While milk, or more accurately lactose, intolerance has recently increased in prominence as a problem in the Western diet, things are never as simple as they appear.
A recent conversation threw an interesting light on a preconceived idea. A colleague and I were chatting about cow’s milk as part of a human diet, and I expressed the opinion that this milk was meant for cows, not for people. My stance echoed what I had read and learned about milk from both the scientific literature and so-called conventional wisdom on milk in the modern diet.
My colleague remarked that her husband, a Sudanese Dinka tribesman, had lived on nothing but milk until he was five years old. Breastfed for the first few years, he was gradually weaned to cow’s milk. He is now a healthy man in middle age, showing no ill effects from his first half-decade of a pure milk diet. Similarly, the Masai of Kenya rely heavily on milk, which they mix with blood tapped from the veins of their cattle. They, too, are a statuesque and healthy people.
Both of these examples demonstrate that we can never generalise about individual dietary preferences.
The cattle upon which the Masai and Dinka rely are under far lower production pressure than modern dairy herds. Today dairy production, driven more by market demand than common sense, relies heavily on the use of genetically modified and chemically derived hormones, antibiotics and drug regimens, pasteurisation, UHT processes, homogenisation and other industrial interference in the natural milk production cycle.
Accordingly, we have milk and ‘milk’ – one the product of an industrial process, the other a natural product. It is almost certain that production methods play as much of a role in the health effects of the final product as do inherent physiological problems related to the consumption of dairy products.
Besides milk from cows, goats and sheep, there is a whole range of so-called ‘milks’ made from grains and beans, such as soy, rice and oat milk, which are little more than vegetable-coloured and flavoured waters. Most have little in common with cow’s milk and would more accurately be called imitation milk beverages.
There are other milk substitutes, such as almond and coconut milk, which do provide some useful nutrients and advantages.
Let’s start at the beginning. The conversation that started this article arose out of the intense debate around milk and milk substitutes. Perhaps we should condense this milk matter once and for all.
Whenever we talk about milk, comparisons inevitably arise between breast and the rest. We all know that breast is best – the only milk produced by humans for humans. It provides ideal proportions of fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, and antibodies – all the goodness a baby needs. Yet, in our commodified world, unscrupulous milk formula companies continue to claim that their products are comparable with breastmilk!
Few humans consume breastmilk much beyond the first two years, despite recent articles highlighting extended breastfeeding. However, as discussed, there are several cultures that have evolved along with their domesticated animals, who utilise the milk from these animals as part of a balanced diet. Populations accustomed to milk are less likely to exhibit lactose or other dairy intolerances than those in cultures that had little historical reliance on dairy products, such as in West Africa, Asia and the Americas. Lactose intolerance is largely the product of genetics, manifested through individual metabolic tendencies.
Lactose intolerance is the result of a deficiency of the enzyme lactase. It rarely manifests in young children and becomes more marked in adulthood. It is not life-threatening, but can affect the quality of life of sufferers. In terms of lactose sufferers, milk is worst (especially powdered), cream less so and butter least. Some hard cheeses have reduced lactose levels. Lactose is also hidden in many products, such as those containing whey or its derivatives. Yoghurt is more easily digested, as the bacterial processes break lactose down into more readily digestible components. This increased recognition of lactose intolerance is a primary reason for the shift towards dairy milk substitutes.
Goat’s milk is generally the most readily available and closest analogue to cow’s milk. Like all milks, it does contain lactose, but at levels marginally lower than in cow’s milk. It has different properties to cow’s or human milk, providing lower levels of folic acid and vitamins C and B12. On the other hand, it has higher levels of vitamins B2, potassium and protein than human milk. It is more easily digested than cow’s milk because of its different varieties of casein, a milk protein.
None of the alternative ‘milks’, either animal or vegetable, are recommended as breastmilk replacements during the first year,1 but can be used with care and moderation after this time.
SOY, RICE AND OAT MILK
Soy ‘milk’ is sometimes recommended for babies, but this most widely used and marketed milk substitute should only be used as a breastmilk replacement when specifically formulated, and then under closely supervised conditions. In many developed nations, soy formula is only issued under medical supervision and prescription. It has a noted oestrogenic effect, so can potentially cause disruption of sexual development. It may also affect thyroid function in infants. Soy milk should also be supplemented with complete fatty acids, including the correct proportions of omega-3 and -6 fatty acids. Fish, starflower and linseed oils are ideal.
An additional shortcoming of soy products is the fact that they are very likely to be derived from genetically modified (GM) soy. To add to the inherent risks of soy, GM soy has higher levels of trypsin inhibitor, a known allergen. Even more worryingly, increased residues of dangerous agricultural chemicals like Roundup are likely to be present in GM soy products. GM soy is specifically developed to be resistant to a herbicide linked to hormone disruption, genetic damage and disruption, metabolic disruption, an increased incidence of Hodgkin’s lymphoma and liver damage.2 This herbicide, Roundup (with glyphosate as the active ingredient), is even worse for amphibians and soil health. So, if you use soy beverages (or soy anything, for that matter), ensure that they are GM-free and even then, use this substitute sparingly and with caution.
Local soy and rice milks are expensive, luxury commodities. They are not actually milks and are more accurately being defined as bean- or grain-based beverages. Rice milk is sometimes prescribed for infants and children, as rice has extremely low allergenicity. Oat milk powder is also available and has a better taste than soy or rice drinks. It also has the beneficial effect of lowering cholesterol levels.
Most of these beverages, in both ready-to-drink and powdered forms, contain lists of chemicals that make even industrial milk seem appealing. Most health-conscious consumers would foreswear most of these ingredients, like sucrose, fructose, flavourants and vegetable oils, not to mention other supposedly harmless but unappetising- sounding chemicals.
None of these other milk substitutes besides soy are genetically modified – yet. If they are used as a milk substitute, supplementation with complete fats should be considered. These milks should also contribute only a small proportion of the total dietary component, keeping an eye on the maintenance of a well-balanced food intake. The main dietary difference between natural and plant-based ‘milk’ is that the former provides much of its energy through fats, the latter through carbohydrates.
The final alternative to dairy milk is nut-based milk substitutes, generally made from almonds or coconut. These are sometimes available as a manufactured product, but are better when freshly made, as the goodness is not degraded through storage, sterilisation or chemical processing. Almond milk is a healthy alternative, but is a bad idea for those suffering from nut allergy. It provides high levels of calcium, whereas other plant-based milks do not. A recipe is included below.
Coconut allergies are less common. Given a choice, I would personally take almond or coconut milk every time, purely for reasons of taste, but they are generally an expensive option. Coconut milk makes an ideal replacement for cream or milk, but given its fairly high levels of saturated fat, excessive consumption is not advised. Do not use the ‘lite’ versions of coconut milk, as much of the benefit is stripped out of the product by chemical processing.
MAKE YOUR OWN ALL-NATURAL ALMOND MILK
Blend 1½ cups of raw almonds that have been soaked overnight in 4 cups of filtered or spring water. Blend well – add 3 to 5 dates if you like your milk with a hint of sweetness. Strain once to remove the granules. The result is a delicious, creamy milk that is free of harmful vegetable oil, concentrated sweeteners, and the problems associated with cow’s milk and soy. It can be stored safely for 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator, but is best used fresh.
To summarise, unless you are lactose intolerant, a limited amount of dairy can form a useful part of a balanced diet. If you are lactose intolerant, there are alternatives that can provide useful choices, but their production methods and ingredients must be considered when contemplating your choice.
Milk, like all foods, should be consumed in moderation, especially if you have passed your fifth birthday!
- Infant formula milk – goat’s milk based infant formulas. Available from: http://www.dh.gov.uk/PolicyAndGuidance/HealthAndSocialCareTopics/MaternalAndInfantNutrition/MaternalAndInfantNutritionGeneralArticle/fs/en?CONTENT_ID=4099143&chk=gVT9%2Bl
- Ho MW and Cummins J. Glyphosate toxic & Roundup worse. ISIS press release, 7 March 2005. Available from: http://www.i-sis.org.uk/GTARW.php
- Health & Beyond Online. http://chetday.com/soymilk.html