Milk has been a nutritional requirement for school lunches since the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) began in 1946, but not everyone agrees that it should be in the program or the American diet at large. On July 19 of this year, a petition was filed to remove milk as a required food in the NSLP by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a nonprofit organization that promotes a vegan diet and advocates for preventive medicine and nutrition and higher standards of ethics in research.
Under the NSLP, five components are required to be offered at lunch: a meat (or meat alternative), a grain, a fruit, a vegetable and milk. Of those five, students are required to take at least three, one of which has to be a fruit or vegetable, in order to receive the federally subsidized price; otherwise, they’ll be charged the a la carte rates, making their meal more expensive.
Milk is touted for its calcium content and promotion of bone health, which has been the nutritional rationale for making it a required component of school meals, but PCRM cites a large body of research showing that milk does not in fact build strong bones. “Whether we are talking about children who are forming bones or older people who are trying to keep their bone integrity, milk doesn’t have a beneficial effect on either one,” says Dr. Neal Barnard, PCRM president.
His assertion is backed by a study published in March in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, which followed more than 6,700 girls over seven years, and by the Nurses’ Health Study of 2008, which followed 72,000 postmenopausal women for 18 years. There was no evidence in either study that the consumption of milk and calcium protected bones. Milk also happens to be the number one source of saturated fat for children.
Still, many nutritionists believe milk should stay on school menus, as reported on Time.com. “I think it’s irresponsible to take this beverage that children enjoy, especially among those who are unable to meet their nutrient needs for the day, and remove it from the lunch line,” says Keri Gans, a registered dietitian. Besides, milk contains many other nutrients in addition to calcium, and one study of more than 7,550 kids found that those who drank milk took in more nutrients overall without gaining weight.
In a recent column, the New York Times’s Mark Bittman offers some perspective on the issue. Despite the fact that “most humans never tasted fresh milk from any source other than their mother for almost all of human history,” today the USDA recommends three cups a day for every man, woman and child over age 9. The federal government, moreover, spends more on milk than on any other food item in the lunch program. “This in a country where as many as 50 million people are lactose intolerant,” writes Bittman, and where more than one million children have milk allergies, the second most common food allergy.
As a personal health experiment a few months ago, Bittman decided to try giving up dairy foods. Within 24 hours, the chronic heartburn he had struggled with for decades vanished. He wrote about this experience in his column and received more than 1,300 comments and e-mails from others who had similar stories to tell. They described ailments “as varied as heartburn, migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, eczema, acne, hives, asthma (‘When I gave up dairy, my asthma went away completely’), gall bladder issues, body aches, ear infections, colic, ‘seasonal allergies,’ rhinitis, chronic sinus infections and more.”
Some people who wrote in responses insisted that “the symptoms don’t come from all milk but ‘American’ milk (this doesn’t happen in Europe, some say), or pasteurized milk (raw milk is the answer) or cow’s milk (‘goat’s milk doesn’t cause problems’) or uncooked milk, or nonorganic milk, or only milk — that is, that yogurt and cheese don’t cause the same kinds of problems.” I would argue the possibility that industrial production methods spoil the milk, as it were, and make it less suitable, even harmful, for consumption.
To be sure, the milk offered in schools today is not like the milk that people used to drink, which was an unpasteurized, unhomogenized and full-fat food taken from cows raised on grasses, not a diet of grains, antibiotics and hormones. It’s just not the same product. Once marketed as “nature’s perfect food,” the milk produced today is far from perfect. It’s also worth noting that milk wouldn’t be available for consumption on the scale that it is today — making it onto the menus at schools across the country — if not for the industrial methods used to produce it. Some see that as a good thing, while others are beginning to question the wisdom behind federal dietary guidelines that encourage Americans to consume so much dairy.
Photo Credit: DC Central Kitchen