A lot of us conduct our lives in accordance with what we call “conventional wisdom.” The only problem with that approach, of course, is how often conventional wisdom fails us, or is hijacked by someone with an agenda.
As a result, suggesting that we’ve been lied to about milk, consuming dairy and its wonderful health benefits might feel like being told that Mr. Rogers didn’t actually want to be your neighbor. Yet, the negative health effects of too much diary consumption are real.
What am I talking about? An unlikely study into America’s unabashed love affair with milk. It was carried out by investigative journalist and writer Alissa Hamilton, who published her findings in a book called Got Milked?. Hamilton previously set out to dismantle the throne of lies that orange juice has sat upon for as long as any of us remember. She revealed that many of OJ’s much-touted health benefits have been dramatically overstated by Big Orange Juice.
So how does milk fare? Can its place in our canon of conventional wisdom withstand the court of public opinion? Let’s take a look at the facts.
What’s the Real Story of Milk and Dairy Consumption?
There’s a very good chance that you grew up with parents who insisted that milk was “part of a balanced breakfast” or “important for growing children.” If your experience was like that of many American children, your parents accepted no substitutes.
To start unraveling some of the mythos surrounding milk and its place in popular culture, we need to look first at how milk became a dietary staple in the first place. If your mother told you that milk was essential, who was it that told her?
Milk’s meteoric rise to prominence on the American Breakfast Table was, in part, a product of school milk programs first introduced during the Second World War. Our soldiers fighting overseas required significant amounts of dairy products, but farmers were having trouble meeting demand. And they were having trouble meeting demand because they weren’t getting paid enough.
The federal government has been an imperfect ally of the farming community over the years, but in this case they came through. The government decided to drum up demand for milk by putting it in schools everywhere. This helped create additional demand for dairy farmers’ wares and made them better able to create the raw fluid milk needed for our army rations.
Another reason was the sheer convenience of it all. When women began working away from home, it wasn’t always possible to breastfeed them. Eventually, cow’s milk stepped in as an acceptable substitute.
Entrenched Misconceptions – Public Health and Lactose
According to Hamilton, the biggest incorrect assumption we have about milk is that it comprises a food group all its own. There was a time when this made sense; we used to believe that milk was the most convenient way to get the calcium we need. This is simply no longer true.
Foods such as broccoli, kale, and basil are all better sources of calcium than milk. Unfortunately, milk’s prominence in the world-famous Food Guide Pyramid has pretty much stopped people in their tracks when it comes to finding a good source of calcium. We have more options than we know.
Furthermore—and I didn’t know this until very recently—it turns out that a whopping 60% of Americans are lactose-intolerant. When you get right down to it, the human body isn’t even designed to digest milk or milk products, beyond childhood. So there’s that.
The short version of this is that the government, while well-meaning, has an inherent conflict of interest when it comes to milk. They have an obligation to the agriculture industry, and so they have (willingly or otherwise) perpetuated many of these exaggerated health claims.
It’s a reminder that science alone is our ally when it comes to making responsible dietary choices for ourselves and for our families The government will always have conflicts of interest, and the dairy industry will never place greater importance on public knowledge than on their bottom line.
Image Credit: Benjamin Horn (via Creative Commons License)