Dairy and Health
The dairy industry has done a thorough job of convincing many people that dairy products are necessary for healthy bones. This is not the case and the Advertising Standards Authority agrees. In 2012 they upheld complaints regarding Fonterra's advertising in which they had stated that dairy is an "essential part of a balanced diet" and "we all need it". This is not true and Fonterra was forced to remove their false claim.
As any knowledgeable nutritionist can advise, all the calcium your body needs is available from plant-based sources including broccoli, kale and other leafy green vegetables, beans, certain nuts, fortified soy beverages and breakfast cereals.
Dangers of Dairy
There are reasons why dairy may not be the healthiest source of calcium. Dairy products, (including milk, butter, cheese, ice cream and yoghurt), contribute significant amounts of cholesterol and saturated fat to the diet. Saturated fat, in particular, can increase the risk of heart disease. Consumption of dairy products has also been linked to higher risk for various cancers, especially cancers of the reproductive system1. Another problem for many people, particularly those of non-Northern European descent, is lactose intolerance. These people get symptoms such as cramping, bloating, gas and diarrhoea when eating or drinking dairy products.
Strong bones and teeth do require adequate calcium intake, however keeping your bones strong and avoiding osteoporosis depends on more than calcium intake – you also need to keep calcium in your bones. Exercise and vitamin D help to do this, while animal protein can cause calcium loss. The animal protein in dairy products, (as well as that in fish, poultry, red meat and eggs), tends to leach calcium from bones and encourages its passage into the urine. Plant protein, which is less acidic, does not appear to have this effect2.
This may be why bone health is better in countries with low dairy consumption. In a 12-year Harvard study of 78,000 women, those who drank milk three times a day actually broke more bones than women who rarely drank milk3. Hip fracture rates tend to be higher in countries with higher dairy intakes, not lower4. A 1994 study of elderly men and women in Sydney, Australia, showed that higher dairy product consumption was associated with increased hip fracture risk. Those with the highest dairy product consumption had approximately double the risk of hip fracture compared to those with the lowest consumption5.
Is milk good for young children?
Milk is designed for feeding young mammals. However, cow’s milk is designed to grow calves into cows. For human infants, the consumption of whole cow’s milk is not recommended. Plunket Clinical Advisor Allison Jamieson says: “International evidence now shows that whole cow’s milk is not suitable for babies under 12 months of age because it contains higher levels of protein and salt than are safe for babies’ immature kidneys. It also does not provide the vitamins and minerals a growing baby needs, especially iron.”6
For more information on health concerns related to dairy consumption visit PCRM.
3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Bone Health and Osteoporosis: A Report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Surgeon General; 2004.
5. Feskanich D, Willett WC, Colditz GA. Calcium, vitamin D, milk consumption, and hip fractures: a prospective study among postmenopausal women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003;77:504-511.