Is dairy healthy for you? Answering that question tends to spark some controversy in the wellness arena…
Some people (and the dairy industry in general) say pasteurized, low-fat dairy is a dietary staple and should be consumed 2-3 times daily. Others are all about raw, full-fat dairy as a superfood. And even others insist that cow’s milk is intended for calves only and should not be consumed by humans.
And then there’s those for whom this debate perhaps doesn’t matter as much, as they’re lactose intolerant. (In fact, about 75% of the world’s population is lactose intolerant—yes, that’s most people in the world!)
So, let’s chat through the details on humans and dairy, why so many of us are lactose intolerant, whether or not dairy is a “superfood,” and what to look for if you do consume dairy products.
What is dairy?
First, it might be helpful to define what we mean by dairy: we’re talking the standard glass of cow’s milk, as well as any other foods made from cow’s milk (cheese, yogurt, butter, ice cream, etc.). Milk and milk-based products from other animals (goats, sheep, water buffalo, and even camels!) are also consumed around the world, but here we’re focusing on what’s most widely available and consumed in the U.S.—cow’s milk and cow’s milk products.
So, how did we get here, and why did we start consuming other animals’ milk in the first place?
A brief history: why humans drink milk
Of course, milk is produced by mammals to feed and nourish their young. Just like human breastmilk, other female mammals produce milk after giving birth, as nature’s solution to feeding babies that can’t yet hunt/graze on their own. Typically, across all mammals (humans included), milk is not consumed beyond infancy. (“Infancy” being a very general term here, as the length of time varies… but, in general, milk is not consumed by anyone other than young children.)
About 10,000 years, ago as humans first domesticated crops and animals, we began to consume the milk of our domesticated cows, goats and sheep. There are many theories/possible reasons as to why this came about, but the key detail to note is: humans naturally lose the ability to digest milk somewhere between the ages of two and five.
This brings us to lactose intolerance:
What is lactose intolerance?
Milk and milk products contain a sugar called lactose. To digest this sugar, our body needs to produce an enzyme called lactase. Humans naturally produce this enzyme when we’re born, though we stop producing it by about age five, because nature assumes we no longer need it, as we’ve stopped breastfeeding.
However, in certain populations that lived with and consumed the milk of domesticated animals for millennia, a genetic mutation occurred and the production of lactase (and therefore the ability to process the milk sugar lactose) now remains into adulthood.
While the majority of the world’s adults are lactose intolerant (the natural human condition, remember), populations descended from ancestry that maintained milk-producing domesticated animals show much lower rates of lactose intolerance. So, though only 5-17% of Europeans are lactose intolerant, 60-80% of African and Asian populations are lactose intolerant, and America as a whole is estimated to have a rate of around 44% lactose intolerance.
This is how, despite an overwhelming majority of adults being lactose intolerant, “Drink lots of milk, it’s good for you” is a standard American health claim. As we’ve referred to before, policy in the U.S. has historically been developed by people of European ancestry and is thus very much constructed with white-normative interests.
(Of course, the dairy industry would prefer you not know this, as it’s in their best interest to sell you as much milk and milk products as possible, even if you have to take enzyme supplements to digest them.)
Symptoms of lactose intolerance
If you happen to be lactose intolerant, you likely know its symptoms well. But, to explain what’s happening biologically: to be lactose intolerant means your body does not produce the enzyme lactase, which is needed to digest the lactose in milk and milk products (like cheese, ice cream, etc.). In most cases, your body did produce this enzyme when you were younger, but naturally grew out of it.
If you consume milk or milk products (yummy cheese or ice cream), you’ll likely notice the signs of the lactose you consumed moving through your gut undigested, causing digestive discomfort along the way—aka gas, bloating, abdominal cramps, and perhaps diarrhea.
Now let’s back up a moment—were early humans all suffering from lactose intolerance as they started to consume the milk of their domesticated animals?
Nah, this is actually how some of our favorite dairy products originated. Back in the early days of domestication, human adults were still not likely to be able to digest lactose, as they had naturally stopped producing the enzyme lactase. So, early consumption of dairy was often in the form of curd, cheese or other products that reduce levels of lactose and are thus easier to digest. (Yay! 🧀)
So, with all of that in mind, is dairy healthy for humans to consume? This answer really depends on a few factors—most notably, your own genetics (do you still produce lactase?), as well as how the dairy you’re consuming is produced, and how much of it you’re consuming.
Here are some tips to consider in purchasing or consuming dairy:
Choose organic dairy
Just like any animal product, and especially animal products containing fat, it’s best to select organic options.
We’ve covered the benefits of eating organic in more detail before, but the key point here with animal products like dairy is that toxins bio-accumulate in fat, and they bio-magnify up the food chain. That means that if a cow eats a certain amount of toxins while grazing (well, hopefully it’s grazing, but we’ll get to that next), the milk it produces contains several times that. In other words, you receive more toxins per calorie of the cow’s milk than it consumed per calorie of whatever it was eating.
So, to avoid synthetic hormones, antibiotics, GMOs, and chemical fertilizer and pesticide residues in your milk, it’s best to choose organic dairy.
Grass-fed dairy is more nutritious
Cows naturally eat grass. For the first several millennia of their domestication, they roamed green pastures, munching all day. But in the past couple decades, to increase production quantities and profits, many large-scale dairies have transitioned to keeping cows indoors, where they’re fed grain-based “feed”—typically a mix of corn and soy.
However, changing up the cow’s diet has an impact. Studies show that grass-fed dairy is higher in vitamin D and omega-3 levels than its grain-fed counterpart, which is higher in omega-6 fatty acids (not the kind you’re looking for more of) and lower in vitamin D. Grain and soy also adds to digestive problems in cows. 😥
Avoid synthetic growth hormones
If the name doesn’t scare you away, let’s be clear: it’s not a great idea to consume synthetic growth hormones. Synthetic growth hormones such as rbGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) are given to cows in the dairy industry to increase their milk production, which then increases profits.
There’s been quite a bit of backlash to this, and as a result, many dairy producers have since committed to ceasing their use of it, and it happens to be banned in Canada, the EU and other countries. (Though it’s still legal and frequently used in the U.S.—thanks to dairy industry lobbying.)
Legality aside, why do we not want to consume milk from cows treated with rbGH?
In addition to several concerning issues for the cow’s health, it also has adverse effects on human health. As a growth hormone, it stimulates growth. That means it can help to stimulate the growth of cancer cells too. Research links rbGH to the growth of breast, prostate and colon cancers.
Fat-free dairy isn’t actually better for you
America was on a low-fat craze for several decades (some of which still persists now), and fat-free milk became the “healthier” option.
Milk has naturally occurring fat in it. Whole milk, as we know it from the grocery store, is milk’s natural state. Whole milk has a fat content of about 3.25%. Skim or fat-free milk is, of course, milk with essentially all of the fat removed. And 1% and 2% milk are versions with some, but not all, of the fat removed.
Removing fat from milk does reduce calories and saturated fat, both of which can contribute to high cholesterol or weight gain. But, fat is necessary in the digestion of fat-soluble vitamins, so is thought to improve digestion of nutrients in the milk, technically making whole milk a bit more nutritious than its fat-free counterpart. And, new research shows that fat from organic, grass-fed dairy can help protect against chronic disease including insulin resistance (diabetes), obesity and unhealthy cholesterol levels.
The difference between pasteurized & raw milk
Pasteurization is a process of heating milk to kill harmful bacteria. On the one hand, this is a potentially life-saving modern advancement (more on that in a moment). But on the other hand, it also kills a bunch of other beneficial bacteria and enzymes in the milk that contribute to its health benefits and aid in digestion.
The primary reason for pasteurizing milk is that it’s a great medium for growing bacteria, if not properly stored, and if not consumed relatively quickly. Through most of human history, milk was consumed in its “raw” (not pasteurized) state—but people also lived much closer to their animals and could easily consume raw milk fresh. With modern agricultural and shipping practices, that’s not as practical.
Improperly handled raw milk can grow harmful bacteria and lead to serious illness. As such, raw (un-pasteurized) milk is banned in parts of the U.S.
So, raw milk is certainly more of a “superfood” than pasteurized milk, but has its drawbacks. It must be handled properly and consumed quickly (within one week of bottling)—so does not travel well, and is harder to sell safely from a large-scale dairy perspective.
Consider animal welfare
And, though it may or may not relate to the “health” of milk directly, it’s important to consider the treatment of dairy animals. Large industrial dairies often subject their cows to inhumane living conditions (animal mistreatment at factory farms is well documented!).
It’s also worth noting that many industrial operations impregnate a cow for milk production and take her calf away shortly after birth (often for slaughter to sell veal)—an ethically questionable practice. Though it varies farm to farm, small dairy operations are more likely to treat their cows humanely and allow a more natural relationship between mother cow and calf.
So, if you are lactose tolerant and would like to consume dairy, here are our recommendations for selecting healthy and responsibly produced dairy products:
Choose organic, grass-fed dairy, which is documented to be the most nutritious (and does not contain harmful synthetic hormones, antibiotics, GMOs, or chemical pesticide residues).
Opt for milk that still contains fat (whole, 2%, or 1%), which helps your body access fat-soluble vitamins in the milk.
Only purchase raw milk from quality, trusted sources and consume it fresh.
Be aware of the animal treatment standards of the dairy operations you support.