You can’t swing a cat in a barn these days without hitting some new report out on the beleaguered dairy industry. Not that I’m endorsing cat swinging. Or swinging objects in barns. In fact, I can’t even endorse dairy because – have you heard? – 60% of adults can’t digest milk. And the bad news keeps rolling in: all of that stuff we’ve been told about low-fat dairy aiding in weight loss and strengthening bones and giving us a healthy smile? All those claims are just not true, so says the new research which contradicts the old research – the old research that was all funded by the dairy industry. Pretty much the only thing all the researchers can agree on is that Heidi Klum is the world’s hottest milkmaid – paper coming to an academic conference near you.
This news greatly concerns me because I happen to love my dairy products. When I was breast-feeding Jelly Bean, I had to take dairy out of my diet because she had a milk protein allergy (which she has since outgrown). During this time I learned that I can do without most dairy. Even now that I’m done nursing I don’t think I’ve had a glass of milk in a year, I can do without most cheeses and coconut or goats-milk ice cream is just as good but there is no good non-dairy substitute for yogurt. I love full-fat, plain yogurt and I eat it every day. I also love brie with a passion usually only seen in 13-year-old girls waiting outside for the first screening of Twilight: The Sparkly Stalker Story. Not to mention that taking out whey as a protein source would seriously cramp my protein intake as even though I am no longer a vegetarian I still don’t like to eat a ton of meat. (I recently read an interesting post from Mark Sisson about why whey protein powder is acceptable on a Primal/Paleo eating plan even when dairy is generally not.)
And what about the people who just love a cold glass of milk with a warm cookie? Cue the horror of the people who like to point out ad nauseum that humans are the only animals to drink milk past infancy and/or drink the milk of other mammals – a fact which isn’t true despite being repeated a whole lot. Many animals will drink milk of any variety if they can get their paws on it (What do you think all those cats you were just swinging around were doing in the barn in the first place?) We just happen to be the only animals who farm.
Aside from my gustatory predilections, however, there remain two important pieces of information:
1) The 60% of adults as described earlier who can’t digest milk.
2) Nobody past infancy needs milk to survive.
Taken together, this makes me wonder if we aren’t too enamored of our moo juice.
So what exactly does an “inability to digest milk” look like? According to recent research, the ability to metabolize lactose, the sugar in milk, is an aberration.
It’s not normal. Somewhat less than 40% of people in the world retain the ability to digest lactose after childhood. The numbers are often given as close to 0% of Native Americans, 5% of Asians, 25% of African and Caribbean peoples, 50% of Mediterranean peoples and 90% of northern Europeans. Sweden has one of the world’s highest percentages of lactase tolerant people.
Being able to digest milk is so strange that scientists say we shouldn’t really call lactose intolerance a disease, because that presumes it’s abnormal. Instead, they call it lactase persistence, indicating what’s really weird is the ability to continue to drink milk.
Being of mostly northern European descent, I suppose that makes me one of the fortunate mutants. I personally have never had a negative reaction – usually described as cramping, bloating, flatulence, or diarrhea but can also include symptoms like achy joints, acne and chronic congestion – from a dairy product. But apparently a lot of people do, thus ushering in a new wave of dairy teetotalers. (Gives a whole new meaning to the question of “Do you drink?”)
Although the question of whether or not milk is even all that good for you is far from settled, if you do decide to partake you open up a whole other can of research worms. Apparently the recommendations to eat and drink only low-fat dairy products are all based on faulty research. Those of us who grew up in the ’90s are still trying to wrap our brains around the fact that eating fat does not make us fat but nowhere is that more true than with dairy. According to researchers, the most valuable vitamins in milk – like the A & D that must be added back into skim milk – are all fat soluble. So by drinking your milk skimmed you’re just peeing out all those precious vitamins that it was fortified with. The solution according to science is to eat and drink your milk in the least-processed form available which would be non-homogenized, non-pasteurized whole milk, cheese and yogurt. (Preferably hormone-free, grass-fed and – finished and kissed by angels too, while we’re at it.) This type of milk, believe it or not, is illegal in many states (including mine) as they require pasteurization.
For a lot of people, the decision whether or not to eat dairy is a moral one. I almost envy them in a way; they have a reason beyond a quest for basic good health that tells them what not to eat. But for me, I’m conflicted. I like eating it. I seem to be one of the lucky freaks who can tolerate it. And yet I can’t afford the real quality stuff. In the end, is milk worth it?
What’s your take? Love dairy or hate it? Are you a genetic mutant too? If you avoid it – why? Any more research I should read in my quest to know a cow better than her own calf does?