Sour Milk: How Cow’s Milk Became the Enemy
I’ve always loved milk. I was still crying for my baby bottles at the age of 3. And to this day, I often have a glass of warm milk before bed.
The rest of the world, however? Not such a fan of cow’s milk. In fact in the US sales of cow’s milk have fallen by 37% since the 70’s, and in the UK consumption has dropped by a third over the last 20 years. Australia interestingly, has a higher rate of cow’s milk consumption compared to other Western countries, however the non-dairy milk industry in Australia is increasing rapidly.
In the health and fitness world, dairy-free diets are gaining in popularity, and cow’s milk is being blamed for everything from weight gain, to acne, to prostate cancer.
So, is cow’s milk actually bad for you? And why have so many people given up dairy altogether? These are the questions I sought to answer, and the explanations may surprise you.
Why We’ve Said Goodbye to Dairy
One of the most obvious explanations for the decline in dairy consumption is the rise in lactose intolerance. Lactose is the sugar molecule found in dairy products and it requires the enzyme lactase to be present in order for it to be properly digested. Without lactase, lactose gets broken down by bacteria in the small intestine, and this process causes the symptoms characteristic of lactose intolerance (eg. bloating, diarrhoea and cramps).
Around 70% of people don’t continue to produce lactase after they’ve stopped having breastmilk as babies, and thus live with difficulty digesting dairy products. People of Northern European background however have a genetic mutation which allows them to continue to produce lactase throughout life, and therefore digest lactose with no adverse consequences. It’s thought that this mutation is the result of adaptations to cow’s milk from the Northern European history of cattle farming.
This explains why only 2-15% of those from a Northern European background are lactose intolerant, compared to 23% of Central Europeans and 95% of Asians. So being half-Irish myself, I may be more genetically adapted to drinking milk than some of my friends with Meditarian, Asian or Middle Eastern backgrounds.
Beyond lactose intolerance, with veganism growing in popularity, many people are also choosing to give up dairy products for ethical reasons rather than health-related reasons.
Will Milk Make Me Fat?
Many people believe that cutting out dairy from their diet is the solution to losing weight. It makes some sense as milk and other dairy products do have a relatively high fat content. But gone are the days where it was thought that consuming fat makes you fat.
Milk – like any other food or drink – contains kilojoules, and consuming too many kilojoules is what leads to weight gain. Therefore milk will not lead to weight gain if it is consumed as part of a healthy, balanced diet within your recommended daily kilojoule range. Milk also contains protein, calcium and vitamins A and D, helping you feel fuller for longer and giving your body many key nutrients.
Will Milk Give Me Acne?
Before doing my research for this post, I strongly believed the idea that cow’s milk could give you acne was a myth. However, quite a number of studies have shown a correlation between levels of cow’s milk consumption and acne in teenagers. It is thought that certain hormones present in milk may stimulate the sebaceous glands on the skin to release more sebum, leading to clogged pores and the development of acne.
That being said, researchers have stressed that acne is a combination of genetic, environmental and dietary factors, and no one food group could ever be the cause of acne. Furthermore, dairy-free diets have yet to be proven effective in reducing acne. So, while frequent cow’s milk consumption may be associated with acne, we can’t yet claim that milk causes acne.
Will Milk Give Me Cancer?
This is an interesting question, as cow’s milk has been shown to have both protective and harmful effects with regard to cancer risk. Some studies have proposed that the hormones in cow’s milk contribute to tumour growth in prostate cancer, while others have suggested milk protects against the development of bowel cancer. So, until more research is conducted the Cancer Council Australia recommends that people continue to enjoy dairy as part of a balanced diet, or seek non-dairy alternatives with added calcium if you’ve decided to cut out dairy from your diet.