Some of the most common questions I am asked revolve around the issue of dairy consumption.
- “Should I be drinking milk and eating dairy products? If so, what kind?”
- “Is there something special about organic dairy?”
- “What about goat’s milk?”
- “I am – or might be – lactose intolerant. Now what?”
- “If I stop eating dairy, how will I get enough calcium?”
The answers to these questions come not from a single philosophy, but require a deeper understanding of the confusion facing people today, the modernization of the food industry and of our genetic differences. Each of us is responsible for familiarizing ourselves with the issues surrounding dairy and for making an educated choice.
When I was in college, I read a book written by John Robbins called Diet for a New America. Robbins was an heir to the Baskin-Robbins ice cream throne, and gave up his role with his family company, (1) having seen how eating animals was negatively impacting people’s health. Robbins decided to make a change; he left the ice cream business to advocate for a healthier and more compassionate way of life. Robbins now spends his energy writing about good food and health issues, lobbying for organic and natural food production and against genetic engineering and toxic processes.
Robbins doesn’t advocate for a total elimination of dairy in our diet, even though his personal choice is to avoid all animal products. He suggests that we endeavor to consume products that are as pure and natural as possible. I wish I had better understood Robbins’ message when I first studied his work, as this may have saved me from years of being a “bad vegetarian.” (Note: there are many good vegetarians.)
It is estimated that 44% of the beverages consumed by those under 18 are dairy products. However, the consumption of dairy products is one of the most controversial topics in the world of health and wellness.
And therein lies the rub. We get conflicting messages, dependent upon which expert we choose to consult.
- Many health advocates, including Robbins, urge us to consume less dairy – and some recommend no dairy at all. As a vegetarian, I remember challenging my carnivore friends with the comment that humans are the only species to suck on the udder of another animal, and that even adult cows don’t drink cow’s milk. Vegetarian and vegan educators often maintain that it is dangerous to consume the proteins of another animal. Eating animal proteins can cause hypersensitivities, allergies, and reactions, potentially even cancer. And many agree that in eating fewer animal products, we are more ecologically responsible.(2) Some vegetarian plans do not allow meat, but do allow eggs and dairy.
- On the other hand, dairy advocates tell us that cow’s milk is a food from God. Before there was lactose intolerance, before there were milk allergies, heart disease or cancer, people were consuming dairy products. The well-studied and very healthy Masai tribes in Africa live on a diet largely made up of milk, animal blood, vegetables and herbs (3) – and they don’t experience chronic disease as we do in North America.
- Many nutritionists – regardless of their personal preference and stance – agree that dairy is one of the more common allergens seen today and suggest that most people are allergic to milk, citing the lack of enzymes to digest lactose (dairy sugar) after puberty.(4)
- The “Milk” calendar delivered to my door every year from government agencies, promoting dairy products as an essential part of a balanced diet, creates more confusion.(5) Most of the government food guides advise that you consume two to four servings of milk products each day.
The answer lies somewhere within these declarations and rests with each of us individually. Many factors come into play.
People moving into a better, healthier lifestyle need to take small steps. For that reason, in the first edition of my book, Maximized Living Nutrition Plans (MNLP), a number of healthier dairy options were included. Providing healthier – though maybe not perfect – quality dairy options, including forms of milk, butter, cheese and yogurt allows people to move their health in a better direction without the drastic change that can sometimes be a barrier to success. In MNLP, consumption of dairy is an option, not a requirement. For people shying away from dairy, MLNP and its suggested recipes do provide dairy-free options. It is also noted that there are other choices to take the place of these animal proteins and healthy fats.
Having said all of this, there are some key things to consider:
There have been genetic changes over time in both animals and humans. When we see reports of animal milk being consumed as we read of biblical times, we have to consider the genetic lineage in the animals at that time. Those animals fed on grass and green foods – plants indigenous to the region – wandering the pasture. The DNA of those animals had been the same for generations. Today’s animals have undergone genetic distortion due to the demands of mass production, feed manipulation and disease prevention, and are not the same animals as those who fed us thousands of years ago. And although the popular adage is “you are what you eat”, in fact, we are what the animal we’re eating ate. Because of this, direct comparison with our ancestors may no longer apply.
It is thought that people of northern European genetic descent are typically more susceptible to the ill effects that dairy products cause in the digestive system. It has also been observed that cultures in the Middle East and in Africa who have survived on dairy as a major part of their diets for centuries do not seem to suffer the rampant negative effects that nutrition authors suggest should be the norm.
While all human production of the enzymes necessary to break down lactose decreases after puberty, some individuals have gastrointestinal systems that better tolerate the large proteins contained in cow’s milk. Keep in mind that identifying digestive hypersensitivity is best done through testing by a certified laboratory.
Milk’s Natural State
When the Masai were studied and observed to be free of heart disease, yet surviving on the full fat milk of their cows, they were consuming dairy in its natural state – raw. It was not heated up, nor was it stirred to make it look pretty. I am describing the processes of pasteurization and homogenization.
Pasteurization heats milk to a temperature below the boiling point to reduce the number of pathogenic microorganisms that may be in the original raw milk. (6) Unfortunately, while the purpose of pasteurization is to destroy pathogens, the process also destroys the vitamins, and structures of the fats and proteins contained in the milk. It is for this reason you will often see nutrients (including calcium and Vitamin D) added back into dairy products after pasteurization. Unfortunately, the healthy fats and proteins that have been “de-natured” through the heating process cannot be “re-natured,” and as a result, are left in dairy products in damaged forms.
Heat knocks out the unhealthy bacteria in milk, to prevent pathogens like salmonella from proliferating, but it also inactivates the healthy bacteria thought to provide many health benefits to consumers. Note: most salmonella outbreaks linked to milk stem from fully pasteurized and homogenized milk, not raw milk.(7) I personally would choose unpasteurized milk from a healthy animal any day over pasteurized milk from a sick, factory-farmed animal. Interestingly, while commercial milk must legally be pasteurized, farmers and their families can drink raw, unpasteurized milk. Many people now buy shares in a dairy cow in order to have access to raw milk. While many believe it to be unhealthy to drink milk straight from the cow, I feel that there are factors (other than access to pasteurization) to take into consideration when determining the health of the cow. If a cow is dirty and diseased, so might be the milk. But if the cow were clean and healthy, why wouldn’t the milk it produces be the same?
Homogenizing milk makes it look more attractive and allows us to change the fat content, giving us non-fat, 1%, 2% and whole milk. Homogenization is the process of breaking the fat particles in the milk into smaller sizes to prevent the natural separation of cream to the top. Without homogenization, we would be able to see the clumps of fat floating in the milk – not appetizing at all. (“Mom, there’s butter in my milk.”) So, to satisfy our desire for attractive looking milk, we homogenize. We’re not required to homogenize dairy, but we do.
The fat globules hold impurities found in our milk. Left in their natural state, these globules would stay in the alimentary canal and would be expelled through our natural process of elimination, and with them would be any toxins in the milk. Unfortunately, the altered and compressed fat particles produced through homogenization are subsequently easily absorbed into the blood stream. It is the assimilation of these de-natured and toxic components, otherwise excreted, that displaces essential human proteins that keep the arteries healthy. Our body was designed with a natural detoxification system – anything coming in that we ought not to absorb is excreted, but only when that which comes in is encountered in a natural state that the body can recognize and process. Homogenizing toxic globules into smaller particles only gives the body more work to do in detoxifying. Though our healing abilities are incredible, there are limitations of matter, particularly when toxic burdens run high. Why overdo it?
This especially applies to dairy cattle, forced to produce more milk than is natural. They are exposed to high levels of growth hormones, and as they are susceptible to illness, they receive antibiotics for most of their lives. The residues of these antibiotics end up in the food chain. The presence of growth hormones has been linked with premature development, particularly in girls, and to breast cancer.(8)
Skim milk is another win for the low fat craze. We live in a world where we think that eating fat makes you fat, so we take all the fat out of everything we eat. This is what produces skim milk – the fat in the milk is “skimmed” and only the milk remains. Unfortunately, skim milk has a higher ratio of milk sugar with respect to milk fat, and presents the same problems as do other higher-sugar foods. The lactose ratio is higher in milk, making it a more sugary drink, and making it more of a challenge for our bodies to deal with. Your body actually prefers fat over sugar as a source of fuel. Fat itself doesn’t make you fat. Be more concerned with your body’s metabolism and hormonal balance, and therefore your ability to burn it!
Further, skim milk is even more processed than whole milk – and every extra step of processing is another step away from the natural state. Processing skim milk alters the natural balance of proteins fats and carbohydrates found in whole milk. In the desire to create “fat-free” alternatives, we change the nature of the food into something less recognizable to our bodies.(9) Because toxins are fat soluble, consuming skim milk might be a step ahead in one direction, but a step back in another. If you’re drinking from a healthy animal, you shouldn’t have to worry about skimming out every drop of fat.
All of this processing gives many the impression that the milk we’re producing is clean and healthy. The reality is that the government sets standards as to the amount of bacteria allowed in milk.(10) Cow’s milk is also allowed to contain feces, a major source for bacteria. Milk is typically pasteurized more than once before it gets to your table – each time for only 15 seconds at 162 degrees Fahrenheit. (For comparison, to sanitize water, we are told to boil it (212 degrees F) for several minutes.) One cubic centimeter (cc) of commercial cow’s milk is allowed to have up to 750,000 somatic cells (common name “pus”) and 20,000 live bacteria before it is kept off the market. That amounts to a whopping 20 million live squiggly bacteria and up to 750 million pus cells per liter.(11) This is probably not as clean as you thought was “clean.”
Many people cannot tolerate dairy products, even organic dairy products from healthy animals. This can be a result of two issues: lactose intolerance or allergies to A1 beta-casein.
Truthfully, most people are lactose intolerant. Our bodies are not designed to absorb lactose beyond infancy. We are designed to stop consuming lactose via natural sources (mother’s milk) once we stop breastfeeding. Human physiology suggests that we were not designed to continue consuming lactose (i.e. in cow’s milk), as lactose is digested by the enzyme lactase, and our body’s production of lactase decreases over time.(12) “Lactose intolerance” is really “lactase insufficiency” and this is not necessarily abnormal. Many people believe that it is the milk that causes symptoms such as bloating, cramps, flatulence and diarrhea when, in fact, it is the presence of lactose, which can be removed. There is no lactose present in goat’s milk.
This has become a common complaint, and is the diagnosis most reached for when assessing the above symptoms. However, it is easily confused with an allergy to A1 beta-casein. Casein is a protein found in breast milk and cow’s milk and contains amino acids, carbohydrates and two inorganic elements – calcium and phosphorus. There are two kinds of protein found in cow’s milk – caseins and whey proteins. 80% of the proteins in cow’s milk are caseins. The most commonly found caseins are A1 beta-caseins and A2 beta-caseins.
Research shows that, when ingested, A1 casein breaks down into oxidants and opioids that can cause health problems such as heart disease and some mental disorders. A2 casein does not break down the same way. Back in biblical times, cows all produced A2 casein protein in their milk. Cows pass down A1, A2 or both to their offspring just like we pass down eye color to our children. A thousand years ago the majority of cattle were A2, then the genetically mutated A1 strain appeared. Over time, animals that would always have consumed green food have been fed foods not natural to them – grains, corn, even candy – through the desire to increase milk output and fat content in the milk. It is known that external environmental stimuli can turn on and turn off certain genes. (13) Thus, through the generations, DNA expression has changed in most cattle, and different caseins have predominated.Today, the Holstein-Friesian cattle, along with Ayreshires, Jerseys and Brown Swiss, produce largely A1 casein. Guernsey cattle produce A2 casein, as do goats and sheep. Most commercially produced North American milk comes from Holsteins and contains A1 casein. The only way to know whether a cow is producing A1 or A2 casein is by having it tested – it costs $22 per cow and is testing using hair pulled from the cow’s tail.(14) Fortunately, companies worldwide have begun to mass-produce milk from A2 cows. Some are breeding more A2 cows altogether as awareness of casein and the resulting demand for milk from A2 cows grows. Unfortunately, locating A2 dairy is a much greater challenge than is locating dairy that is certified organic, lactose-free, non-homogenized, or even non-pasteurized.
Casein is a powerful allergen… a histamine that creates lots of mucus. A1 casein stimulates sensitivity in the body. The casein protein is similar to gluten in that it causes a clumping of the red blood cells, increasing the viscosity of the blood, slowing its flow. Casein sensitivity also results in symptoms similar to lactose intolerance and is often labeled “irritable bowel syndrome”, a diagnosis created to explain the symptoms of bloating, cramps, flatulence and diarrhea without knowing their cause. Casein sensitivity also contributes to the incidence of heart disease.(15) While gluten sensitivity is well recognized in today’s marketplace, A1 casein sensitivity, though potentially more damaging as casein affects more regions of the gut than does gluten, is largely ignored.
There are other issues associated with grain-feeding animals. Innate fatty acid ratios of 2:1 to 4:1 Omega-6’s to Omega-3’s, as found in grass-fed beef and wild game, can be warped to 20:1 or 50:1, hence explaining our severe deficiency in Omega-3’s which is associated with heart disease. It comes as no surprise that the grain-fed diet also puts cattle into a condition of severe acidosis, which would cause them to die if they were not slaughtered on schedule.(16)
There are other issues with intolerance. People who consume regular dairy experience the following:
- Tolerance for dairy products is built up over time. Individuals unaccustomed to dairy products can experience digestive issues if they start overloading with dairy products.
- People who drink large quantities of skim milk are consuming more sugar than they should, without the buffering impact of healthy fat, and are not consuming sufficient amounts of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a nutrient associated with lower cancer risk.
- Consuming conventional dairy products exposes us to unknown toxicities both as a result of homogenization and of the manner in which mass production introduces toxins through toxic feed (sugar and grains treated with pesticides), through antibiotics and through animal consumption of growth hormones.
Where to Start
Ideally, we’d revert the clock 2000 years, go to Jerusalem and drink dairy from animals that had only consumed green foods, using no pasteurization and no homogenization. Today that translates into obtaining raw milk from cows owned by someone you know and trust, or accessing commercially produced dairy from companies that can guarantee they are producing under those conditions.
The next best step is to find milk from A2 casein cows that are green fed. Get the raw, full-fat, non-homogenized milk. Be sure that the milk is organic – the greens are not sprayed with pesticides and the cows are not injected with hormones or antibiotics. In the United States, recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) is still permitted in dairy farming. It is part of the genetic modification process to stimulate more milk production, and banned in many other countries.
The bare minimum standard would be using organic products. This applies to all animal products you consume. If you are only able to access organic products that are not from A2 cows and/or not green-fed, look for non-homogenized products. Also, look for non-pasteurized, although this will be more rare. Be careful about the organic and grass-fed labels. Just as organic does not mean grass-fed, grass-fed does not mean organic. Pastured animals sometimes graze on land that has been treated with synthetic fertilizers and even doused with herbicides. Unless the label specifically says it is both grass-fed and organic, it isn’t. And, a grass-fed animal should be fed grass and greens its entire lifetime, as finishing the animals with grains is also known to distort the animal’s ratio of healthy fats and levels of vitamins and of CLA (which benefits your fat metabolism). Unfortunately, meats sold in stores are not required to be labeled “100% grass-fed,” just “grass-fed.” To be sure that your beef has been fed grass and other greens for its lifetimes, know your source as best as possible.
If you absolutely have to consume conventional dairy products, this is the one time I would recommend skim milk. At least you’ll avoid the toxins stored in the fat content.
It’s difficult to provide a hierarchy in these choices. It’s more like a six-part checklist. Try to have as many of these options as you can:
- Dairy from A2 cows
- Green-fed cows (over entire lifetime, never grain-fed)
- Raw (non-pasteurized) and from a clean animal
- Full fat
- No pesticides on the grains/greens consumed
- No injections (antibiotics, steroids)
- No rBGH
With such a burden of evidence against drinking conventional dairy, I wonder why anyone would. There are some replacement options for those choosing not to consume cow’s milk.
- Use goat’s milk or sheep’s milk. The proteins in cow’s milk are much larger than goat’s or sheep’s milk, as are the fat globules. Goat’s milk is naturally homogenized, and has very low levels of lactose and no casein.(17)
- Use coconut milk – virtually coconut water mixed with ground up coconut. Its biochemical composition is the most similar to breast milk, including its level of lauric acid, which is antiviral and antibacterial.(18) Coconut milk contains all the essential fatty acids and linoleic acids the body needs for optimal health. It has a high fat content, so be sure to buy organic to avoid the toxins of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
- A bad choice is soy milk. Calling this and any of these plant-based options ‘milk’ is a misnomer – soybeans don’t have udders. Regardless of what you call it, soy milk mimics estrogen and can therefore be a risk for both men and women. Almost all soybeans are genetically modified – look exclusively for a brand that promotes non-GMO soybeans. (See my related article on soy protein.)
- Almond milk is made of ultra-ground almonds blended with water. Do note that the almonds are flash-pasteurized for health safety, and therefore the proteins are somewhat de-natured, negating some of the health benefit in this product. Many health food proponents drink almond milk because they like to have something similar to milk in their coffee or on their cereal – but it doesn’t provide a whole lot of nutritional value. However, if you do consume almond milk, choose a product free of added sugar, syrups, or other unnecessary additives.
- I would never recommend rice milk, as it is very starchy and often is sweetened with sugar.
- If you are concerned about getting enough animal protein, you could consume whey protein as a supplement, provided it comes from organic, grass-fed cows pastured in fields that are free of pesticides and chemicals. And pasture-grazed cows have 500% more CLA in their milk than cows fed silage, which is an additional benefit to anyone consuming whey protein for fitness purposes. Whey protein from these cows with the lactose and casein extracted can provide protein without the risk of a sensitive response. (Check out my related article on whey protein smoothies.)
- Cultured dairy products (like kefir and yogurt) enjoy a long and vibrant history; they were present in nearly every culture that thrived on diets that included dairy. Cultured foods benefit the immune system by providing healthy bacterial cultures (probiotics) and less sugar, and are more easily digested as they offer more enzymes and less casein. Once again – consider the source.
- Finally, water is always an option – after all, the human body is 70% water. Avoid chlorinated and fluoridated tap water.
If you are concerned about osteoporosis, don’t panic. The dairy marketers and the majority of doctors would tout milk’s benefit in providing calcium to prevent your bones from becoming weak with age. What they don’t tell you is that osteoporosis is not a response to a lack of calcium. Rather, it is a negative calcium balance in the blood, due to high acidity and higher levels of unhealthy minerals including phosphates that cause calcium depletion from its site of storage: bone. Given that osteoporosis is highest in parts of the world where dairy is a daily staple, it should be clear that the consumption of more dairy to “prevent” osteoporosis is wishful thinking. To get all the calcium you need, in a healthy state your body can use, go for spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, salmon, sardines, figs, beans, Brazil nuts, walnuts, almonds, kelp and honeydew melon. Where do cows get all their calcium anyway? Green foods.
The Bottom Line
The topic of dairy is controversial. Many government, commercial and farming organizations have much at stake in promoting conventional farming methods. It is up to the consumer to become educated about the risks and the choices available. The bottom line is that milk has a natural state, and should be consumed in a format as close to that state as possible – if consumed at all. And the choice about what to consume is totally dependent on the individual and what and how much he or she can tolerate. Read the research. Make an educated decision.