What the Health? Debunking 3 Dairy Myths
Contributor: Amanda Arnold – USU Dietetics Student and Dairy Council of UT/NV intern
Recently, I’ve noticed an increase in popularity of alternative milk beverages like almond and soy milk. I’ve had roommates, friends, and classmates talk about the health benefits of these products and even witnessed demonstrations of how to make your own almond milk at home. With their new-found popularity, I was curious about whether these products could really be considered milk replacements?? Doing some preliminary dairy-case research, I discovered that most alternative milks are very low in protein and must be heavily fortified with vitamins and minerals that are found naturally in cow’s milk. And as I delved into the research comparing various products, I quickly became interested in reasons why many people turn to milk alternatives over traditional milk. For many people, lactose intolerance and gastrointestinal symptoms are a big deterrent to drinking milk. For others, the recent documentary What the Health? proposes concerning statements about the health of animal products and suggests sinister motivations of proponents of these products.
I had heard a lot of buzz related to this documentary, and as a future dietitian, I had to see for myself exactly what these claims were and evaluate them based on the current body of scientific research. For the purpose of this post, I want to focus on three of the claims made in the film:
CLAIM #1: Milk is not supportive of strong bones and is related to increased rates of osteoporosis.
This, if true, would be a terrifying realization as most of us have been taught our whole lives that calcium found in milk and dairy products is what builds strong bones. I started by taking a look at the sources cited by the film. The studies cited identified a correlation between milk and fracture risk; however, these studies were observational and have a number of confounding variables that may interfere with proof of causation. Countries found to have the highest rates of hip fractures, Sweden, Norway, and the United States, were also associated with high levels of dairy intake. Because of this correlation, the movie draws the conclusion that increased dairy is associated with increased fracture risk. As a dietetics student, I have learned to be careful of correlation and causation. Just because two things are correlated does not mean that one causes the other. The researchers of this study do not actually imply that dairy intake caused fracture risk, rather they suggest that an increased elderly population, ethnicity, latitude, and environmental factors may have contributed to the study’s findings. The current body of research shows that calcium, vitamin D, and potassium, all nutrients of concern across the national population, are found in milk and dairy products. Consuming these nutrients is particularly important during childhood and adolescence during growth to promote bone health.
CONCLUSION: The evidence proposed by the documentary does not seem to definitively support the claim made, and dairy intake remains an excellent source of calcium and vitamin D, both of which are associated with bone health.
CLAIM #2: Children who drink milk are more likely to develop type 1 diabetes.
This was an interesting statement that I had never heard before, so I wanted to explore this relationship. It appears that the studies showing this relationship evaluated young infants, sometimes as young as three months old. Current guidelines do not recommend cow’s milk for infants younger than 12 months old. This delay decreases the risk for allergies and allows the infant’s kidneys to develop enough to manage a higher protein load.
CONCLUSION: By following recommendations for introducing food to infants, this association can largely be avoided.
CLAIM #3: Dioxins in dairy products are harmful and should be eliminated from the diet
According to the World Health Organization, dioxins are environmental pollutants that accumulate in fatty tissues of animals. They are toxic and can result in reproductive and developmental problems, hormone interference, immune damage, and cancer. Because of their omnipresence in the environment, everyone has background exposure. Of the 419 varieties of dioxins, only about 30 are toxic. These toxins are the result of mostly industrial and some natural processes such as smelting, uncontrolled solid and hospital waste incinerators, and forest fires.
CONCLUSION: The best way to prevent exposure is source-directed, meaning controlling these industrial processes rather than eliminating food products from the diet. This has already begun as waste incinerators, the process with the largest contribution of dioxins, have been altered to control dioxin output.
Although at first glance these claims seem very concerning and raise questions about the health and nutritional value of dairy products, further investigation shows a much less bleak picture. It is important when evaluating research to look at the whole body of evidence rather than outlying studies and to consider the difference between correlation and causation. As it stands, dairy foods are a healthy and valuable part of a balanced diet and are especially important for children and adolescents in promoting bone health.