When I was a child, milk was most definitely “the white stuff”.
Everyone knew that dairy was good for you – Essential for healthy bones and teeth – So important it was provided to all school children for free.
Nowadays, however, there is perhaps no other food group that generates such controversy.
Conventional wisdom says that dairy is an important source of calcium, necessary for healthy bones and teeth, but epidemiological evidence actually shows correlation between dairy consumption and osteoporosis.
Dairy consumption and cancer have been studied countless times, but with ever varying results – Sometimes it is found to protect against it, other times to promote it.
Conventional wisdom condemns the saturated fat in dairy, claiming it clogs arteries and causes heart disease, others think the fats are fine, but are concerned that milk proteins and sugars such as casein and lactose can lead to inflammation, intolerances and a host of modern illnesses.
So why is it that dairy is such a contested issue?
As always with these nutrition debates, I think it is useful to look at the question from an evolutionary perspective.
Dairy products are a relatively recent addition to the human diet. It is so recent in fact, that a large proportion (approximately 60-70%!) of the human population are not genetically adapted to its consumption, resulting in what is known as lactose intolerance – the inability to digest the sugar in milk resulting in an upset stomach.
We are the only mammal on the planet that drinks the milk of a different species, or that drinks milk in adulthood. I find it amusing that there was outcry recently at a company that was making ice-cream out of human breast-milk, yet no one finds it odd to drink it from a cow!
The fact that human beings thrived for millions of years without any dairy, and that many humans still do so is a clear indicator that dairy is certainly not an essential part of the diet.
While milk does contain large quantities of calcium, it consumption has also been shown to cause the body to excrete calcium, leading to a net loss – hence the possible link to osteoporosis. Eating a diet rich in dark green vegetables and bone broths, and low in mineral binding phytate containing foods such as grains and legumes will provide ample calcium and produce very strong healthy bones and teeth.
Researchers such as Dr Loren Cordain have showed that populations that follow a Paleo diet (meat, fruits and veg only, free from dairy, grains, legumes and processed foods), are considerably healthier than those following a modern diet, and reference numerous studies implicating dairy specifically in numerous modern illnesses ranging from cancer to heart disease, other researchers such as the Weston A. Price foundation have found numerous traditional societies that include dairy and exhibit fantastic health.
Dr Price found numerous traditional societies that incorporated diary and had fantastic bones and teeth, and were free from modern ailments such as cancer, heart disease and obesity. Two in particular, a Swiss mountain tribe, and the Masai from the plains of Africa, consumed huge quantities of dairy and were notable for their impressive stature and musculature.
How can it be that there is such conflicting data on dairy – Some studies showing that it protects from cancer, heart disease and bone diseases, other that it causes them?
Perhaps the issue is that the stuff we pass off as dairy in the civilised world, bares little resemblance to the dairy that has been consumed by traditional societies over the past 5-10,000 years!
All the healthy, robust and disease free cultures encountered by Dr Price that consumed dairy, did so in the form of unpasteurised, fermented dairy products from animals that ate only fresh, green grass.
The vast majority of dairy consumed now is pasteurised and non-fermented from cows that have been grain fed, selectively bred and intensively farmed to produce huge quantities of milk, and pumped full of antibiotics, hormones and steroids.
Like all other aspects of our food system, dairy production has become industrialised. Milk from hundreds, if not thousands of different cows is mixed together in huge vats where it is heated to extremely high temperatures.
If milk were to come from a small, well managed farm of healthy, cared for cows, this would be completely unnecessary.
We are told, however, that this must be done to protect us from dangerous pathogens. Unfortunately, in addition to destroying any pathogens, the high temperatures have many negative effects on the milk:
- Cholesterol and polyunsaturated fats are oxidised – In their raw state both of these are protective against heart disease and cancers, but once oxidised they become extremely dangerous.
- Naturally occurring enzymes are destroyed, which aid digestion and assimilation of nutrients both from milk and other foods, putting unnecessary strain on the pancreas to produce more endogenous enzymes.
- Beneficial good bacteria are destroyed, these again would naturally aid with digestion and are protective from dangerous pathogenic bacteria.
- The amino acids lysine and tyrosine are damaged by the high temperatures making them less easily digestible.
- Vitamin C content is reduced by more than 50%, other water soluble vitamins by up to 80%.
- Anti-blood thickening agents are totally destroyed, as is all vitamin B12.
- Pasteurisation also reduces the availability of milk’s mineral components, not only calcium but phosphorus, magnesium, potassium and many others.
Once pasteurised, the milk is then separated into its component parts which can then be sent off for processing into various products. To make milk, various amounts of cream are added back, along with powdered milk proteins and synthetic vitamins (also linked to cancer) to make either skimmed, semi-skimmed or “full fat” milk. This product is then homogenised – Forced through tiny holes to make the fat into tiny droplets that will hang in suspension in the milk.
Rather than industrially processing their dairy at high temperatures, traditional societies that consume dairy all prepare it in a manner that seems to enhance the natural goodness of dairy, rather than compromise it – Fermentation.
In the UK, the fermented dairy products we are most familiar with are cheese and yoghurt. However, as these have been pasteurised, many benefits are subsequently lost. Other fermented dairy products include kefir, clabber, soured cream and pima milk.
Fermenting milk involves allowing beneficial bacteria to act on the milk – This process makes it easier to digest by breaking down most of the lactose, increases the enzyme content, and makes all the proteins, vitamins and minerals easier to digest and assimilate.
My take on the whole dairy debate, is that it has become confused as we are talking about completely different products:
At one extreme we have raw, fermented dairy from grass fed animals. A fantastic super-food, packed full of essential nutrients, protein, good fats, vitamins, minerals and enzymes that will produce healthy bones and teeth, build muscle and possibly even protect your from heart disease and cancer.
At the other we have low fat pasteurised milk from grain fed, intensively farmed cows is a nutrient devoid processed junk food that is very likely detrimental to health and physical development.
So where exactly do I stand on the dairy debate?
Personally I consume some raw dairy most days, either in the form of unpasteurised cheese or live yoghurt, plus I have the odd raw milk cappuccino. I also use grass fed butter as my go to low temperature cooking fat, and use raw milk and cream in the odd Primal dessert!
Unfortunately, its not the easiest stuff to track down – I get my raw milk from Clifton’s Farm in Preston (full address in link below), and my raw cheese from Barbakan in Chorlton and Manchester Farmer’s Market (2nd and 4th Weekend of Month in Piccadilly Gardens). Check this link here to find your local suppliers: http://www.naturalfoodfinder.co.uk/unpasteurised-raw-milk-uk
Update Aril 2013 In addition to the above, Green Pasture Farms now has Organic Grass Fed Raw Milk available for UK Wide Delivery.
If you can’t get hold of raw dairy, the next best thing is pasteurised organic, grass fed cheese, but I still wouldn’t recommend eating lots of it on a regular basis. You can also make your own yoghurt and kefir from full fat, non-homogenised but pasteurised organic milk. For the occasional treat – Lattes, deserts, cream etc, always go for full fat organic options.
Bear in mind that if you’re not consuming raw dairy, its important to make sure that you are consuming plenty of organ meats (liver, kidney, etc) and bone broths (making slow cooked stews and stocks with animal bones), to ensure you get plenty of fat soluble vitamins and easily assimilated minerals.
Low fat, pasteurised, homogenised dairy from intensively farmed grain fed cows is the worst of the worst and should be avoided at all costs! It has no nutritional value, and all the signs point to it being extremely damaging to health, not to mention very cruel to the animals involved in its production.
Hopefully this clears up some of the confusion of dairy – It would be great to hear some of your opinions/sources of raw dairy/recipes for fermenting dairy. Please feel free to comment below.