you are lactose intolerant or don’t enjoy drinking milk, then use one of the many milk alternatives available. There are many different dietary options to get the nutrients you need in a healthy way; a healthy diet could include milk or not, it’s up to you!
Keep in mind, not all milk alternatives are created equally – check back later in the week when we compare the nutrient content of some common alterna-milks.
- Office of Dietary Supplements – Calcium (2011). Retrieved from http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-HealthProfessional/
- Weaver CM, Proulx WR, Heaney R. Choices for achieving adequate dietary calcium with a vegetarian diet. Am J Clin Nutr 1999; 70:543S-548S.
- Fenton TR, Lyon AW. Milk and acid-base balance: proposed hypothesis versus scientific evidence. J Am Coll Nutr 2011; 30:471S-5S.
Fenton TR, Tough SC, Lyon AW, Eliasziw M, Hanley DA. Causal assessment of dietary acid load and bone disease: a systematic review & meta-analysis applying Hill’s epidemiologic criteria for causality. Nutr J 2011; 10:41.
- University of Guelph, Food Science Network. Safety of Canadian milk (2012). Retrieved from http://www.uoguelph.ca/foodsafetynetwork/safety-canadian-milk
- Louie JC, et al. Dairy consumption and overweight and obesity: a systematic review of prospective cohort studies. Obes Rev 2011; 12(7):e582-92.