The first thing schoolchildren are served as they enter the cafeteria is a carton of milk–followed by menu choices of pizza, burgers, grilled cheese, macaroni and cheese, and countless other items high in saturated fat and cholesterol. All of these foods contain milk. According to the National School Lunch Program, which serves 31 million children every day, “milk consumption in school has increased nearly 10-fold over the past 23 years”.
Despite its reputation as a wholesome and healthy source of nutrients, getting your calcium and protein from cows’ milk comes at a price: milk and milk products are linked with scores of health issues, like diabetes and cancer. In addition, many people are lactose intolerant or allergic to cows’ milk.
Despite these concerns, cows’ milk is being pushed in school cafeterias, and millions of kids are drinking cows’ milk and eating dairy. The 2010 reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act will give America a chance to rethink kids’ school lunches–an important part of kids’ overall nutrition and for many, the main source of nutrients for the day. You can take action to make sure that America’s kids are getting the healthiest lunch possible.
The health risks linked with milk read like a veritable laundry list of today’s top health concerns. Milk products, like the beloved cheese on top of kids’ school lunch pizzas, are ridden with saturated fat, the artery-clogging fat that leads to heart disease, the top cause of death in America. According to Dr. Joel Fuhrman, author of Disease-Proof Your Child, drinking cows’ milk has been linked to allergies, anal fissures, childhood-onset (type 1) diabetes, chronic constipation, Crohn’s disease, ear infections, heart attacks, multiple sclerosis and prostate cancer.
Milk ads often brag about the calcium in milk–that drinking milk is a great way to prevent osteoporosis. But more and more research is surfacing that shows this might not be true. The American Journal of Public Health published a 12-year study of 78,000 people that found women who drank more than a glass of milk a day (the USDA recommends three cups per day) had a 45 percent greater chance of a hip fracture. Women who got the same amount of calcium from non-dairy sources had no increase.
This means that drinking more milk did nothing to strengthen bones–in fact, it actually weakened them. People who eat plant-based proteins can maintain a positive calcium balance at only 450 mg per day, lower than the recommended daily amount. How is this possible? Because eating and drinking too much protein, which is easy to do when ingesting meat and dairy, leaches calcium from bones. Excess protein in your diet causes your blood to be more acidic, meaning you need more calcium in your diet…so you drink milk, which gives you calcium, along with animal protein, which causes your blood to be more acidic…and the calcium-leaching cycle continues.
Allergies and Intolerance
Milk is the #1 allergic food in the country, and close to 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant.
Lactose intolerance occurs when the body doesn’t make enough lactase, the protein we need to digest milk. But this is actually normal! Mammals naturally produce lactase when they are infants in order to digest their mother’s milk, but are eventually supposed to stop producing it once they are weaned. Humans who keep producing lactase into adulthood do so because of a genetic mutation. After all, humans are the only species to drink the milk of another species. Imagine if you saw, say, a zebra drinking the milk of a giraffe. Wouldn’t something just be a bit…unnatural?
A milk allergy is different than lactose intolerance because it’s a reaction to the proteins in cows’ milk, casein and whey. People with milk allergies must avoid all milk and milk products, at the risk of immediate wheezing, vomiting, hives, swelling, or worst of all: anaphylaxis, sudden changes to breathing, heart rate, or other functions.
More Than Just Calcium in Milk
The milk routinely served in school cafeterias is an average carton of milk–cows’ milk. Not organic. Not grass-fed. And although cows’ milk does have important nutrients (need that calcium!), it also has a lot of…not-so-desirable components.
Along with the calcium and protein in an average carton of cows’ milk, researchers have found a range of hormones, including pituitary, hypothalamic, and thyroid. There are gastrointestinal peptides and rBGH, recombinant bovine growth hormone, which is linked to breast, colon and prostate cancer but also increases the cows’ milk production.
There might also be pus in milk. Cows on an average dairy farm are repeatedly impregnated and milked several times a day–this over-milking causes mastitis, or infected udders, which secrete pus. When the cows are being milked, pus from their udders inevitably seeps in with the milk, and national averages show around 322 million cell counts of pus in a glass of milk. Blood is another disturbing ingredient in a glass of milk–the USDA allows 1.5 million white blood cells per milliliter of commonly sold milk.
If cows get infections, they need medicine. The antibiotics the cows are treated with also enter into their milk. Although the Midwest Dairy Association has called milk “one of the most tested, wholesome, and nutritious foods available”, only about 4 of the 85 drugs used to treat dairy cows are tested. The FDA also acknowledges that over half of all milk contains traces of pharmaceuticals.
Estrogen and Phytoestrogens
If, after reading these concerns, you find yourself looking for an alternative to milk, your first thought might be soymilk. But wait! Doesn’t soymilk have estrogen in it? Too much estrogen can give women breast cancer, and can make men less masculine…
While it’s true that soy, like all foods, should be eaten in moderation, soy contains phytoestrogen, which is plant estrogen, and which will not have the same effects on your body as animal estrogen.
In fact, phytoestrogens have actually been found to be beneficial to the human body because they keep our estrogen levels under control. They can act like weak estrogen when our body’s levels are low, and can inhibit estrogen effects when levels are too high. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism says that phytoestrogens can have health benefits related to cancer, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, and menopausal symptoms. There is also evidence that eating and drinking soy in childhood can reduce your risk for cancer later.
Excess animal estrogens can be harmful to the body, and the main source of these estrogens in our diet comes from milk; dairy accounts for 60-80 percent of estrogens we take in. Pregnant females, including pregnant cows, have lots of estrogen in their systems, especially in late pregnancy. A cow must be pregnant or nursing to produce milk, and dairy cows are often milked before they give birth, causing a surge of increased estrogen to enter their milk. One study comparing diet and cancer rates in 42 countries found that milk and cheese were strongly linked with testicular cancer in men ages 20-39. Another finding is that, in the past 50 years, rising dairy consumption in Japan is linked with rising death rates of prostate cancer.
Non-Dairy Calcium Sources
Non-dairy sources of calcium are plentiful, and these sources can be low-fat and low (or no) cholesterol. These healthy, calcium-rich foods include fortified cereals, fortified soymilk, nutmilk, ricemilk or other non-dairy milks, dark leafy greens like kale, broccoli or collards, blackstrap molasses, fortified oatmeal, almonds or almond butter, peas, onion, pickles, pumpkin…A plate of baked beans has over 100 milligrams of calcium, and fortified juice can have over 300 milligrams per cup. Calcium can be found in just about every fruit and vegetable, even apples, raisin, dates, and strawberries. If you are eating a whole-foods diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains, getting enough calcium should not be an issue.
As the Child Nutrition Act reauthorization approaches, reconsider the best ways for our kids to get their nutrients. Whether for health, religious, or ethical reasons, kids should have an alternative choice to cows’ milk and milk products in their school lunch. Eating habits that people learn in childhood are carried into adulthood, and kids need to be able to make healthy choices about their diets. More schools are offering alternatives to dairy in their school lunch menus–but this needs to be required. Kids need the option of having a lunch low in fat and cholesterol, but high in nutrients. Speak up for the health of America’s children, and tell Congress that kids need alternative choices to dairy in their school lunch.