Why Milk?

milk“Milk. It does a body good.” Remember that advertising campaign from the ‘80s? Or surely you’ve seen the “Got Milk?” ads featuring celebrities and athletes from Rihanna to David Beckham sporting milk mustaches. The message is everywhere. But why, oh why, does everyone seem to want us to drink more milk?

Scientists and nutritionists say that ‘superfoods’ like pomegranite and goji berries, and even less exotic leafy greens like spinach and kale are packed full of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals essential for good health. But I’m betting it will be a cold day in hell before we see Tim Tebow on a billboard asking, “Got spinach?”

So of course we need milk for it’s calcium, and lots of it, right? For strong teeth and bones? Well a 1997 study by the Harvard School of Public Health concluded that consumption of 2 or more glasses of milk per day does not reduce rates of osteoporosis. In fact rates of the disease are highest in countries with the greatest per capita consumption of milk. And it is well documented that rates of lactose intolerance amongst Asians, Africans and Native Americans range from 70% to nearly 100% of those populations. In Japan specifically, where per capita consumption of milk is estimated at just 8% of what Americans consume, the population’s hip fracture rate is half what it is in the US.

So if the benefits of calcium from milk are disputed, and people around the world do just fine without milk, then why is it such a big deal in the United States? Because the government mandated milk consumption years ago, and has never looked back.

Back in 1940, the federal government created subsidies to provide milk for children in school. In 1946 the National School Lunch Act mandated that children be served between ½ and 2 pints of whole milk with their school lunch. In 1983 the Dairy Product Stabilization Act was passed by Congress. This provisions of this act are administered by the National Dairy Promotion and Research Board, formed under the authority of the USDA. The Dairy Board is charged with increasing demand for dairy products both in the US and abroad. So in essence, Uncle Sam says “drink more milk.” And Americans have repeated this mantra for decades.

How often do you stop to consider, not only the idea that you don’t need milk, but what it is that you are really consuming? Have you ever seen a mother ape in a zoo, holding a lion cub up to her breast to nurse? Or how about a grown man crawling underneath a goat for a drink? Of course not – these scenarios are ridiculous. There is no other species in nature that drinks the milk of another. Yet when we are far removed from the production process, getting milk from a cow in a factory that is hooked up to tubes and restraints, we grow immune to the ridiculousness.

Fluid milk consumption shot up from 34 gallons per person in 1941 to a peak of 45 gallons per person in 1945. War production lifted Americans’ incomes but curbed civilian production and the goods consumers could buy. Many food items were rationed, including meats, butter, and sugar. Milk was not rationed, and consumption soared. Since 1945, however, milk consumption has fallen steadily, reaching a record low of just under 23 gallons per person in 2001 (the latest year for which data is available). Steep declines in consumption of whole milk and buttermilk far outpaced any increase in other lower fat milks. By 2001, Americans were consuming less than 8 gallons per person of whole milk, compared with nearly 41 gallons in 1945 and 25 gallons in 1970. In contrast, per capita consumption of total lower fat milks was 15 gallons in 2001, up from 4 gallons in 1945 and 6 gallons in 1970. These changes are consistent with increased public concern about cholesterol, saturated fat, and calories. However, the decline in per capita consumption of fluid milk also may be attributed to competition from other beverages (especially carbonated soft drinks and bottled water), a smaller percentage of children and adolescents in the U.S., and a more ethnically diverse population whose diet does not normally include milk.

Nowadays there are plenty of alternatives to cow’s milk that are marketed about as heavily, but that make more sense, like milk from almonds, soy, or coconut, to name a few. So unless you are a baby cow, perhaps it’s time to make the switch!