Even if clean and pure, is cow’s milk fit for humans to consume at all?
By Jeannine Ouellette, HoneyColony
I’m 12 years old, scooted up to my dad’s octagonal dining table, the backs of my thighs sticking unpleasantly to the vinyl kitchen chair on a sweltering August day. Stepmom Debbie has prepared her specialty, Swedish sausage, a gray tube of meat-like substance that looks a lot like the photo my health teacher Ms. Nick recently displayed of a large intestine. And then there’s the tall glass of 2 percent milk resting heavily before me, beads of sweat running down its exterior, thick and disgusting white fluid within.
Before leaving the table, I will be forced to swallow the milk, all of it, no matter how much I gag in the process. I will have to swallow it because, insists my dad, it’s good for me. Against this truism, I, a scrawny kid with chronic earaches and poor appetite, am defenseless.
If only I’d had access then to today’s impressive and growing body of research that threatens our sacrosanct belief in milk as the epitome of wholesome food. Critics now point past the dangers associated with the sins of factory farming—growth hormones, antibiotics, and infectious secretions from unhealthy animals—to the most shattering question of all: Even if clean and pure, is cow’s milk fit for humans to consume at all?
Got Breast Milk?
“Ask yourself this question,” coaxes Robert Cohen, author of Milk, The Deadly Poison, and founder of NOTMILK. “Does organic human breast milk sound like a delicious drink for an adult human? Instinctively, most people know that there are substances in breast milk that are not intended for their adult bodies. Same goes for pig’s milk and dog’s milk. Same for cow’s milk.”
Seems logical to me, especially when coupled with the real horror stories behind mass production of dairy products. That’s why I tried so hard back in the late ’90s to replace dairy in my own and my children’s diets with alternatives–mostly soy-based, such as soy milk for pouring on cereal, Tofutti instead of ice cream, and the unpalatable, unmeltable, and dare I say inedible soy cheese products of that era (if they’ve improved, I wouldn’t know, having given up on them for good).
Being dairy-free wasn’t easy. After six months of strict veganism, I broke down and bit into a warm, gooey slice of cheese pizza. I haven’t gotten back on the wagon since except for the occasional temporary cleanse, including three recent and pretty blissful rounds of Crazy, Sexy Diet guru Kris Carr’s 21-day “adventure cleanse.”
Little did I know back in the ’90s, at the height of my foray into dairy alternatives, that I was buying right into a then decade-long marketing campaign to gain consumer acceptance of tofu, soy milk, soy ice cream, soy cheese, soy sausage, and soy derivatives. It coincided with a U.S. Food and Drug Administration decision, announced on October 25, 1999, to allow a health claim for products “low in saturated fat and cholesterol” that contain 6.25 grams of soy protein per serving. Cereals, baked products, convenience food, and other items could suddenly be marketed as promoting cardiovascular health, as long as they contained one teaspoon of soy protein per 100-gram serving.
Since then, soy has drawn the spotlight of intense and unrelenting controversy, with more experts coming out fervently against it than for it. But for me, it wasn’t research but rather a weak will that led to Pizza Hut winning out back on that not-so-proud day. Yet, it was probably no coincidence that my personal roundabout dovetailed exactly with the millennial tide turning against soy consumption.
As it turned out, shrieked the critics, I—along with the rest of the unsuspecting health-conscious masses—had been bamboozled by the soy industry. Soy protesters began waving fistfuls of anti-soy studies. There are links between soy and fertility problems in certain animals! Soy contains a natural chemical that mimics estrogen, and it alters sexual development! Two glasses of soy milk a day, over the course of a month, contain enough of this chemical to make my menstrual cycle run amok! And if that’s not bad enough, soy also promises to disturb my digestion, give me breast cancer, and shrink my brain.
Soy’s Most Fervent Modern Critic
Today, one of soy’s most fervent critics is the acclaimed integrative practitioner Dr. Joseph Mercola, who lambastes soy on numerous counts. “Thousands of studies link soy to malnutrition, digestive distress, immune system breakdown, thyroid dysfunction, cognitive decline, reproductive disorders, and infertility—even cancer and heart disease,” wrote Mercola in a 2012 Huffington Post tirade against the formerly revered meat substitute.
If nothing else, soy products are dangerous for the mere fact that 90 percent of soybeans grown in the United States are genetically modified. “Since the introduction of genetically engineered foods in 1996, we’ve had an upsurge in low birth weight babies, infertility, and other problems in the U.S., and animal studies have shown devastating effects from genetically engineered soy including allergies, sterility, birth defects, and offspring death rates up to five times higher than normal,” Mercola says.
If all that is not enough to kill your craving for a tofu pup, it turns out that soybean crops are also heavily sprayed with chemical herbicides, such glyphosate, found by a French team of researchers to be carcinogenic.
Last but not least, Mercola points out that soybeans—even organically grown soybeans—“naturally contain ‘antinutrients’ such as saponins, soyatoxin, phytates, trypsin inhibitors, goitrogens, and phytoestrogens. Traditional fermentation destroys these antinutrients, which allows your body to enjoy soy’s nutritional benefits. However, most Westerners do not consume fermented soy, but rather unfermented soy, mostly in the form of soy milk, tofu, TVP, and soy infant formula.”
Of course, all of this is still disputed heatedly by those defending soy as a healthy, low-cost, versatile food for a new generation, but the debate in itself has been enough to turn some consumers back toward the milking pail.
The Raw Revolution
So maybe humans are the only mammals that drink the milk of another mammal. What we drink is hardly the most significant distinction between humans and our animal brethren. So say the purists who believe that raw milk, in its most natural, unadulterated state, is the dairy product most fit for humans. But to get it, they’ve got to form a relationship with an organic farmer willing to bypass wholesalers and market his or her raw, unpasteurized milk directly to consumers.
For years, when my family lived in the country, I bought raw goat milk from a friend down the road, and my children appeared to me just like Heidi and Klara on the Alm, growing strong and rosy on the herb-rich milk of Schwaanli and Baarli. They got used to the thick, salty flavor of the goat milk, and I appreciated the simplicity of it, the fact that we were drinking it practically straight from the goat. It felt right and good, and we only drifted away from it after moving back to the Twin Cities.
I wasn’t too worried about us getting sick from raw milk, but maybe that’s because I didn’t really dig into the research or hear the shrillest warnings. For example, I didn’t know that critics claim raw milk can harbor a slew of dangerous micro-organisms including campy-lobacter, salmonella, staphylococci, E. coli, and even rabies. Symptoms of illness induced by these critters can range from mild stomach cramps to coma and death.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 93 separate outbreaks due to consumption of raw milk or raw milk products were reported to CDC between 1998 and 2009. These resulted in 1,837 illnesses, 195 hospitalizations, and two deaths. Children are at increased risk; among the 93 raw dairy product outbreaks from 1998 to 2009, 79 percent involved at least one person under 20 years old.
If those numbers sound small to you, the CDC is quick to point out that reported outbreaks represent the tip of the iceberg. “For every outbreak and every illness reported, many others occur, and most illnesses are not part of recognized outbreaks,” they explain.
If I had known all that, would I still have played Heidi with my kids and their goat milk? Hard to say for sure, but probably, yes. We knew the goats and their keepers, and I think I’d have deemed the risk low to none. But you never know.
It’s a goddamn harsh world out there.
Risk lurks everywhere. From terrorism to traffic, our lives are at stake with every polluted breath we take. I’m all for eating well, supporting organics, keeping hope alive. But I’ve given up the notion that every sip I allow to pass through my children’s lips is going to make the difference between health and disease. The hysteria, if anything, is bound to make us sick.
That harmless looking soybean, that creamy glass of goat milk that got Klara up on her own two feet, that once-revered carton of 2 percent in the cooler at the corner store—they’ve got their problems. But are they going to kill you? Probably not (immediately).