Milk: Good or Bad?

We're talking about cows' milk, that is. Many folks view milk as wholesome and healthy. Others, meanwhile, warn us away and say it's full of hormones or might make you phlegmy. So what’s the deal with milk: does it do your body good or not?
We're talking about cows' milk, that is. Many folks view milk as wholesome and healthy. Others, meanwhile, warn us away and say it's full of hormones or might make you phlegmy. So what’s the deal with milk: does it do your body good or not?
Nutrition Basics

The healthy nutrients in milk speak for themselves -- protein, calcium, vitamins A, D, B12 and riboflavin and the mineral potassium. Sure, you can get these nutrients from other foods and beverages, but milk offers them all in one package. Plus, vitamin D, which helps you absorb calcium, is harder to come by in other foods, and recent studies have shown that many people (especially children) aren’t getting enough.

If you're eating the skim variety (a.k.a. non-fat milk), it contains only 90 calories and 8 grams of protein and provides 30% of your daily calcium and 25% of your daily vitamin D. Of all the milk varieties, whole milk is the highest in fat and calories (146 calories and 8 grams of fat); reduced fat (a.k.a. 2%) and low-fat (a.k.a. 1%) have less. Most health pros recommend that adults and kids older than two stick with skim or 1% to avoid the extra calories, cholesterol and saturated fat.

The Hormone Issue

Many milk naysayers worry most about the unnecessary hormones. Cows naturally produce the hormone bST to stimulate milk production. Some dairy farmers rely on a synthetic form of this hormone, rBST, to boost their cows' milk generation. Many health and food safety advocates question whether these extra hormones disrupt our own healthy hormone levels and, in turn, might lead to cancer or other medical problems. Some countries have banned farmers from using rbST on their cows, but other agencies, including the World Health Organization, say that rbST is safe. Here in the U.S. it's still allowed. If you're worried, the best thing to do is only buy milk that's rBST-free (it will say on the label) or organic.

Organic or Conventional?

When a milk is labeled organic, it means that the dairy cows spend at least half the year out on pastures (so they can eat plenty of grass) and there's no use of synthetic hormones (like rbST). Today, 3% of the milk in America is organic, which is on the rise from years past. Most major supermarkets carry some kind of organic milk, but the price tag is often higher.

There's been a lot of debate lately about whether organic food is any better for you. Some research supports the theory that organic milk contains more nutrients and antioxidants like vitamin A, lutein and omega-3 fats, but there's nothing conclusive yet.

When shopping for organic, local milk is another option to consider. Many smaller farms may not spend the time and money required to get certified “organic” but do follow organic practices. Local milk can be hard to find sometimes. In Connecticut, where I live, a few small dairy farms have joined forces to provide their milk to large chain grocery stores; check out the Connecticut Farmer's Cow website. Keep an eye on your dairy case and you might see some more local options. If you do, you can always call them up to ask if they follow organic practices.

What About Raw?

Nearly all the milk sold today (95% to be exact) is pasteurized, which means the milk was quickly heated to just over 160-degrees to kill off any harmful bacteria. Pasteurization also lengthens shelf life and freshness. (TIP: Always check the sell-by dates at the store; many markets push the older milk to the front to sell it before it expires.)

Raw milk, meanwhile, is just that: raw and unpasteurized. Advocates claim that not pasteurizing means better flavor and nutrient quality. There’s strong evidence to show that pasteurization doesn't actually affect your milk's protein, vitamin or mineral content, and the FDA and CDC actually warn the elderly, young children, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems to avoid raw milk because of the bacteria risk.

Other Milk Concerns

There are countless theories that blame everything from acne to bed-wetting on drinking milk. Here are some of the things I’m asked about most.

Lactose Intolerance: Some people can't digest the lactose in milk (lactose is a natural sugar) because they don't have a certain enzyme you need to break it down. If that's you, look for lactose-free dairy products; they're available in most stores and contain all the same nutrients as regular milk. You may find that you can tolerate small amounts of dairy without a problem. Since every case is different, be sure to check with your doctor and registered dietitian to make choices that work for you.

Acne: Have you ever heard that drinking milk makes you break out? Well, a few studies have found that it’s possible. Researchers think it's the hormones in milk that cause flare-ups in people with acne-prone skin, but there's no solid association yet. If you're battling acne, you may want to experiment by limiting the dairy you eat to see if there is a benefit (be sure get milk’s nutrients from other sources while you're at it).

Mucus and Asthma: Some folks blame milk for increasing mucus production in the nose and throat and possibly worsening asthma symptoms. Yes, I've heard people complain that they're nagged with extra phlegm or a cough after eating a lot of cheese or drinking milk. So far, however, there are no research studies that prove the relationship between dairy and mucus or asthma.

The Bottom Line

Cow’s milk can certainly be part of a healthy diet, and all types contain important nutrients like protein, calcium and vitamin D. Most complaints against milk relate to the potential side effects from added hormones. If this concerns you, buy hormone-free or organic milk (which doesn't contain added hormones either). If you skip milk because you're lactose intolerant or avoid animal products, make sure to get nutrients like calcium and vitamin D from your other foods.

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