Milk: Does a body good?

For many years, doctors, government institutions and health organizations have encouraged drinking milk every day. Even today, the U.S Department of Agriculture recommends drinking three cups of milk daily to every individual over age nine.

But over the last decade, some studies have associated milk with several health problems, leading some to question whether or not drinking milk is actually healthy.

Milk is the first food consumed by humans when they are born, but there is a debate about whether or not it is necessary for humans to keep drinking milk after breastfeeding.

Ad campaigns such as the National Milk Mustache "got milk?" Campaign, sponsored by the California Milk Processor Board,  promote awareness of the nutritional aspects of cow’s milk, while other organizations such as the Dairy Education Board claim that "milk is a deadly poison" that contains cancer-causing hormones.

A study published in May in the journal "Nutrition Reviews" indicates that milk can contain hormones such as insulin-like growth factor 1, and states that "a high intake of milk and dairy products can increase the risk of cancer."

Yvonne Ortega, a registered dietitian and nutrition instructor at Santa Monica College, said that the fundamental reason why nutritionists recommend drinking milk is because they consider it highly nutritious and rich in calcium.

"Milk seems to be the easiest way to obtain the adequate amounts of calcium," Ortega said. "It is also a really excellent source of high-quality proteins, vitamins and minerals."

A regular intake of calcium and vitamin D in conjunction with exercise are essential for maintaining healthy bones, according to Ortega.

"We reach our peak bone mass at the age of 30," Ortega said. "Once we hit 30, unfortunately the absorption of calcium starts to decrease, and we begin to lose calcium storages. The adolescent years and early adulthood are the prime time to get that calcium and make the bones as dense as possible so people are not prone to osteoporosis as they get older."

However, it is not necessary to consume dairy to obtain adequate calcium, according to Ortega. Calcium can be found in green vegetables, nuts and beans, and is fortified into certain plant-based milks including rice, almond and soy milk.

"As long as people consume at least 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day, people can go without drinking cow’s milk," Ortega said.

Plant-based milks have been increasing in popularity over cow’s milks, according to Ortega. One reason for this trend could be related to the possible connection between milk and the increased risk of some types of cancer.

Ortega said that the insulin-like growth factor 1 amounts found in milk are small and do not represent a big risk.

"Our bodies naturally produce IGF-1, and technically, the IGF-1 in milk cannot be absorbed by the body, so people should not be worried about this factor," Ortega said.

But when it comes to the connection between milk and some types of cancer, the nutritionist has a different opinion.

"My recommendation for people is that if cancer runs in their family—specifically breast cancer or prostate—they should limit the consumption of milk in their diet," Ortega said. "If they are not at risk, I would not worry too much about drinking milk."

According to Mark McAfee, owner of raw-dairy farm Organic Pastures, not all types of milk should be linked to cancer and disease.

"The problem is not the milk, but the producers," McAfee said. "The truth is that the big producers don’t follow the right procedures, and they get away with it because they pasteurize the milk."

McAfee said that raw milk, which is unpasteurized and still contains bacteria, can be beneficial for health because it improves the immune system and reduces the risks of allergies. Raw milk does not contain hormones related to cancer and, according to MacAfee, is safe to drink because raw milk farmers pay attention to the cows’ diet and health, and the milk is tested constantly.

Dairy-free diets are growing in popularity not only among lactose-intolerant individuals and vegans, but also among people who are concerned about the hormones in milk. Eliminating dairy can also result in reducing cholesterol and sodium levels, and potentially losing weight.

Maria Flores, an SMC student, stopped drinking milk after reading about the weight loss benefits of dairy-free diets in a magazine.

"I was having a hard time losing weight," Flores said. "I tried different diets, but none of them worked, so I decided to go dairy-free, and so far I’ve lost 12 pounds since I started the diet. It is not easy, because I do miss eating some food, but it’s worth it."

Caleb Adams, a business major at SMC, agreed that avoiding dairy can be difficult.

"Going dairy-free can be challenging because there is much to learn about ingredients, label-reading and cooking techniques," Adams said.

But Adams decided to go dairy-free to improve his health.

"As a child, I spent a lot of time with abdominal pain, and as I grew up, the problem got worse," Adams said. "My doctor only prescribed me pills that did not work. I decided to go dairy-free after I noticed that the pain grew stronger when I would drink milk or eat yogurt, so I stopped and pain went away almost immediately.

Westwood nutritionist Martha Pájaro said that milk should not be considered as harmful.

"Milk helps more people than it hurts," Pájaro said. "Many humans are adapted to consume dairy all their lives."

Pájaro said that she does not want to take a side in the "milk battle."

"There have been studies that highlight the risks of consuming dairy products, but there have also been several studies that prove the benefits of dairy and calcium," Pájaro said. "These results only prove that humans are different, and if one thing is good for someone, it can also be bad for someone else."

For Pájaro, moderation is the key to drinking milk without negative consequences.

Pájaro and Ortega agreed that extremes can be negative when it comes to the elimination of milk from a diet.

"When people go dairy-free, they eliminate the group entirely, so they eliminate the nutrients too," Ortega said. "We don’t want to eliminate the group, we want to find a healthy substitute for the group."

Ortega explained her recommendations for people who drink cow’s milk and plant-based milks.

"If people choose to drink the plant milk versions, they should make sure that the product is unsweetened," Ortega said. "Producers usually add sugar to improve the flavor. Also, people should buy calcium-fortified milk so that they do ingest the calcium and vitamin D they need."

"For the ones who drink cow’s milk, I recommend non-fat or low-fat," Ortega said, adding that there is no difference between the calcium and vitamin D levels in milk, regardless of the percentages of fat. "The only difference is the saturated fat and the amount of cholesterol."

Ortega said that all types of milk, including soy and almond, have chemicals like titanium dioxide, which makes milk whiter.

"Unless you get it straight from a cow, or you are processing the soy yourself, you are going to get chemicals in the milk," Ortega said. "What I do is buy organic, fat-free milk, and I make sure the cows are not given hormones."