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What’s in Your Milk? Top Reasons to Rethink Dairy

Article at-a-glance:

  • Dairy is not required for strong bones, and in fact drinking too much milk may weaken bones and increase the risk of dying.
  • Consuming dairy is associated with increased risk of prostate cancer and death in men, and breast cancer and death in women.
  • Eating dairy can cause a whole host of symptoms, including diarrhea, post-nasal drip, excess mucous, bloating, nausea, gas, headaches and muscle and joint pain. 
  • Dairy contains a cocktail of hormones, antibiotics, viruses and hormone disruptors. 

by Dr. John Neustadt

From 1993 to 2014, Americans were entertained—and influenced—by a simple and unforgettable slogan: “Got Milk?” The campaign, one of the most popular in advertising history, often featured a creamy white milk mustache on celebrities’ upper lips, ranging from Britney Spears to Beyoncé, Batman, and Super Bowl players. The ads were part of a half-century of propaganda by the American dairy industry and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) promoting milk as a health food—as much as four glasses a day. Since the rationing and hardships during World War II, the federal government, schools, and doctors have recommended milk, to build strong bones and immune systems. But the health claims for milk have always been propped up on weak legs. 

As I would tell my patients, the curious behavior of drinking milk past infancy is not normal for mammals. Nearly all infant mammals, like humans, can digest milk through the action of lactase, the enzyme that breaks down lactose sugars found in milk. But this ability is lost with age in all mammals—including commonly in all of us. 

About 65% of us are lactose intolerant. That means that ingesting milk, cheese, and ice cream is likely to cause most of us at least some stomach and gut distress. If you consume dairy, it could be what’s causing your diarrhea, post-nasal drip, excess mucous, bloating, nausea, gas, headaches, and muscle and joint pain. People reacting to dairy can experience one or more of these symptoms, ranging from mild discomfort to severe distress. 

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, modern milk and dairy products are all too often laced with harmful hormones, chemicals, viruses, and other toxins. There has also been an alarming wave of research that implicates dairy products in the development of prostate cancer, breast cancer, and death from breast and prostate cancers. If you decide to decrease or eliminate milk from your diet, many non-dairy sources of calcium provide even more calcium than milk and cheese.

A glass of hormones

Modern milk isn’t just full of fat, protein, and vitamins—it’s chock full of unnecessary hormones. Bovine somatotropin (BST), also known as bovine growth hormone (bGH) is the ‘bogeyman’ of milk-related hormones – a peptide that is naturally produced in the pituitary glands of cows, normally in minute quantities. In the 1970s, a method was developed to mass produce this hormone and inject it into lactating cows to increase and prolong milk production. The process is considered risky enough to be banned in Canada, Europe, and other countries.

Other hormones are high in commercial milk as well, including progesterone and estrogen. A dirty secret of the dairy industry is that most cows are milked pregnant to increase profit. In 2007, Harvard Magazine ran a fascinating piece on a Mongolian physician who was, at the time, a fellow at Harvard. Her research indicated that modern milk contained astonishingly high levels of hormones simply because the cows were kept pregnant and lactating for 300 days a year. 

Can you imagine what it might be like to be pregnant for nearly ten months every year, year after year, in an unending cycle? Pregnant cows, just like pregnant women, produce high amounts of hormones, including progesterone, which is present in their milk at levels ten times higher than normal. When you drink a glass of milk or eat ice cream or yogurt, you’re ingesting a potent mix of cow hormones.

A cocktail of chemicals and viruses

Pregnant cow hormones aren’t all that’s in dairy. It also can contain Bisphenol A, viruses, and antibiotics. Bisphenol A is an endocrine (hormone) disruptor commonly associated with plastic water bottles. But it’s also been found at significant levels in milk, including raw milk directly off the farm. 

Viruses have also been detected in milk. The bovine leukemia virus is particularly concerning, which is widely found in commercial dairy herds. Laboratory experiments show that this virus can infect human cells in vitro. 

Cows given rBGH appear to suffer more infections in the udder (mastitis). Just like in humans, these infections are treated with antibiotics, which also end up in the milk, which then ends up in your body. 

Finally, cows are exposed to environmental contaminants while grazing on pastures that might have been treated with pesticides or when fed contaminated feed. This includes dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), or radionuclides from fallout.

Instead of “Got Milk?” the slogan should have been “Got a Toxic Mix of Chemicals?” But that definitely wouldn’t have sold well. 

Increased prostate cancer and death

The prostate is a walnut-sized gland in men located just behind the bladder. As men age, they tend to become more concerned about their prostate health. Among other natural approaches to prostate health, ditching dairy may help.

A review of 23 studies concluded that dairy intake is one of the most consistent dietary predictors for prostate cancer in the published literature. One study evaluated data from the Physicians’ Health Study, in which diet and prostate cancer were documented in 20,885 male physicians for 11 years. Men who consumed more than 2.5 servings of dairy products per day had a 34% increased risk of getting prostate cancer compared to those who consumed half a serving per day. 

Increased breast cancer and death 

Based on multiple clinical studies and years of data showing that consuming full-fat dairy cheese is associated with an increased risk of getting and dying from breast cancer, on October 3, 2019, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine petitioned the US FDA to require all manufacturers of dairy cheese products to include the following warning on their labels: “Dairy cheese contains reproductive hormones that may increase breast cancer mortality risk.”

A 2017 study funded by the National Cancer Institute concluded that “those who consumed the most American, cheddar, and cream cheese had a 53 percent increased risk for breast cancer.” Additionally, a 2013 study found that consuming one or more servings per day of high-fat dairy by women who had been previously diagnosed with early-stage invasive breast cancer was associated with a 49 percent increase in the chance of death. The results of this study were in keeping with the results from an earlier study.

What about organic?

Organic agriculture is an approach to growing and raising food using less toxic, more environmentally friendly farming methods. Organic milk is often considered healthier than conventional, but what does the research show? Interestingly, there has been a lack of studies looking at chemicals in organic dairy versus conventional dairy products. 

The first study evaluating pesticides in organic versus conventional milk was published in 2019. The researchers purchased eight half-gallon milk cartons each from retail stores in nine states—California, Michigan, Iowa, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Utah, Georgia, and Arizona. From each store, six milk cartons were 2% milk, which is what most children drink; three were certified organic, and three were conventional brands. 

While below the FDA limit for acceptable levels of pesticides, 20-60% of conventional brands tested positive for residues of atrazine, chlorpyrifos, cypermethrin, diazinon, hexachlorobenzene, and permethrin. No currently used pesticides were detected in organic samples. 

Legacy pesticides, those now prohibited by the FDA but that persist in the environment, including hexachlorobenzene, p,p’- Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (ppDDT) and the DDT metabolite/degradant ppDDE were found in nearly all of the organic and conventional milk samples. 

Dairy alternatives

So, what to do if you love your milk, yogurt, cheese, and ice cream? First, if you want to indulge, try to do so in moderation. Secondly, food manufacturers are becoming increasingly creative to meet the growing demand for plant-based milks and meats. Almonds, oats, cashews, peas, and coconuts are only a few of the ingredients used for an impressive array of yogurts, milks, and cheeses. 

As for calcium and strong bones, numerous fruits and vegetables are wonderful and healthy sources of minerals, including calcium. While a cup of milk contains about 300 milligrams of calcium, a cup of cooked mustard greens contains 450 milligrams, a cup of chickpeas contains 340 milligrams, and ten dried dates contain 124 milligrams. 

See our Calcium Content of Foods table and my article on the Top 10 Non-Dairy Sources of Calcium for a list of the calcium content of fruits, veggies, and other foods. And you get an added benefit: not only do veggies and fruits provide a motherlode of minerals, but they can dramatically lower your overall risk of dying and significantly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

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