Heralded as a ‘complete food’, and dished out to pupils across the UK, cow’s milk is championed by a float-load of celebrities and experts alike. Rich in protein, calcium, zinc, vitamins A and B, and iodine (which helps regulate metabolism), and with less than two percent fat, it’s not surprising it’s seen as an elixir of health. But with a series of scientific (though as yet inconclusive) studies suggesting cow’s milk could be associated with cancer, heart disease and even fractures, and with rising levels of intolerance and allergies, is its pure white image being tarnished?
The Milk Marketing Forum (a consortium of leading dairy companies, co-operatives and The Dairy Council) has spent a whopping £7.5 million on its ‘Make Mine Milk’ campaign, with everyone from Pixie Lott to Kelly Osbourne parading white mustaches to promote its health credentials. And they’re certainly a healthy set of credentials.
Milk not only provides calcium (essential for bone health and reducing the risk of osteoporosis), it’s the only drink bar water that’s recommended by dentists as tooth-friendly. US studies have also suggested that milk, alongside a calorie-controlled diet, may help with weight control thanks to its effect on fat cell metabolism, while another study (sponsored by the US Dairy Research Institute admittedly) provides moderate evidence that milk helps lower blood pressure.
With each glass containing almost eight grams of protein, milk is also a muscle builder: hence why it’s glugged by sportsmen and women. “Milk’s carbohydrate (from lactose) and protein content make it an ideal post-exercise drink for optimizing muscle repair,” affirms registered dietician Lyndel Costain. “It helps rehydrate too thanks to its electrolyte content.”
“And, in a study from Loughborough University, plain low-fat milk outperformed water and sports drinks by having more beneficial effects on urine output after exercise,” she adds.
But then it all gets a bit murkier. “In health circles, nothing divides opinions like dairy!” says top TV nutritionist Amanda Hamilton. “This is partly explained by worries over fat and partly because more of us suspect we’re intolerant to lactose or other substances found in milk.”
Nutrition coach and natural medicine practitioner, Hayley Pedrick, agrees. “The role of milk as a health-promoting food is debatable,” she says. “Dairy sensitivity is a growing issue, while others have a problem dealing with casein, the protein thought to aggravate skin conditions.”
Others claim cow’s milk can have a negative effect on hormone-related conditions. “Many of my female clients give up diary if they have hormonal imbalances (such as PMS, PCOS or endometriosis) owing to the slightly elevated hormone levels in milk,” says nutritional therapist Henrietta Norton, author of Take Control of Your Endometriosis. She also believes dairy contains ‘arachidonic acid’, which in excess can trigger the production of prostaglandins thought to cause swelling and pain associated with endometriosis.
However, for every scientific study that suggests milk may have damaging health properties, there’s another that suggests the opposite, and it’s getting increasingly hard for consumers to know what’s true.
In 2013, for example, Californian scientists claimed one full-fat dairy product a day could halve the chances of survival of women with breast cancer, but on the flip side a Norwegian study found women who drank milk as children and as adults, had a lower risk of the disease.
And, while milk is undeniably packed with calcium, debate rages about its alkaline effect within the body. “In fact, dairy is thought to have a net acid effect, which can be measured using the Potential Renal Acid Load (PRAL) method,” claims Pedrick. “The body works to keep the blood slightly alkaline and one of the ways it does this is by using calcium reserves from the bones to neutralize the acidity, which could compromise bone health over the long term.”
Henrietta Norton believes intolerances stem from overload as much as poor quality. “We pile chemicals into cow feed, and then homogenize and pasteurize milk, which removes a fabulous cocktail of essentials fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals and the beneficial bacteria ‘lactase’, and without them you cannot digest lactose, and digestive disturbances and intolerances begin.”
Navigating these conflicting arguments can leave us all reeling, but the consensus seems to be the age-old adage of ‘everything in moderation’. “I encourage my clients to consider swapping to raw milk before avoiding dairy completely, and to limit intake in general,” affirms Norton.
Pedrick goes further: “While western society gets 75 percent of its calcium intake from cow’s milk, in China, 50 percent comes from plants (where instances of post-menopausal fracture are lower too). 200g of broccoli contains roughly the same amount of calcium as a glass of milk – and it doesn’t come with any health concerns.”