Milk, that familiar white liquid, one drank as a baby and child is now a recommended food for adults too. The reason being, that calcium is good for bones and milk being an excellent source of easily absorbable calcium can help prevent the bone-thinning disease "osteoporosis' later in life. But, while milk is being touted as a "food for life" there is another school of thought that is treating milk as "white poison" - something one shouldn't drink at all. Let's explore some of these myths surrounding milk and figure out whether we should embrace this white fluid like Cleopatra or discard it as "udder nonsense".
Milk Detractors: Non fat milk has no nutrients.
Non fat milk has no nutrients, when you remove fat you remove all other nutrients too.
The Facts: Non fat or skim milk is nutritionally on par with full cream milk for all nutrients except fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and vitamin D. One can always do with less fat, saturated fat and cholesterol, but vitamin D which is essential for calcium absorption is added back into low fat or skim milk anyway.
Milk Detractors: High consumption of milk causes osteoporosis.
Milk contains protein. When you drink too much milk you consume too much protein and too much protein promotes calcium loss. Osteoporosis results from calcium loss and not insufficient calcium intake.
The Facts: High milk consumption does not cause osteoporosis.
A healthy diet for an adult can include approximately 50g (for women) to 63g (for men) of protein daily. A cup (250ml) of milk provides 8g of protein and a 90g (cooked or120g uncooked) portion of meat, fish or poultry approximately provides 21g of protein. Hence, 1 to 2 cups of milk and two (90g cooked) portions of meat, fish or poultry daily will help an adult stay within recommended protein levels.
Any extra protein from any source will result in an increase in protein intake. Increased intake of protein has been associated with loss of calcium from the bones and osteoporosis. This is more likely to occur with an extra portion of meat, fish or poultry than with a glass of milk.
Besides, osteoporosis or "bone-thinning" disease results not only due to poor absorption of calcium, but also due to poor calcium intake. It is aggravated by smoking, alcohol and a sedentary lifestyle. Since, milk is an excellent source of easily absorbable calcium (absorption is enhanced by presence of Vitamin D and almost equal quantities of calcium and phosphorous), adequate milk intake along with some weight bearing exercise, throughout life can actually help prevent osteoporosis.
Milk Detractors: Milk is the foundation of heart disease.
Milk contains fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. Heart disease results due to a high fat, saturated fat and cholesterol intake.
The Facts: Milk does not cause heart disease. It is the total diet an individual consumes, along with smoking, stress and many other factors are risk factors for heart disease.
A healthy diet can safely include approximately 50g to 60g of fat, 16g to 20g of saturated fat and 300 mg of cholesterol. A cup (250ml) of full cream milk provides 8g of fat, 5.1g of saturated fat and 33mg of cholesterol. So, even if two cups of milk are consumed daily, the total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol is not high enough to cause heart disease.
Besides, for those who really would like to cut down fat, saturated fat and cholesterol intake, healthier options viz., low fat or non-fat or skim milk are always available. Not only adults, but children above 6 years of age can safely consume low fat milk too.
Also, new evidence is hinting at adequate calcium intake being essential for lowering high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease. Milk and milk products are excellent sources of calcium, hence adequate intake helps lower blood pressure and hence the risk of heart disease too.
Milk Detractors: Non fat milk causes heart disease.
Non fat milk contains very little B vitamins. Metabolising milk protein in the absence of B vitamins results in the build-up of homocysteine, a marker for heart disease.
The Facts: Drinking skim or non-fat milk does not result in an elevation of plasma homocysteine or increased risk of heart disease.
Elevated levels of plasma homocysteine have been linked to low levels of vitamin B12 and folate. Change in the fat content of milk did not impact the levels of these vitamins.
Milk Detractors: Milk causes Cancer.
Milk contains a genetically engineered hormone that stimulates growth of cancer cells, especially causing breast cancer in women and prostate cancer in men.
The Facts: Milk does not cause cancer. In fact, many studies are hinting that dietary calcium may reduce the risk of colon cancer.
Many studies have been trying to examine the relationship between the genetically engineered hormone used to increase milk production and development of cancer, but the results have been inconclusive.
Some studies suggest that free fats and bile acids in the faeces irritate the colon and increase cell turnover, hence increasing risk of colon cancer. Dietary calcium binds with fats and bile acids in the faeces making them unavailable for colon irritation, hence reducing risk of colon cancer. Since milk and milk products are the best sources of easily absorbable calcium, adequate milk intake has also been linked to lower risk of colon cancer.
Milk Detractors: Milk causes asthma and other problems in young children.
Milk consumption results in sinus problems, diarrhoea, constipation, fatigue, chronic ear infections , behaviour problems and childhood asthma.
The Facts: Milk does not cause problems in all children. Problems like rashes, diarrhoea, wheezing etc., are only seen in some children due to:
1. Lactose intolerance.
Lactose intolerance results due to a deficiency of the enzyme "lactase" which is essential for the breakdown of lactose (sugar in milk). Undigested lactose, is subjected to bacterial fermentation in the intestine. The process of fermentation results in production of acids, carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas - all of which lead to stomach rumbles, pain, bloating, cramps, watery diarrhoea, nausea and wind.
These uncomfortable symptoms can be avoided with provision of low-lactose milk (lactose is broken down to glucose and galactose), yoghurt (bacteria in yoghurt provide their own lactase activity), cheese (lactose is lost when milk is made into cheese) or small amounts of regular milk combined with some other foods through the day.
2. Allergy to milk protein.
"Milk protein allergy" is an allergic reaction to proteins commonly found in cow's milk. The immune system treats this protein as a foreign body and releases a chemical called histamine to get rid of it. Release of histamine causes mild symptoms like gassiness or severe symptoms, which include diarrhoea, hives (urticaria), skin rashes (eczema), asthma, wheezing and nasal inflammation (rhinitis). For these children, it is best to stay away from all milk and milk products and products which contain them.
For children who do not suffer from either lactose intolerance or allergy to milk protein, it is essential to include milk and milk products daily, since milk provides good quality protein for growth, calcium for bone building and many important vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin B12, phosphorous and magnesium needed for normal development.
Milk Detractors: Milk causes tooth decay.
Milk contains a sugar, lactose. Tooth decay occurs when acid is produced on the tooth surface by bacteria in the mouth feeding on lactose residues left behind after drinking milk.
The Facts: Milk does not cause tooth decay.
Unlike other sugars, lactose in milk does not cause tooth decay. In fact, there is a lot of evidence that milk and milk products, especially cheese, helps protect against tooth decay by neutralising harmful acids which decay teeth and providing plenty of calcium for on-the-spot tooth repair following an acid attack on the enamel.
The Bottom Line
New research on foods and diet-related diseases is on going and each new day is going to bring us more information. But as of now, we know that milk really is not bad. The pros of what it can do for you really do outweigh the criticisms. So, remember to drink a glass or two daily for bone health and more.
Yashna Harjani is a consultant dietician with Food + Nutrition Specialists.
Date reviewed: 28 March 2000