I’m often asked about milk and dairy products – what I think about them, if they’re safe, if they should really be included in the Dietary Guidelines, and if non-dairy alternatives are healthier or more sustainable. Maybe I should start with a disclaimer. I like milk – cow’s milk, that is. Maybe that’s because I grew up on a farm and spent so much time feeding calves, milking cows, riding horses, and hauling hay. Maybe it’s because I was involved in so many 4-H and FFA events that taught me about the dairy industry and the farm-to-table process. Maybe it’s because I still know and associate with many of the hard-working dairymen (and women) in Utah. Some people feel that my background makes me biased. Others believe that it makes me credible. Either way, when I talk about milk, it comes from a place of practical experience and formal education as a registered dietitian.
I realize that some people can’t tolerate dairy products because of a milk allergy. I also understand that certain medical conditions may limit dairy consumption or require modifications. What I don’t understand is why so many consumers are eliminating cow’s milk and dairy products from their diet because of false information and sensational claims they read about. In defense of milk, I’d like to present some things to consider in a two-part series. In this first article, I’ll focus on milk quality and safety. In a second article, I’ll talk more about the current recommendations and nutritional benefits of milk.
Safety and Quality
Milk is one of the most regulated foods you’ll find at a grocery store. Standards set by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) require that all milk be carefully tested for antibiotics, bacteria, and foreign objects. Antibiotics are administered only when necessary for the health of the animal. Milk produced by cattle that are being treated with antibiotics is held out and never enters our milk supply. Even after antibiotic treatment, dairy farmers must continue to hold that milk out for a designated period of time. This ensures that a drug is completely cleared from a cow’s system.
A recent study conducted by the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine collected milk samples from 2,000 dairy farms across the country. The samples were tested for residues of 31 different drugs, including all antibiotics used on U.S. dairies. The results showed that 99 percent of farms are in full compliance with the industry’s existing regulations. Keep in mind that samples of milk are always collected and tested before leaving a farm. Milk is tested again once it reaches a milk plant. Any milk that tests positive is thrown out and never reaches consumers.
There seems to be a lot of concern about hormones in milk. All milk from mammals (even human breast milk) has small amounts of naturally occurring hormones. This is not dangerous and does not have a negative impact on human health. The natural hormones in cow’s milk are species-specific (only affect cattle) and are typically protein-based. This means that they are dismantled into individual amino acid units when we digest them. While it’s true that farmers have the option of using rBST (a synthetic form of bovine growth hormone) to increase milk production, most choose not to. This is typically a consumer demand issue and not a health or safety issue. The FDA has confirmed that rBST is safe and has no effect on humans. It does not cause obesity or early puberty, either. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Animal Science noted that after 20 years of use, no health concerns about supplemental hormone use have been proven.
Organic milk is also safe but not any safer than conventional milk. It is tested for antibiotics and contains the same naturally occurring hormones that conventional milk does. The nutrient profile and caloric content of conventional and organic milk is the same. The difference is the on-farm practices that determine if milk can be labeled as organic.
Some people continue to believe that pasteurization is unnecessary or harmful and that raw (unpasteurized) milk is a safe and healthier alternative. This is not true. During pasteurization, chilled milk is heated to kill harmful bacteria and then quickly cooled back down to its original temperature. The heat from heated pasteurized milk warms the next batch of cold raw milk and cold milk is then used to cool the heated pasteurized milk – an efficient method that definitely saves energy. Vitamin C is the only nutrient that doesn’t survive the pasteurization process (but milk isn’t considered a good source of vitamin C anyway). The notion that raw milk is a source of beneficial bacteria like probiotics is also false. The reality is that raw milk can harbor dangerous micro-organisms like Campylobacter, Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria. These pathogens pose serious health risks and should be avoided as much as possible.
To be fair, I should mention that the sale of raw milk is legal in the State of Utah. It is also true that many dairymen and their families consume raw milk that they produce and don’t seem to get sick. I agree that it’s possible for some people to develop a tolerance for raw milk and build up immunity to the pathogens that it contains. However, it is hard to justify the risk in a general population.
The Foodsafety.gov website provides some great information on this subject and is worth looking at. It also mentions that pasteurizing milk does not reduce its nutritional value or cause lactose intolerance or allergic reactions. Also, pasteurized milk is not sterile – meaning that it’s perishable. It is not safe to leave milk out of the refrigerator for an extended period of time, especially after it has been opened. There are some milk plants (like Gossner Foods in Logan, Utah) that make shelf-stable milk that doesn’t require refrigeration until after opening. This is achieved via ultra-high-temperature (UHT) processing. This process is safe but does cause some minor nutrient loss of folate, vitamin B12, vitamin C, and thiamin. Caloric and calcium values remain the same. UHT milk is often flavored because UHT processing changes the taste somewhat. It is a great option for areas that lack cold storage and has been used by our military for years.
I’m thankful for the systems and regulations that are in place to keep milk and dairy products safe and for the many people who play a role in that process. Look for a future article with more information about the nutritional benefits of milk!
Collier RJ and Bauman DE. Journal of Animal Science.
DairyGood, Facts and Myths. Available at https://dairygood.org/
National Dairy Council. Available at https://www.nationaldairycouncil.org.