The Last Milk Column
This past April I began what was to be a series of three articles on the negative aspects of cow’s milk consumption. I never thought that the articles would generate the volume of response that I’ve received. Only my columns on medical marijuana generated a greater number of e-mails. This is perfectly illustrative of the sacred place that cow’s milk holds in our nutritional consciousness. As I pointed out in my first article, milk’s lofty perch is supported by an annual budget of tens of millions of advertising dollars spent by the dairy industry,
In the May column on cow’s milk I discussed the difficulty that the nutritional components of cow’s milk pose to human digestion and assimilation and covered a myriad of serious illnesses associated with milk consumption. Now for “the rest of the story.”
Cow's Milk and Contamination
Bacteria -- Independent studies by Consumers Union have confirmed that even when pasteurized, milk is not free of bacterial contamination. The studies also point out that the amount of bacteria in milk varies from batch to batch. Surprisingly, the FDA does not require milk to be free of contamination.
Pesticides -- The Consumers Union studies found that 84% of the cow's milk samples tested contained pesticides, including chlorinated hydrocarbons, which are known to be toxic and produce cancer and birth defects. Again, the FDA allows a certain level of pesticide contamination to be present in milk, believing that small amounts are harmless.
Antibiotics -- Penicillin, given to cows to treat udder infections, has also been found in milk, posing a hazard to milk drinkers who are allergic to penicillin.
Hormones -- A great majority of milk cows are pregnant and the hormone progesterone is found in their milk. Progesterone, one of the sex hormones, breaks down into molecules called androgens, which has been implicated in causing acne. It is unknown what effect these bovine hormones have in the human female reproductive system. Again, to some women these hormones may be benign, while to others they may have more serious ramifications.
A letter to David Kessler, head of the Food and Drug Administration, from Samuel S. Epstein, M.D., expressed his concerns about the use of bovine growth hormone (BGH) in animals for increased milk production. The hormone induces an abnormal level of insulin growth factor in milk. Insulin growth factor is not destroyed during pasteurization and is not inactivated by digestion in the human gut. Insulin growth factor can be absorbed through the gut wall, particularly in infants, whose digestive tract is still developing.
Insulin growth factor has been shown to abnormally increase body weight and increase liver weight. It also induces malignant transformation of normal human breast epithelial cells and stimulates the growth of the cancer cells. It has a similar association with colon cancer. In his letter, Dr. Epstein urges the FDA to revoke recent restrictions on labeling of BGH-free milk.
In 1992, a report by the Government Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of congress, raised serious questions about BGH. During its two and a half year study, the GAO investigators found that BGH-treated cows have 33% more udder infections (mastitis) that untreated cows and are therefore given more antibiotics. The GAO found that the FDA has not determined what effect these antibiotics have on human health and recommended that the FDA ban BGH-containing products pending further research. Because these recommendations are non-binding, the FDA has not had to comply with GAO suggestions.
Nutrient Problems in Cow's Milk
Since milk is generally species specific, the substitution of one milk species for another can lead to nutritionally related problems. Humans are the only animals that drink the milk of the mother of another species. The nutrient balance in milk is perfect for turning a 45-pound calf into a 300-pound cow in a year. Cow's milk is higher in protein, calcium, and phosphorous but lower in iron, zinc, niacin and vitamin C as compared to human milk. Humans fed cow's milk have to deal with a higher renal load and possible nutritional deficiencies, especially iron. Infants consuming cow's milk during infancy are at risk for iron deficiency not only due to the low concentration and bioavailability of iron, but also because of gastrointestinal loss of iron in the stool which has been related to cow's milk. Gastrointestinal bleeding occurs from the use of pasteurized cow's milk and is seen more often in infants younger than 6 months of age. The authors of several studies conclude that cow's milk does not meet the standard of quality that allows for levels of nutrients to maintain growth and appropriate stores.
Calcium -- Invariably, when I counsel parents to refrain from feeding their children cow's milk, they bring up the calcium question. Where are their children to get their calcium from if not from milk? Most parents know that a growing child needs lots of calcium for the proper development of strong bones and healthy teeth. The fact of the matter is that the calcium in milk is not very absorbable because of the high phosphorus content in milk which prevents the absorption of calcium in the human intestinal tract. Furthermore, even the staid American Academy of Pediatrics has conceded that a child's calcium requirement is less than was previously thought. In addition, the human body can adapt to the amount of calcium in the diet so that when there is a minimal amount introduced, more is absorbed.
Vitamin D -- Several reported cases of vitamin D intoxication appear to be related to daily consumption of as little as one half cup of vitamin D fortified cow's milk. Milk that claims to be fortified with Vitamin D may create problems in children because milk additives are not carefully monitored.
So what are we to believe? On the one hand, the Department of Agriculture is not going to tell the schools to stop serving milk. The American Dietetic Association says milk is not a dangerous product. The National Osteoporosis Association tells us that milk is an excellent source of calcium.
On the other hand, Dr. Benjamin Spock spoke for a rapidly growing number of researchers and physicians when he said, "Parents have been doing their duty as they were taught by medicine and dietetics and forcing milk on their children. We have to get parents over that."
Dr. Frank Oski, director of pediatrics at prestigious Johns Hopkins University, who wrote a book in 1977 entitled, “Don't Drink Your Milk,” says, "There is nothing unique about milk, regarding its nutritional benefits, that should make you want to drink it. There is no reason for us to spend lots of money to give milk to kids when it doesn't do them any good."
Whether or not we include cow's milk as part of our children's diet is a question that is emotionally and culturally charged. Obviously, we have to individually evaluate the available research and make the decision for ourselves. However, it makes sense to me that as parents and caretakers, we have a responsibility to err on the side of conservatism and avoid exposing our children to controversial foods which may have profound long-term negative effects on them.