Should You Drink Cow’s Milk? Here’s the Plain Answer

Auriane Alix
Corn flakes’ lives are at stake.
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

I add a splash of milk to each of my three daily cups of coffee. Milk is a recurring part of my diet. I consume it in my mother’s pancakes or in the yogurts I eat with my muesli in the morning. I even remember a short period in my early teens when I got into the habit of drinking a glass of milk every night before going to bed because I thought it was good for my health.

Cow’s milk is part of our food culture. It can be bought easily almost anywhere in the world. But it increasingly divides opinions.

I reduced my consumption when I was told I had to, but the truth is that I never really knew why. I finally decided to find out the truth. And I thought you might want to know what comes out of it.

This article has been compiled from a variety of sources, from various countries, excluding pro-milk (such as the dairy industry) and pro-vegan publications, both of which cannot be considered as objective sources.

I have tried to be as impartial as possible. My comments are based on scientific sources. One problem remains: many studies try to prove this or that, but as it is impossible to force a group of human beings to consume milk exclusively for a period of time, the studies are necessarily biased. Indeed, how to determine the share of responsibility of milk on the results, and that of other lifestyle habits of the individuals tested?

Having said that, I hope that this will help you get a clearer picture of how you consume — or don’t consume — cow’s milk. As far as I’m concerned, it does.

The average person consumes about 81 liters of cow’s milk per year

40% could be poured over cereals (did I mention that the life of corn flakes was at stake?). But our global milk consumption has decreased over the last 30 years, due to various demonizations of milk, and the growth of lactose intolerance, just as gluten intolerance has reduced our consumption of bread.

Americans drink 37% less milk than in the 1970s. In the UK, consumption of dairy products has fallen by a third over the last 20 years.

While cow’s milk is still widely consumed, recent studies are battling between its potentially harmful effects on the human body, while others highlight its benefits. On the other hand, and while ecological considerations are progressing (fortunately!), the environmental costs of animal farming have reduced people’s taste for cow’s milk. All this benefits milk alternatives, which are often labeled as “healthy” — wrongly, as we shall see later.

What is lactose?

Lactose is the sugar found in milk.

“Our bodies use an enzyme called lactase to break down that sugar so we can absorb it into our bodies. But people with lactose intolerance don’t have enough lactase.” (Source)

Lactose intolerance causes a variety of symptoms, including bloating, flatulence, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and nausea. We are not all equal in the world when it comes to lactase production:

“Northern Europeans, who thousands of years ago got into cattle farming, have adapted to cow’s milk and have a genetic mutation so that only between 2 and 15% have a degree of lactase deficiency. This rises to 23% in central Europeans and 95% in Asian populations.” (Source)

About 30% of the world’s population continues to produce lactase as adults. However, lactase deficiency does not necessarily mean intolerance, as Dr. Miranda Lomer, senior consultant dietitian in gastroenterology explains to The Guardian:

“Even people with lactase intolerance can still usually drink milk in tea (around 50ml) or on cereal — between 250 to 375ml a day.”

With this in mind, I dug deeper into the pros and cons of drinking cow’s milk.

Benefits of cow’s milk

Cow’s milk is nourishing. It is a good source of calcium, protein, various vitamins such as A (which helps the immune system), D (to keep bones, teeth, and muscles healthy), and B12 (which helps the body make red blood cells, keep the nervous system healthy and release energy from food). It also contains magnesium, which is important for bone development and muscle function, as well as whey and casein, which has been shown to play a role in lowering blood pressure, as explained by the BBC.

“Cow’s milk contains vitamins and minerals and almost all the nutrients the body needs. The nutritional value of milk is very interesting from a nutritional point of view.”, explains Malina Malkani, dietician and spokesperson for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (Source)

An article published on Healthline lists the pros and cons of cow’s milk. Among the benefits are the following:

  • Appetite control ;
  • Bone development for children ;
  • Bone and dental health ;
  • Diabetes prevention ;
  • Heart health.

It is important to note that, although the vitamins in milk should contribute to bone health, there is no evidence that higher intakes of milk or other dietary sources of calcium protect against fractures. Several studies even tend to suggest the opposite: cow’s milk could favor them.

Cons of cow’s milk

Several studies are trying to prove the role played by milk in the apparition of diseases, including cancer. Let’s take a closer look.

A Swedish study showed that women who consumed four or more servings of dairy products each day were twice as likely to develop serous ovarian cancer. However, consuming 4 servings every day, seems a lot, especially compared to my daily splashes of milk or occasional plain yogurt.

Jean-Michel Lecerf, Head of the nutrition department of the Pasteur Institute of Lille (France) and specialist in endocrinology and metabolic diseases, explains that although some studies implicate milk in prostate cancer, the WCRF (World Cancer Research Fund International) has published information indicating that milk’s responsibility in this area is classified as “limited”. He explains :

“It is still under consideration. Observational studies show that if there is a link, it is for very high intakes: 1.5 to 2 litres of milk per day.”

Then comes the question of growth factors, which could favor the appearance of cancers. They play different physiological roles in the body and act in particular on cell growth, differentiation, and metabolism.

“As things stand, there is no established causal relationship. It’s the proteins which is really responsible for the levels of growth hormones circulating in the blood. Not the milk itself. It is obvious that one should not consume too much protein”, explains Jean-Michel Lecerf.

This includes plant proteins.

What about the environment?

Ecology is one of the factors behind the decrease in milk consumption. According to a study conducted by Oxford University in 2018, a plant-based food item has less impact on the environment than its animal equivalent.

A Belgian website dug into the subject and stated that animal milk production generates on average 2 to 3 times more greenhouse gases than vegetable milk. Plus it takes much more agricultural land and water to produce animal milk. But they add :

“These are averages. A specific study compared cow’s milk and soy milk. The conclusion is: it all depends on how the plants are grown and how the cows are raised.”

Non-dairy milks are not so “healthy”

What about the so-called “healthy” alternative: non-dairy milks? More expensive, they are also called milk when they shouldn’t: they are composed of nut extracts mixed with water.

In the same Guardian article, Dr Miranda Lomer explains that our bodies can extract calcium more easily from cow’s milk than from almond and coconut milks. In parallel, nutritionist Charlotte Stirling-Reed adds:

“Cow’s milk is a very nutrient-dense food, whereas plant milk doesn’t always cover all nutrients.” (source)

Besides, substitutes often contain added sugar, which is more harmful to health than lactose, which is natural. As far as environmental issues are concerned, it depends on the milks. Almond milks are not so bad because they are 90% pure water. But almonds, like coconuts and others, often come from far away, which poses problems of carbon footprint. The same goes for soy, which is one of the worst in terms of deforestation and GMOs, accounting for 70% of the total production.

So should I drink cow’s milk or not?

“It’s important to have a healthy balanced diet but not to get too bogged down about it. It’s important to enjoy your food, too.” — Katie Taylor
  • Milk is interesting in terms of nutrition: it provides many vitamins and proteins.
  • But it can also cause illness when consumed in large quantities.
  • It is harmful to the environment, but just like pretty much everything else we consume today. In addition, this factor depends very much on the milk you choose.
  • Vegetable alternatives can be interesting, but they raise many problems in terms of nutrition (sugar) or carbon footprint.

Like everything else, the balance sheet is mixed. No question is ever settled. That’s why the subject of milk is so vague.

“While it’s not necessary to avoid milk, it’s also not necessary that we drink it, either. There’s no single dietary component that’s absolutely necessary to our health.”, says Jyrkia Virtanen, a nutritional epidemiologist (source)

He adds that no research proves that moderate milk consumption is harmful.

“It always comes down to the same thing, eating too much of any food is not good.”, states Jean-Michel Lecerf.

Therefore, milk can be consumed, but in moderation. If you like it, as I do in my coffee, or if you need it for some recipes (pancakes are great reasons to consume milk), just make sure you choose organic milk from cows free of growth hormones, fed on grass, and from local farms. Besides, these cows’ milk often provides more beneficial fats and higher amounts of vitamins.

It’s a question of balance. Like just about anything else.

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