[UK] The Dairy Culture
- 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
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
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
"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
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
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,"
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
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."