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[UK] The Dairy Culture

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    Sunday Times magazine [UK], 21 July, 2002 http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2099-357240,00.html Milk: Is the White Stuff the Right Stuff? by Peter Martin
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 1, 2002
      Sunday Times magazine [UK], 21 July, 2002

      Milk: Is the White Stuff the Right Stuff?

      by Peter Martin

      It was just six thousand years ago that the first settled communities,
      with their new-found genius for growing crops and domesticating animals,
      were able to create a relative heaven on earth, verily a "land of milk
      and honey". But dairy culture was largely confined to Caucasian peoples
      and, even today, most of humanity thinks it a very peculiar practice to
      consume milk beyond the end of weaning, and even more peculiar to drink
      the milk of another species. A handy measure here is lactose
      intolerance. For seven out of ten people worldwide, drinking cow's milk
      would bloat them uncomfortably, if not give them the squits.

      But we milky few stuck at it, and selective pressure gradually knocked
      out the genes responsible for our severest reactions to milk. Not that
      everyone approved of the white stuff. Hippocrates, the father of
      medicine, was dead against it, and swore by milk exclusion diets for
      curing all sorts: enfeebled babies, diarrhoea, skin complaints,
      wheezing, painful joints. But conventionally, the cow was God's gift of
      meat as well as milk, eventually butter and cheese, and once it had been
      twigged that putting a cow serially into calf keeps the milk flowing,
      her fertile, maternal glamour became synonymous with tribal good. Today,
      the New Zealand dairy industry invokes that same sense of bovine
      blessing with images of blonde Jerseys batting their soulful eyelashes.
      For us, of course, dear old Daisy will forever be a black and white
      Friesian grazing on lush grass.

      But there's no Easter bunny, either. In reality, the modern high-yield
      dairy cow is a pitiful, ramshackle embodiment of market-driven
      exploitation. The new UK model, so help us, is the American Holstein
      battery cow. A shed-housed fermentation vat on legs, teats dragging the
      ground, it's a sight to frighten children - a giant, 650 kilo, emaciated
      ectomorph resembling Frankenstein's goat. Kept hungry by the demands of
      its genetically uprated metabolism, it eats more or less round the
      clock, 90 kilos of high-octane fuel every 24 hours, and produces 100
      pints of milk a day, twice as much as Daisy ever managed.

      Trouble is, after years-long genetic selection for ever-increasing milk
      yield, today's Holsteins blow up or break down at the slightest glitch
      in feeding or welfare. In the larger American herds, they're so prey to
      mastitis, lameness, arthritis, infertility and general exhaustion -
      think economies of welfare as well as scale - that they're fit only for
      culling, done and busted, by the age of three. They rarely manage two
      calves, and the average number of lactations is down to 1.8 and

      The Holsteinisation of the UK dairy herd is already under way, however.
      Farmers have not been able to resist the genetic promise: 2% compound
      increase in milk yield annually, year after year. So it is that the
      Holstein-Friesian mix is our commonest dairy creature. Welfare wasn't
      too good when Daisy was supreme, but fully 80% of UK dairy cows now go
      for what's called "involuntary" culling.

      "It's not cost effective and it's cruel," says Professor John Webster,
      of Bristol University's Veterinary College, and Britain's leading
      authority on animal husbandry. "I'm not going to persuade farmers from
      going for genetic improvement, but going for every improvement just
      doesn't work. We see farmers already down to two lactations as an
      average lifetime performance - as opposed to five, six, even eight."

      So much for the poor cow. Now to the milk: a wholly different crisis
      facing the Western dairy industry centres on whether or not the white
      stuff is the right stuff for optimising human health. Hippocrates
      started it with his milk-exclusion prescription for curing all sorts,
      and he's been lately joined by serious scientists the world over. Of all
      sacred cows, even milk as the supposed ideal source of calcium for bone
      health has lately come under the stun gun. As never before, the dairy
      industry is fighting a pitched battle to uphold consumer belief in the
      "essential goodness" of its products. Consider some recent exchanges of
      unfriendly fire:

      On bone health: "There is now good evidence that increasing calcium
      intake can help reduce bone loss in menopausal women." The UK Dairy

      "Milk Does Not Protect Against Bone Breaks." Newspaper, internet and
      billboard advertisement placed by the New York-based Physicians
      Committee for Responsible Medicine.

      On breast cancer: "To discover that lifelong milk drinkers have a
      reduced risk of breast cancer is an exciting step forward." Dr. Anita
      Wells, of the UK Dairy Council, on a recent Norwegian study.

      "The contradicting results may indicate that any association between
      milk and breast cancer is not a strong one." Dr. Anette Hjartaker of the
      Norwegian research team commenting on a whole range of studies into milk
      consumption and breast cancer.

      On heart disease: "There is no scientific evidence to support the claim
      that drinking milk and eating dairy products, per se, which provide some
      saturated fat, increases the risk of heart disease." The UK Dairy

      "Women who ate more unsaturated fat instead of saturated fat had fewer
      heart problems." Professor Walter Willett, on the Harvard Nurses Study
      involving 78,000 women.

      Raging around the science debate, however, is an almighty propaganda war
      between the industry and an army of "anti-milk" campaigners of the
      vegetarian and animal-rights persuasion. It's the "white stuff versus
      the green stuff" and, in the main, both sides are equally ruthless in
      their selective recourse to the evidence. The shining exception is the
      handful of hard-science types working on behalf of "the green stuff".
      One such is Colin Campbell, now professor emeritus at Cornell
      University, New York, and a pioneer of dietary epidemiology. "I started
      my career trying to work out how to get more milk out of dairy cows," he
      says ruefully. "Now I see it as unarguable. For disease prevention,
      nutrition, and the whole matter of animal protein, including milk and
      dairy, is at the very centre of the plate."

      Another hard-science "green stuff" type is Dr. Stephen Walsh, lecturer
      in advanced process control at Imperial College, London, and the Vegan
      Society's accomplished data-buster. It was Walsh, in a Society review,
      who recently nailed the US and UK dairy councils' specious claim for
      milk's protective role in breast cancer. But the councils are
      unrepentant. "It's very good news about breast cancer," the UK DC's Dr.
      Wells told me, citing just two studies which have shown a protective
      effect but none of those describing negative or null effects. "What
      these anti-milk people do is quote the bits that suit them while
      ignoring the entirety of the evidence." Oh dear.

      Back to Walsh: "If there is a beneficial effect of milk in relation to
      breast cancer, it is most likely due to the calcium and vitamin D
      content. And if there is an adverse effect, it's most likely to be from
      milk's effect on the IGF-1 insulin growth factor." (Quick background:
      IGF-1 naturally occurs in humans and in cow's milk. Once genetic
      protection has been breached, IGF-1 works to accelerate malignant cell
      growth, and is one of the targets of the anti-cancer drug, Tamoxifen.)

      "On balance," says Walsh, stun-gun cocked, "the sensible course is to
      get your calcium and vitamin D from somewhere other than milk, and skip
      the potential hazards of IGF-1."

      You can see why cow's milk might upset anyone who's never drunk it
      before. It's not just because people with no dairy tradition lose the
      metabolic ability to process the lactose in their own mother's milk by
      the age of four. Every kind of milk - human, horse, elephant, camel or
      dog's - is exactly formulated to meet the different growth needs of its
      young. In the cow's case, that of a herbivore with four stomachs, a huge
      bone mass, and a tremendously hormone-charged growth rate. But although
      we milky few have genetically adjusted to some of milk's "alien"
      elements over six millennia, there are others we appear not to have
      accommodated which inevitably seek out unintended biochemical roles for

      New mothers are warned off cow's milk, for example, not simply because
      "breast is best". As Hippocrates suspected, the white stuff is the
      commonest cause of childhood allergies. Standard medical advice, which
      the diary industry happily toots, is that such allergies usually desist
      by age three. But in a recent Finnish study, two thirds of a group of 56
      children diagnosed with cow's milk allergy as infants were still
      allergic and highly symptomatic at aged ten. Other studies show that
      many children are milk allergic but don't know it. Tell-tale reactions
      include runny noses, wheezing, coughing, earaches, ear infections,
      rashes, and stomach upsets. When milk is withdrawn from their diet,
      symptoms improve or clear altogether, and re-introducing it leads to
      relapse in the majority. Chief culprits appear to be lactose and/or
      bovine protein.

      More serious is the evidence that frequent milk and dairy consumption
      can more than double the risk of prostate cancer, the fourth commonest
      malignancy in men. Low-fat milks afford no protection. As to the
      mechanism, it appears that milk, by raising IGF-1 levels, promotes
      cancer growth; at the same time, excessive calcium suppresses vital
      vitamin D activity, which reinforces cell growth. Two years ago, after
      the then mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, had been diagnosed with
      prostate cancer, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) ran
      billboard images of him with a "milk mustache" and the line, "Got milk?
      Got prostate cancer." Zero for taste, but scientifically spot on.

      The most notorious of the anti-milk advocates is American Robert Cohen,
      author of "Milk, The Deadly Poison" and controller of the slash/slash
      and burn notmilk.com. To start with, Cohen looked like a good guy, not
      least for his campaign against Monsanto's genetically engineered cattle
      hormone, bovine somatotropin (BST). When injected into cows it boosts
      milk yield by up to 20 per cent. But it also increases mastitis and
      anti-biotic cross-over into humans, as well as upping IGF-1 levels in
      the cow and in the milk. For all that, the US Food and Drug
      Administration passed it for use in l993, since when Monsanto has
      successfully prosecuted US producers who presumed to put "BST-free" on
      their milk cartons. Although we import some US dairy products from
      BST-treated herds, BST's use - if only for the moment - is banned in

      But Cohen - who now styles himself the NotMilkman - has lately assumed
      the role of messianic propagandist. At an Earthsave conference last
      year, he claimed that if children in the initial stages of type 1
      diabetes were put on a milk exclusion diet, the diabetes would stop
      developing. Challenged by Earthsave to produce attested cases, he
      flounced off. Cohen's next outrage was to label the Norwegian paper on
      milk and breast cancer "the most fraudulent study of the century".
      According to his reading of it, milk drinkers had 6.4 times the risk of
      breast cancer.

      "Complete rubbish," says Walsh. "But because Cohen was bringing all of
      us into disrepute, I challenged him on the data, and gave him a month to
      reply or I'd go public. He didn't, so I did." In February, the American
      Vegsource website formally disowned the NotMilkman with an electronic
      valediction entitled, "The Sad Truth About Robert Cohen."

      For the "green stuff", less dismissable is the New York-based Physicians
      Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). Recently, it posted a
      well-balanced update of milk's role in prostate cancer. But such is its
      anti-milk bias, you'll hear nothing from PCRM about milk's equally
      probable protective role in colorectal cancer. Never has consumer choice
      been so gritty. Drink milk and "win" on colorectal cancer but "lose" on
      prostate; or get adequate calcium from other sources.

      By no coincidence, PCRM is partly funded by PETA, which runs the
      in-your-face milksucks.com. PETA's "Got zits?" campaign quotes
      dermatologists who swear that milk sugar, butter fat and bovine hormones
      create acne. Not so, cries the UK DC's website: "There is no evidence
      that drinking milk causes spots." And so it goes.

      But while the brazenly anti-milk campaigners are a serious nuisance to
      the dairy industry, a much more formidable enemy are those essentially
      educational, hard-science, green groups. One such, in America, is the
      august Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group (VNDPG). Back in
      January, the US National Dairy Council called a "Calcium Crisis" summit.
      Ostensibly an open debate, the security arrangements were specifically
      designed to exclude any member of the VNDPG. But you could almost
      sympathise. The VNDPG's science-solid party piece consists of
      demonstrating that all the Recommended Dietary Allowances - for protein,
      fats and nutrients, including calcium - can easily be met within a
      plant-based diet and, by extension, that no one has need of milk or
      dairy. At the summit, the industry apparently didn't want anyone raining
      on its favourite mantra, "Milk is an essential part of a well-balanced

      The industry's most successful propaganda coup, of course, has been to
      equate essential calcium with dairy products. Which is why the cow-flop
      hit the fan when the Harvard Nurses Study delivered its first results on
      milk consumption and bone health in 1997. Bottom line: those women who
      got the most calcium from milk and dairy appeared to be at twice the
      risk of hip fracture of those who got very little calcium from dairy
      sources. PCRM immediately ran billboard and newspaper ads across
      America - "Milk Does Not Protect Against Bone Breaks" - while PETA still
      goes so far as to claim, "If dairy has any effect, both clinical and
      population evidence strongly implicate dairy in causing, rather than
      preventing, osteoporosis."

      On the balance of evidence, they're both wrong. For it now appears that
      the Nurses Study had been confounded on two counts. One centred on the
      vitamin A, in the form of retinol, that US milk-producers put into
      low-fat milk. Most studies involving retinol-free milk show a neutral or
      bone-protective effect. But a recent US investigation found that retinol
      is strongly associated with increased fracture risk, confirming a
      similar study in Sweden. It seems the nurses had been drinking from a
      poisoned chalice.

      The other Catch 22 was the nurses' own health savviness. As highlighted
      by an Australian study, people with a family history of falls, fractures
      or osteoporosis will deliberately increase their calcium intake by way
      of self-defence. So, although it looked as if the nurses' high milk
      intake caused more fractures, this may be illusory due to individuals at
      high genetic risk consuming more milk in largely unsuccessful attempts
      to protect their bones.

      So what's the whole picture? Milk is protective of bone health, but the
      protection diminishes dramatically in older people. As a recent review
      in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded: "(A)ge-related
      bone loss may be more attributable to excess calcium loss than to
      inadequate calcium intake." (Our italics.)

      That's the bone breaker - excess calcium loss. Where the dairy industry
      and public policy get it wrong is in placing undue importance on calcium
      intake. For one thing, other dietary factors operate like bone thieves.
      Salt and, separately, animal protein - most notably chicken, fish and
      eggs - all result in net calcium losses through urine. Conversely, extra
      potassium from a diet rich in fruit and vegetables buttresses retained
      calcium by limiting losses. Back in l994, a National Institutes of
      Health Calcium Panel spelled it out: "Intake and absorption account for
      only 25% of the variance in calcium balance, whereas urinary loss
      accounts for approximately 50% ." Or as Walsh puts it, "Relying on
      calcium alone to prevent osteoporosis is like fielding a football team
      with only strikers and no defenders."

      So the critical factor is calcium balance. On that score, the white
      stuff doesn't serve us so well. Several substances in milk, particularly
      protein, contribute to calcium losses. Result: a third of the calcium
      initially absorbed by the body from milk is then wasted, through urine,
      in losses caused by the milk itself; from cheese, more than two-thirds
      is wasted in losses. All particularly bad news for those with poor
      calcium absorption, as among many elderly people, and the genetically

      So which are the best bone foods? Granny was right! Eat your greens!
      They're unbeatable for calcium absorption while minimising losses.
      (Excluding spinach which has too-high oxalate levels). The superstar of
      bone health is Vitamin K, staple of green, leafy vegetables: lettuce,
      cabbage, brussel-tops, broccoli, kale, spring greens - the darker the
      leaf, the better. 100 gm per day of such vegetables provides enough
      vitamin K to halve the risk of fracture. But that's not the half of it.
      Greens also provide other minerals that improve calcium balance:
      although a pint of milk contains twice as much calcium as 200gms of
      spring greens, due to lower protein and higher potassium, the greens
      pack the same punch on retained calcium. And other vegetables and
      fruits, such as peppers, oranges and bananas, although low in calcium,
      reduce calcium losses by virtue of their richness in potassium.

      Of course, diet is not the sole key to bone health. Top of the must-have
      list is enough vitamin D to convert dietary calcium into bone - via
      sunshine (ideally fifteen minutes a day) or, in winter, with vitamin
      supplements. With bones, it's also a case of use 'em or lose 'em. Key,
      here, are impact exercises like jogging, ball games, step exercises or
      walking - which, even in the elderly, strengthens bones. But very, very
      old bones tell their own story. According to the fossil evidence,
      pre-dairy hunter-gatherers were so well blessed with calcium, potassium
      and vitamin K from plant sources, and with sunshine D from so much
      outdoor trekking, that they had bones like rhinos'.

      Wary of the dangers of saturated fats, we most of us have switched to
      lower-fat milk over the past twenty years. Lest we forget, one small
      200ml glass of whole milk contains no less than 23% of the recommended
      daily intake of saturated fats. Even while charging the same price for
      low-fat as for whole milk, however, the dairy industry continues to
      recycle much of that skimmed-off saturated fat into ever-aspirant,
      upwardly mobile foodstuffs: greater ranges of cheese and fluid cream
      products, melt-in-the-mouth biscuits, pastries and cakes, pizzas, ice
      cream, sauces, dips, and ready meals. As Professor Willett has said,
      "Once a cow is milked, the fat from that milk is in the food supply, and
      someone ends up drinking or eating it."

      The Recommended Dietary Intake of calories from saturated fat consistent
      with good health is 10%. But the national figure is 14%, and dairy fat
      is the single source for more than a third of them. The consequences are
      disastrous. "Of course, individuals make their informed dietary
      choices," said Dr. Mike Rainer, nutrition and heart specialist at
      Oxford University, and a member of the International Obesity Task Force.
      "But you have to look at what's happening at the population level and,
      as far as cardiovascular disease and strokes are concerned, the very top
      of the danger hierarchy is - no, not meat - but saturated dairy fat
      including the stuff that's found its way back into the food chain."

      The UK Dairy Council's website - much of it targeted at schools and
      parents on the theme of "Is your child missing out?" - has nothing to
      say about its recycled saturated fats. But its offerings on milk and
      dairy amount to revisionism of a sort to beggar belief: "There is no
      scientific evidence to support the claim that drinking milk and eating
      dairy products, per se, which provide some saturated fat, increases the
      risk of heart disease."

      No scientific evidence? Consider the l950s trial of the so-called Sippy
      Diet. In UK and US hospitals, it compared patients who had been put on a
      milk-sipping treatment for ulcers with those who hadn't. Combined
      autopsy results showed that Sippy-dieters had more than double the heart
      attacks. More recently, the Harvard Nurses Study showed that women
      drinking two glasses a day had 67% more risk of heart disease than those
      drinking no whole milk. "We calculated that replacing 5% of calories
      from saturated fats with unsaturated fats would reduce the risk of heart
      attack or death by heart disease by 40%," said Willett, chief architect
      of the study.

      Only low-fat milk is exonerated. In the case of the Harvard nurses, for
      example, those who drank it showed a modestly reduced risk of heart
      disease. Taken together, the results nicely separated the cardiovascular
      hazard of saturated fat from the cardio-protective effect of calcium. So
      let's be clear. Low-fat milk doesn't hurt the heart, and there's
      evidence that it lowers blood pressure. But the diary industry insists
      on making the same claim for the entirety of dairy products and for
      whole milk - and it's just not on.

      The Vegan Society, having had enough of advocacy propaganda masquerading
      as health claims, has just formally challenged both the US and UK dairy
      councils to substantiate their "wishful thinking" and "selective
      citation" of the scientific evidence on the core issue of saturated
      dairy fats. By way of ensuring the widest possible debate, Walsh has
      planted his battle standard on several internet sites. But this is just
      the first shot across the industry's bows. "Our intention," says Walsh,
      "is to challenge them on a whole range of health claims, with a right of
      reply in our magazine and on the internet. If someone continues to use
      dairy, that's their choice, but we would like it to be an informed

      But it gets weirder. Not content to claim saturated fats as harmless,
      the industry now appears bent on rehabilitating them as a boon to good
      health. Exhibit A is this recent UK DC announcement: "A natural fat
      found in milk, cheese, yoghurts and butter may soon prove to contain
      anti-cancer properties." The magic fat is actually a group of conjugated
      linoleic acids (CLAs). But contrary to the council's implicit message,
      there's a good reason why eating more dairy will not confer any of CLA's
      thus far theoretical benefits. Their proportion is so tiny - 1 in 120
      parts of saturated fat - that to come by a significant amount of CLAs,
      you'd have to eat artery-choking amounts of the fat stuff.

      "The existence of CLAs is not a health boost for dairy products as we
      know them," explained Professor Phillip Calder, in charge of Southampton
      University's CLA research project, which is co-funded by the Milk
      Development Council. "Long term, the idea is to manipulate the CLA
      content of dairy products. But while the animal experiments that
      different groups have done looked promising, the human results have been

      Calder is now running a volunteer trial using single forms of CLA, with
      a view to discovering if their micro-components can switch on, or off,
      genes relating to anti-cancer function in humans. Concurrently,
      agricultural boffins at Reading University are seeking to manipulate the
      types and composition of CLAs at source - in the dairy cow. "Ultimately,
      the intention is to make new dairy products - milk, butter, cheese,
      yoghurts - containing more CLA and less saturated fats per serving,"
      said Calder.

      Of course, commercialised science will look where it's paid to. "CLA
      research was actually got going by the American meat and dairy
      industry," said Professor Campbell, "and it's very depressing when
      people start looking into little components of this and that. Let's face
      it, if dairy products contained all the good things that fruit and
      vegetables do, we'd be tired of hearing about them by now."

      Indeed, for evidence-backed protection against a whole range of
      cancers - breast, ovarian, prostate and colon - you have only to look at
      the combination of folate, as found in green vegetables, and lycopene,
      as in red produce like peppers, strawberries, watermelon and in cooked
      tomatoes especially. Plus, of course, the entire colour "rainbow" of
      fruit and vegetables contains tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of
      different kinds of cancer-fighting anti-oxidants.

      As for heart disease, even cholesterol-jammed sufferers can reverse the
      damage done by saturated fats by switching to unsaturated ones.
      Suggestive evidence first emerged from a l960's seven-nation study which
      found that people living in Crete, who consumed 40% fat mostly from
      olive oil, were the longest living population. Then a l990s French study
      put heart attack survivors on a diet modelled on Crete's, including
      plenty of plant monounsaturated and omega-3 fatty acids. Their heart
      attack rate dropped by 70% compared to those survivors on a standard
      "prudent" diet.

      Even so, the industry is probably right when it warns that summarily
      cutting out milk and dairy might be hazardous. But that's chiefly
      because the national way of eating is so awful that putting together a
      "menu for good health" would entail a complete dietary overhaul. Modern
      children, for example, as established in a l999 UK study, eat far less
      healthily than those of the 1950's, despite the food rationing and
      shortages of the time. Albeit unwittingly, the UK DC gives the game away
      with the desperate argument that a glass of milk contains "less fat than
      a packet of crisps or a regular sized bar of chocolate." And what, pray,
      is the chief constituent of a chocolate bar?

      Concurring with Professors Campbell, Willett et al, Dr. Rainer estimates
      that cutting out saturated fat would more than halve the risk of heart
      disease. "It's difficult to say if the fruit and veg (more of) message
      is more or less important than the saturated fats (less of) argument,
      but I'd put them roughly in the same bracket."

      Rainer cocks the stun-gun again: "Another dairy council argument is that
      you need the protein from dairy products. You don't. There's no evidence
      of protein deficiency in the UK. Lastly, well, yes, we all need calcium.
      But, sorry to say it, osteoporosis is nothing like as large a public
      health problem as cardiovascular disease and stroke. So they can't
      really argue that the (bone) benefits of milk and dairy over-ride the
      dangerous importance of saturated fats."

      Meantime, the animal protein industries continue in their colonisation
      of the globe with animal-based "diets of affluence", usually starting
      with a Big Mac and a milkshake. As it happens, standard industry advice
      to the unconverted on overcoming lactose intolerance is to persist with
      taking a little milk with meals. Way back, our ancestors created this
      land of milk and honey. But while bees do it much as they always did, it
      's plainly not so for the modern grotesque of the high-yield battery
      cow. Has the claim for milk and dairy as natural foods ever been so

      "Taken all together - the welfare and environmental issues, and the
      adverse health evidence - it posits a fundamental change in British
      agriculture," said Rainer. "But there's huge reluctance on the part of
      the farming community, and the Food Standards Agency doesn't even have
      it on its agenda to move us away from an animal-dependent system to a
      more plant-based agriculture. It makes no sense."
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