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Milk Wars: Is The Growing Backlash Against "Bessie" Justified?

For years, milk has reveled in its reputation as nature's "most perfect food." Lately, however, critics have tried to tarnish milk's stellar image. There's even a campaign by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) that has attracted attention by parodying the popular "Got Milk?" ads. PETA's brief but bizarre "Got Beer?" ads garnered publicity for its belief that dairy cows are mistreated.

But it's the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a pro-vegetarian organization, that has led the charge that cow's milk is unhealthful. Its antidairy campaign culminated late last year in a lawsuit against the federal government for conflict of interest because members of the dairy industry sit on the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. In an apparent concession to PCRM, the committee recently announced that the upcoming revised guidelines will recommend soy milk (calcium-fortified) as an alternative to cow's milk. PCRM subsequently dropped its lawsuit.

Is milk guilty as charged? Or is it an important part of a healthful diet? Milk is an excellent source of calcium and other nutrients important to bones and overall good health, like vitamins A and D, riboflavin, magnesium and potassium. But opponents argue that cow's milk contributes to diabetes, cancer, heart disease and, ironically, osteoporosis. EN explores these controversies.

Milk and Osteoporosis. No one disputes the need for calcium--for growing and aging bones alike. The debate is whether cow's milk should be the primary source of the mineral. Crusaders against milk cite the long-term, ongoing Nurses' Health Study, which found no evidence that a higher intake of milk protects against hip or forearm fractures. Milk advocates counter that in other well-controlled studies--some of which involved milk----calcium did show a positive effect on bone health and prevention of fractures.

All that may be moot, however, because both sides agree it's not just calcium, but the interplay of other nutrients (like vitamin D, protein and magnesium, weight-bearing exercise, hormones and genes that affects osteoporosis risk.

Critics point out that milk adds to the protein load of the diet, and too much dietary protein can leach calcium from bones. However, according to calcium expert Robert P. Heaney, M.D., of Creighton University in Omaha, protein is not necessarily harmful if there's enough calcium in the diet. In fact, says Heaney, the ratio of calcium to protein in the diet may be a better predictor of bone health than calcium alone, especially at low calcium intakes.

A diet moderate in protein (60 grams) that provides at least the recommended amount of calcium per day (1,000 to 1,200 milligrams) is a good ratio that should not harm bone health. Milk has a calcium-to-protein ratio more than double that, so theoretically it should not pose a problem unless you eat considerably more high-protein foods.

You don't have to get calcium from milk, of course, although it is a cheap, easy source, says Heaney. Nonmilk sources of calcium are widely available, including kale, collards, broccoli, dried beans, calcium-fortified orange juice, calcium-fortified soy milk and calcium-set tofu. There are also a myriad of calcium supplements to choose from.

Milk and Diabetes. Evidence is mounting that early exposure to cow's milk (before one year of age) may increase the risk of type 1 (insulin-dependent) diabetes in children from diabetes-prone families. Cow's milk protein may trigger an immune response that destroys the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. Although the theory is still controversial, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends infants not be given cow's milk for the first year of life to reduce the risk. Breast milk is best; it may actually protect against diabetes. Otherwise, formula can be used to supplement table foods until one year of age. There is no credible evidence that drinking milk as an adult will lead to diabetes.

Milk and Cancer. Diets high in milk and dairy foods may increase the risk of prostate and kidney cancers, according to an exhaustive review on diet and cancer conducted by the American Institute for Cancer Research. TNs may be linked to the fat in milk, but not all the research agrees. Evidence linking galactose, a breakdown product of the milk sugar lactose, to ovadan cancer risk is inconsistent, as is the link between milk and breast cancer.

Milk and Heart Disease. Diets rich in fat and saturated fat increase the risk of heart disease. Milk is often cited as contributing to saturated fat intake. But that's only true for whole or 2% (reduced-fat) milk. Choosing skim milk or 1% milk eliminates the fat issue.

Milk and Lactose Intolerance. Gastrointestinal upset can be a problem for the 20% to 25% of Americans who are lactose intolerant and can't easily digest the milk sugar lactose. However, up to one cup of milk at a time--especially with meals--is often tolerated.

The Bottom Line. Milk is not a perfect food, but neither is it a dietary evil. If you enjoy milk, don't feel guilty, but select skim (nonfat) or 1% (low-fat) milk to cut down on saturated fat.

A healthful diet does not have to include milk, but it should contain plenty of the whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes that are sources of nutrients important for bones. If you choose to avoid dairy products, be sure that dark leafy green vegetables, beans, soy foods and calcium-fortified juice and cereals are high on your shopping list.
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Author:Forman, Adrienne
Publication:Environmental Nutrition
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2000
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