Ahh milk… the creamy white drink that’s a staple at many dinner tables. You’ve probably seen it in a variety of TV commercials, and may even be familiar with the famous slogan, “Got Milk?”
But it’s not just a liquid. This versatile food can be turned into many things: cheese, flavored yogurts, ice cream cones… it’s hard to imagine life without it. And if you’re like most Americans, you may have grown up being told to “drink your milk so you can grow big and strong.”
But is milk good for you, or that just a myth?
History of Milk Consumption
When did humans start drinking cow’s milk, anyway? Some of the earliest findings of people drinking cow’s milk came from analyzing our ancestor’s teeth. Ancient pottery artifacts gave clues that suggested people drank milk thousands of years ago, possibly after observing wildlife and domesticating cattle (9).
Clearly, our ancestors saw some benefits to drinking cow’s milk. Some of the pros of dairy milk include:
- Calcium: It’s true that milk is a source of calcium. Some milk has added vitamin D, which is important for good health. *Calcium can also be found in many plant sources as well, like kale, spinach, and collards (1).*
- Natural: Because cows and humans are both mammals, it’s not completely unnatural for us to drink cow’s milk.
- Gut health: Raw cow’s milk is considered alive because of the natural bacteria present. It also contains enzymes that help your body process and absorb the nutrients from the milk. Similarly, fermented dairy products like sour cream and yogurt also contain cultures that are good for your gut (3).
- Separation: Raw, unprocessed milk has fats that naturally separate. This actually helps your gut figure out what’s what in order to effectively digest it (4).
- Organic: If drinking raw milk is illegal where you live, organic milk offers higher nutritional value without the antibiotics, hormones and pesticides (2).
- Saturated Fats; Based on what researchers are finding, saturated fats aren't bad unless consumed in large quantities. Dairy carries a reputation of being bad for your heart since it tends to be high in saturated fat. But these new findings may suggest you don’t need to pursue low fat options like you thought. That same research even suggests that incidence of heart disease is lower in groups that drink full fat milk (10).
Not bad for something that’s been around for thousands of years. But it wouldn’t be a complete picture without exploring some of the cons of cow’s milk.
Some of the cons that come with drinking milk are:
- Low calcium absorption: While milk does have calcium in it, only about 30% of it is absorbed by your body (5).
- Pasteurization: The process of pasteurization kills off any enzymes and beneficial bacteria in the milk. This makes it much harder for your body to digest, and may contribute to allergies or sensitivities (3).
- Homogenized: Natural milk has fat globules that tend to separate and rise to the top. Factory/store-bought milk is processed in such a way that the milk consistency is uniform throughout. This makes it harder for your body to process and digest it (4).
- Pesticides/Herbicides: Factory/store-bought milk comes from cows that are hooked up to machines and fed a very poor diet. You might be surprised to know that conventional milk may contain pesticides like atrazine and permethrin (2).
- Hormones: In order to produce more milk in the least amount of time, hormones are often pumped into milk cows. These hormones can travel into the milk and have been observed to have a negative impact on the consumer (2).
The A1/A2 Theory
The discovery of two specific proteins has recently changed what scientists believed about milk and lactose intolerance.
Cows that are bred in Europe, the US, Australia and New Zealand have tested positive for what’s called an A1 protein. This seems to be the protein that contributes to a lot of lactose intolerance in some people. Cows in Asia and Africa have tested positive for the A2 protein, which seems to be more digestible and easier on the gut (8).
Other Milk Options
With all that in mind, you may have decided cow’s milk is not the best choice for you. If that’s the case, what other options do you have?
Goat’s milk is another animal milk option. With smaller fat globules and lower levels of lactase, it’s said to be easier on your digestion (7). The downside is that some people aren’t a fan of the flavor. If you’d like to forego dairy altogether, some great non-dairy milk options are:
- Almond milk
- Cashew milk
- Oat milk
- Soy milk
- Hemp milk
- Coconut milk
- Rice milk
If you’re going to cook or bake, note that some dairy milk alternatives can change the recipe’s outcome. Make sure to look into different conversions or additions before simply swapping them out.
So what do we make out of all this information? Milk is a liquid that was discovered by our ancestors thousands of years ago. Over the centuries, more and more people adopted milk as a staple in their diet.
There are many positive health benefits to drinking milk, like calcium and protein. On the flip side, the calcium found in milk is not that well absorbed, and the proteins can be iffy. There are many other plant-based foods that provide higher quantities of bioavailable calcium.
Many people are also sensitive to cow’s milk because they lack the enzyme needed to efficiently digest it. There are also ongoing tests and studies that are testing the A1/A2 proteins found in different cow’s milk.
Is cow’s milk totally necessary for optimal health? Unless it’s raw and organic, we believe there are better options for you. Nut milks, oat or hemp can be great alternatives.
Have you grown up drinking cow’s milk? Now you know a little bit more about it, you can make decisions that will take your health to a whole new level. And if you learned something new, be sure to share this with your circle on social media!
References & Disclaimers
✝✝This noted statement is based on independent research and is not necessarily the opinion of the author