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What is the deal with all the different milk?

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By: Bonnie Wurst – mtltimes.ca

 

‘Got Milk?’ is a popular and successful American advertising campaign running since 1993 to encourage the consumption of milk. It features celebrities, actors and musicians sporting the ‘milk-mustache’ many people get when they drink a glass of the bovine dairy product.

It is sold in 2 liter, 1 liter, 500 mL or 250 mL cartons, as well as 4 liter, 1 liter, 250 mL and 500 mL plastic jugs and in 1.33 liter plastic bags.

It is available as whole milk with 3.25% fat or reduced-fat milk with 2% fat. There is also 1% low fat milk and even 0% fat-free skim milk. There is milk available with added vitamins and minerals, lactose free milk and my personal favorite – chocolate milk.

Don’t forget the 5%, 10% and 35% creams and what about ‘buttermilk’? Does Eggnog count?

Then there is milk from beyond the familiar dairy cow such as buffalo, goat, sheep, camel, donkey, reindeer and even yak. The term milk is also used for non-animal beverages resembling milk in color and texture such as soy milk, rice milk, almond milk and coconut milk – all fortified to meet the same nutritional ingredients except for protein. But for this article we’ll focus on the bovine kind.

There are billions of consumers of milk and milk products worldwide. It is touted as an excellent source of vitamins and minerals, particularly calcium and has long been recognized for its important role in bone health. Today’s milk is pasteurized to kill harmful microorganisms. The process produces a 99.99% reduction in the number of bacteria in milk, rendering it safe to drink for up to three weeks if continually refrigerated.

But there is also a lot of controversy surrounding milk – from health concerns to the ethical concerns of vegans and animal rights activists.

Let’s go back in history for a moment. Human beings are first introduced to milk as infants at the breasts of their mothers – the main source of nourishment during the first few years of the child’s life. Once the child reached about 4 or 5 years old, the child’s body began to slow its production of lactase, the enzyme that allows mammals to digest the lactose in milk. At the end of the stage of infancy, they became lactose-intolerant for life.

Then according to Mark Thomas, an evolutionary geneticist at University College London, sometime around 10,000 B.C. this all changed. A genetic mutation appeared, somewhere near modern-day Turkey, which jammed the lactase-production gene permanently in the “on” position. People carrying the mutation could drink milk their entire lives. Within a few thousand years, this mutation spread throughout most of the world. The speed of this transformation is an unsolved mystery in the story of human evolution.

Still today, around two-thirds of humans become lactose intolerant in adulthood to some degree.

Lactose is a type of carbohydrate or sugar that naturally occurs in milk from any mammal, including humans. Normally, an enzyme in the small intestine called Lactase breaks down lactose so it can be absorbed into the bloodstream. Some people don’t produce enough lactase and undigested lactose is broken up by the bacteria in their large intestine causing gas, bloating, pain and diarrhea. This condition is called ‘lactose intolerance’.

You can be born lactose intolerant or develop it later in life. Options exist today in the form of Lactose-Free milk or the soy, rice and almond ‘pseudo’ milks.

Health Canada and many nutritionists recommend that milk and other dairy products should be consumed daily as part of a balanced diet. Milk products contain a good balance of protein, fat and carbohydrate and are a very important source of essential nutrients including; Calcium, Riboflavin, Phosphorous, Vitamins A, D and B12 and Pantothenic acid. Milk products also contain ‘high quality proteins’ that are well suited to human needs. Milk proteins increase the value of poorer quality cereal and vegetable proteins in the diet by providing the amino acids these proteins lack.

Studies also indicate that an inadequate intake of calcium may lead to disorders like osteoporosis if milk and milk products are removed from the diet – a particular concern for women and the elderly, who have high calcium needs. Other studies have found that people who regularly eat dairy products have a reduced risk of developing colon cancer. Research in the US found that a high intake of fruits and vegetables, combined with low-fat dairy foods, will lower blood pressure more than fruits and vegetables alone.

But there are also recent studies which are contradictory, suggesting milk consumption may increase the risk of suffering from certain health problems.

Many people believe that nasal stuffiness and the production of mucous is exacerbated by the consumption of milk and other dairy products. Scientists say there is no scientific basis to this theory, that milk does not encourage extra mucous production. But many question if there are studies proving that it indeed does not. Ask anyone with a cold if they instinctively crave a glass of milk when they are sick – chances are they will tell you they do not. There are thousands of people who can attest to dramatically reduced mucous production when they cut milk out while they are sick. They can’t all be wrong. Perhaps the connection is just a little more indirect.

One study demonstrated that men who drink a large amount of milk and consume dairy products were at a slightly increased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. A review published by the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research states that at least eleven human population studies have linked excessive dairy product consumption and prostate cancer. Medical studies also have shown a possible link between milk consumption and the exacerbation of diseases such as Crohn’s Disease.

And last but not least are the ethical concerns.

Humans can derive the same nutrients found in milk from many other food items and meet all their daily needs without the need of any dairy products. But for some that could mean a lot of beans and broccoli on a daily basis – beyond one’s taste and ability to consume.

Vegans and most vegetarians do not consume milk for reasons mostly related to animal rights. They passionately object to dairy farming, citing the conditions for the animals abusive and horrific.

On the PETA website (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) they explain that cows produce milk for the same reason that humans do – to nourish their young. Calves are generally taken from their mothers within a day of being born. Males are destined for veal crates or barren lots where they will be fattened for beef and females are sentenced to the same fate as their mothers.  After their calves are taken away from them, mother cows are hooked up, several times a day, to milking machines. These cows are genetically manipulated, artificially inseminated and often drugged to force them to produce about four and a half times as much milk as they naturally would to feed their calves.

Hardly the incentive to run out for that block of cheese. I might choose a non-dairy sorbet over a double chocolate ice cream next time, but I’m not ready to stop putting cream in my coffee or enjoying an afternoon latte. Not cold turkey anyhow.

‘Got Milk?’ but do you really ‘Want Milk?’ or ‘Need Milk’? – these are questions a lot of people are asking. Would you opt for one of the ‘pseudo’ milks instead? Have you used any of these products as a replacement for milk in recipes? The taste results? Or are you a proud dairy consumer, satisfied with the knowledge imparted by our scientific community?

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