Milk – The Pros and Cons

Milk and Cows


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Milk was in the news last week, following an opinion piece by well respected cookbook author and journalist Mark Bittman. Got Milk? Don’t Need It generated a lively discussion on the interwebs, and we thought we’d chime in with some of our thoughts as well.

1. Milk Allergy: Bittman recently stopped drinking milk and eating any dairy products because of a health problem he has had for years. Overnight his symptoms disappeared. Bittman concludes that everyone should follow course.

Our take: Lactose intolerance does affect certain ethnic groups and populations, but many Americans don’t have any problem breaking down dairy in the body. Statistics based on N=1 (me, you, your aunt, her neighbor, etc…) are meaningless.

2. Saturated Fat: Dairy is a major source of saturated fat, which should be limited. Hence we should not consume as many milk products as we do, especially cheese.

Our take: The same can be said of meat products as well. When it comes to milk and yogurt, we recommend low or non fat products. As for cheese, it should be consumed as a condiment. Buy the good stuff.

3. Factory Farms: Dairy cows are treated poorly says Bittman, so we shouldn’t be a part of that.

Our take: True. The entire food chain in modern society is not geared for animal welfare. So potentially any animal product is going to come from a mistreated being. If this is a concern to you, opt for organic milk or products from small local farms. Of course there is the growing vegetarian and vegan trend. If you don’t want to fully commit, you can try going plant based just one or two days a week.

4. Calcium and Vitamin D Scaremongering: The dairy industry claims dairy is a must because of our calcium and vitamin D needs. Without them, we’d all be developing osteoporosis and breaking bones. Bittman: “the rate of fractures is highest in milk-drinking countries, and it turns out that the keys to bone strength are lifelong exercise and vitamin D, which you can get from sunshine.”

Our take: Milk is definitely not the only source of calcium in a diet, and vitamin D is actually added to milk, not naturally present. Sunshine is not always available, so some people may need to supplement vitamin D, or eat certain types of seafood. There are entire countries where dairy is not a part of the culture and people seem to have strong bones. The calcium argument may not be as strong as the milk industry would like us to believe.


Bottom line: Milk and dairy products have been a part of human diets for generations. They obviously work at sustaining entire populations. But a large portion of humanity never consumed milk or dairy products and somehow managed to thrive. Each family needs to figure out for itself if dairy does it good or not. The nutrients from milk are available elsewhere.

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  • Patricia Neal Tucker

    Nice balanced analysis. Love these.

  • Jaclyn

    “When it comes to milk and yogurt, we recommend low or non fat products.”

    The problem with this recommendation, however, is many low/non fat dairy products are science projects. The fat is reduced, sure, but then you have added sugars and artificial thickeners to retain the fat mouth feel and the satiety it provides.
    Most Greek style yogurts are an exception to this, but regular yogurt usually is not.

    Also, vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin. If milk is a main source of your D then it’s ideal to skip the skim/1% milk otherwise you’re pretty much just quaffing sugar.

    • Brian

      Good point about vitamin D being fat soluable. Many vitamins are only fat soluable, so avoiding fat in the diet, also means avoiding nutients.

      • Carol

        Just because a nutrient is fat-soluble doesn’t mean you need to consume a ton of fat with it to absorb it. In fact only a small amount of fat is necessary. 1% fat milk has plenty.

    • Mayan

      Vitamin D is not technically a vitamin. A vitamin is a nutrient which cannot be synthesized by the body and the organism therefore must acquire it from the diet. “Vitamin” D is synthesized by the body as long as sunlight is available. We do not need sprayed on synthetic nutrients. What we need is for corporations to stop messing with our food supply.

      • Jaclyn

        I agree, and I don’t look to food or supplements for added D for my family. Our milk comes unprocessed from the farm next door.

        Unfortunately, we do live in a time where many people just don’t go outside and aren’t exposed to daylight enough to make what they need in the present, let alone being able to “store” enough to get through darker months.

        • Mayan

          True, but isn’t that part of the discussions in these blogs – to educate and bring about awareness? We don’t live in a world where people are active enough either – so people have to go out of their way and make an effort to exercise. Getting enough sunlight and fresh un-recycled air should be part of these healthy habits.

  • Frank Shin

    Just blogged about the same thing! Here’s my take.

  • Brian

    Good article… I think dairy council has been brilliant at marketing, which is why no one can imagine how we could live without getting calcium from dairy. We definitely don’t need dairy, (especially those that are intolerant,) but it can be a good source of nutrients in the diet… saturated fat being one of the good nutrients to get from dairy (sorry, I disagree with your take on saturated fat.) Usually the whole versions of dairy products have less processed ingredients than the skim verisons, too (not usually true with milk, so read your labels.) And like you said, the problem is usually the quality of the dairy here in the US… much like CAFO meat, CAFO dairy is also a big problem, and isn’t as healty for you as a more natural approach to farming the dairy.

    I know everyone is going to call me crazy, but raw dairy is actually a safe way to get the highest quality dairy. According to the CDC, you have a 1 in 94,000 chance in becoming ill from consuming it, 9 times higher than pasteurized dairy, but to put it in perspecitive, according to the US Dept of Transportation, you have approximately a 1 in 8000 chance of dying in a motor vehicle accident. The Center for Science in the Public Interest also found that you are more likely it get sick from fish and shellfish, poultry, eggs, beef, pork, and even produce than (all) dairy. I found those stats interesting. I don’t drink raw dairy, only because it would be a pain to get it where I live, but some states allow the sale of it in markets. (Not in MN where I live… you have to go to the farm to get it.)

    • Rick

      I have never read so much on the science of milk I have in these articles and responses to the article. But the truth is, I just love milk. And whenever I get a chance, and am visiting a dairy farmer friend of mine, I love a nice cold glass straight from the tank. Soooo good! And I have never had a problem with it. But I do understand that others do, so they have to do what’s right for them. Thank you for the thoughtful articles.

  • Frank Shin

    Just blogged about this! Here’s the proper link. (sorry about the previous!)

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  • George Babbitt

    Don’t discount the portion of the population that is not allergic to milk, but rather to the additives, such as in my case, Vitamin A Palmitate. When I avoid Vitamin A Palmitate which is generally only found in 2%, 1% and Skim varieties(rarely in Vitamin D milk where they have used Skim milk as a base and added the fat back in) I have NO problems with milk, whereas before, the problems were undeniably noticeable.

  • Leya

    what about milk/dairy products causing respiratory disorders on the long run as well as kidney problems? Look into it as well!

  • John Ranta

    I wonder why you criticize saturated fat. It’s true that nutrition “experts” have been demonizing saturated fats since the 1970s, but there is no scientific proof that saturated fat is bad for us. In fact, Eenfeldt, Taubes and others have published studies that show that saturated fats are healthy, and an important part of our diet. It would be helpful for a blog like yours to examine the science before making recommendations about saturated fats and repeating falsehoods about the “value” of low fat diets.

    • Fooducate

      Taubes is a journalist / author, not a scientist. While his book is very successful, most of his claims have been debunked. Current nutrition science still advocates the limitation of saturated fat.

      • Carol


      • Brian

        How about the work of the Weston A Price foundation? Their work is based in science and they advocate for saturated fat.

        And what about this argument: any food is good or bad for you depending on how it was grown/raised. No matter their content, high or low in saturated fat, if it was poorly raised/grown, it is simply not good for you.

        • Fooducate

          No doubt a food that was grown under better conditions is preferred. But taken to an extreme, people may avoid vegetables because they fear pesticides. The risk to health from not eating vegetables is orders of magnitude higher than the risk from pesticide residue.
          As for WAP (who was a dentist by the way), his theories and the foundation are considered niche by majority of the reputable scientific community.

          • Brian

            Well, he was a dentist in the 30s that explored primitive areas and found people leading healthier lives, and wrote a book about it. The foundation was started in 1999, 50 years after Dr. Price’s death, because of his findings. The contributors to the foundation are scientists. So don’t knock the foundation because the namesake was a dentist. They may be niche, but their findings and what they write about are very interesting, and not so easy to dismiss as Taubes.

            A couple hundred years from now when science is able to do controlled, randomized, double blind studies on the effects of saturated fat on the human diet, we will be able to confidently say it is good or bad for us. in the meantime, I feel that as long as the saturated fat comes from a responsibly raised animal, it’s good for you… (assuming there are lots of veggies involved, too.)

  • Peter Niepel

    Milk is not a natural food of our diet. As a matter of fact, there is no other animal in the whole world which doesn’t get eventually weaned off the milk. And I don’t know of any example where a breed of animals consumes the milk of another mammal. So it is a food choice and it can be beneficial. But we do not need it as the dairy industry makes us believe. Pasteurized milk as a calcium source for bones structure is a myth the milk industry is keeping up. It is true true that milk is high in calcium. But pasteurization is locking up most of this calcium and it becomes unavailable for human digestion. In my country the world wide dairy giant Fonterra was forced to tone down some of their claims about milk:

  • Katie Sullivan Morford

    All good points, although what seems to be missing from the conversation is that milk and milk products are delicious. When consumed thoughtfully and consciously, the likes of milk, cheese, sour cream, yogurt, ice cream, creme fraiche, buttermilk, and so on, are central to so many of the dishes we’ve come to know and love.

    • Mayan

      I don’t think the point is being missed in the conversation. It has been mentioned that it is a choice, not a necessity. Meaning, although it may be delicious, it is not required in the diet. Sugary foods are also delicious. The fact that a food is delicious, does not make it good for you. The point is there are no health benefits to milk – on the contrary, dairy causes many health issues, whether you have a dairy sensitivity or not.

      Food is meant to be eaten in order to nourish the body – and nourishing food should also taste good. If you don’t enjoy eating healthy, nourishing food, you’re doing something wrong.

      Just like all pleasures in life, Mal-nourishing foods such as dairy, sweet, fried, processed etc. is OK to enjoy, as long as it is done sensibly and with moderation. The problem is that it has gone out of control and now we have more mal-nourishing food, than we do healthy, nourishing food. Even the so called “healthy” is riddled with toxins and junk. So people think they are eating these bad foods in moderation, but the only real way to do it in moderation is to avoid these foods altogether.

      • Brian

        To say milk has no health benefits is not true. It’s not that you can’t get those nutrients somewhere else, but there are health benefits. If I was given the choice of milk and pretty much anything in the middle (processed food) of a grocery store, I would choose milk for the health benefits,

        • Mayan

          Please give an example of a health benefit

          • Rachel

            There are health benefits to meat, yet you can live a meat-free lifestyle and still retain all the proper nutrients. I don’t think you’re being fair to milk which DOES contain necessary nutrients. The fact that you can get those nutrients elsewhere is true, but the fact remains that milk is an easy way to obtain them. Milk and calcium are hotly debated (as we can see), and I don’t think we’ll see a stop to the studies anytime soon. Some say we don’t receive enough calcium; some say we obtain too much. Some say milk is a great tool for weight-loss; others say that’s simply corporate propaganda. Here is an article that provides both sides:
   Additionally, I encourage everyone to stop relying on websites and read medical journals for analysis (although there’s no saying that those won’t be biased either). I personally believe that a measured cup of milk a day is a great way to obtain nutrients, calcium, vitamin-D, but I also make sure to exercise outside, eat vegetables, etc. And where I generally encourage organic-eating, I believe that skim milk hardly poses a biological threat, and is a healthy alternative to whole, 1%, or unpasteurized milk.

          • Mayan

            Speaking specifically about nutrients – which nutrients are there in (pasteurized) milk, which are not added added to milk other than calcium?

  • milk momma

    Milk allergy and lactose intolerance are completely different things. People who are allergic to milk have an immune response to proteins in milk that are absorbed by the body without being completely broken down during digestion. People who are lactose intolerant lack an enzyme to break down lactose in the intestine. Milk allergy can be very problematic for people, and those with such an allergy should avoid all dairy products.

  • K

    I’d love for some suggestions how else to get calcium and vitamin d besides dairy. I am a female athlete that doesn’t really drink milk – also a vegetarian ( I will eat fish about once a month) who ended up with a pelvis stress fracture when training for my last marathon. I know there are other factors which come into play here but any advice would be great!

    • Mayan

      Green veggies – especially spinach and broccoli are packed with calcium, as are nuts. For “vitamin D” (not a real vitamin), just make sure to get a sufficient amount of sunlight. If you are doing these things and are still hypocalcemic, I would recommend getting your hormone levels checked

    • Brian

      Make sure you get good levels of magnesium as well… Here’s an article that talks about good non-dairy or animal sources of calcium, and how to get other minerals that act as cofactors:

  • Lois Green

    Love low fat milk in my coffee. I haven’t been able to find a good substitute. Daughter likes almond milk, but it looks like it has additives in it as do others. I don’t want soy products either.

    • Mayan

      Milk has plenty of additives – hormones, steroids, antibiotics. Additionally is is pasteurized, which either denatures or reverses the nutrients in the milk, forcing the corporations to add synthetic “vitamins” to it so that they can pretend it’s still healthy.

  • Lois Green

    Love low fat milk in my coffee. I haven’t been able to find a good substitute. Daughter likes almond milk, but it looks like it has additives in it as do others. I don’t want soy products either.

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  • tobasco

    I just wanted to make a comment regarding your statement “But a large portion of humanity never consumed milk or dairy products and somehow managed to thrive.” It would be more accurate to say that many cultures don’t consume dairy *as adults*. We are mammals, and therefore we all drink milk as infants. It is also important to realize that many of these cultures breast feed well until age three or four (years). Many times higher than the average meager three months of exclusive breast feeding we have here in America. The vast majority of infants get formula at one time or another, and basic formula is based off of cow’s milk.

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