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Milk Claims vs Facts

William T. Jarvis, Ph.D.

Milk is the mammary secretion of pregnant mammals. Although milk's natural function is to serve as food, its content and consistency vary considerably from one species to another [1]. Whale milk is as thick as toothpaste, for example, whereas many other milks are quite watery.

For some reason, some people have made milk-bashing into a crusade. On the other hand, there have been a few who have extolled milk -- to some the milk must be unpasteurized -- as a super food. Such widely divergent viewpoints can be perplexing to Americans, whose most common nutrition misconception is that foods can be categorized as either "good food" or "bad food." It may help to know that every food group has been condemned or extolled by someone at some time:

Food group  
Grain Extolled: Wheat is the "staff of life"; Wheaties the breakfast of champions; whole grains have positive image.
  Condemned: Grasses as a group have been condemned as unfit for human food, apparently because of gluten intolerance, allergies to pollen; corn allergies; white flour is commonly condemned. Curiously, many vegetarians will extol whole-grain products yet will eat highly refined gluten products as meat substitutes.
Fruit Extolled: "An apple a day keeps the doctor away"; Maizel, the Diamonds, and Robbins.
  Condemned: Fruit thought bad because overindulgence causes diarrhea, and diarrhea was associated with deadly diseases.
Vegetable Extolled: Vegetarians extol vegetables as the preferred foods; primary on the food chain;
  Condemned: Low-carbohydrate diet advocates extol the "Cave Man diet," which they allege was mostly meat.
Meat Extolled: Raw meats are "super foods."
  Condemned: Vegetarians blame meat eating for aggressiveness, uncontrolled sexual passion,ill-health, and more.
Milk Extolled: raw milk has been extolled as perfect food (nature's only intended food) - yogurt is a health food.
  Condemned: Milk condemned by vegans and some "nature doctors" as for calves only; lactose intolerance and reactions by some infants to cow's milk generalized as evidence that milk is bad food.

Many faddists claim that milk is the only "natural" food for mammals. That certainly is not true. Most items used for food are chosen arbitrarily. The plant foods humans eat include tubers (potatoes, yams), roots (beets, carrots, parsnips), leaves (onions, spinach, kale), fruiting bodies (apples, bananas, oranges, pears, tomatoes, avocados, peppers), fungi (mushrooms), seeds (nuts), legumes (peanuts, beans), and grains (corn, wheat, oats, rye).

The idea that nature intended these as food is countered by the fact that naturally occurring toxicants make some item in each category dangerous to eat. The variety of items that different cultures use as foods includes just about every. Eskimo which means "raw meat eater" is just that. When argonauts (gold-seekers) lived in the high north through the winter they got scurvy. Robert Service described this in his poetry: "our flesh dents like putty, we spit out our teeth like stones." Eskimos (and "Inuits" as Arctic native people are called in Canada) do not get scurvy because the animals that they eat raw synthesize ascorbic acid. Cooking the meat would destroy the vitamin C. Australia's aborigines would add insects to the list of items people use for food.

Many faddists claim that pasteurization cause major nutrient losses in milk, including the assimilation factor for calcium. Pasteurization slightly reduces the content of a few nutrients, but this reduction has no significance in people's overall diet. The claim that pasteurization reduces the availability of calcium is false. To quote Lampert: "The body is capable of utilizing the calcium in either raw milk or pasteurized milk equally well, and. . .there is no significant difference in the retention of phosphorus and nitrogen from either type of milk." [2] Raw milk has been responsible for many outbreaks of serious disease. Moreover, vitamins A and D are added to pasteurized milk, which makes pasteurized milk products more nutritious.

Some people claim that cow's milk is only good for calves and should not be used by infants or adults. Cow's milk, like other mammalian milk, is very nutritious and can help provide high quality nutrition. This is true for both infants and adults. There is increasing evidence that the common disease of osteoporosis is related in part to decreased amounts of calcium in the diet [3-5]. Milk is the most efficient source of dietary calcium and is an excellent food choice for most adults.

There are good reasons for breast-feeding infants which go beyond objective nutritional analyses of mother's vs. cow's milk. However, many women choose not or are unable to breast-feed and make excellent mothers with happy, well-adjusted children.

Many years ago a doctor named Oster theorized that homogenized milk causes coronary heart disease. His idea has little scientific support [6], but faddists use it order to promote the sale of imitation milk and other substitutes.


  1. Milk: what's in a name? (Kroger) Nutrition Forum 1988:1:8.
  2. Lampert LM. Milk as a food. Chapter in Modern Dairy Products: erd Ed. New York: Chemical Publ. 1975, p. 5.
  3. Lee, C.J., Lawler, G.S., Johnson, G.H. Effects of supplementation of the diets with calcium and calcium-rich foods on bone density of elderly females with osteoporosis. Amer J Clin Nutr. 1981;34:819-23.
  4. Life Sciences Research Office. 1982. Effects of Dietary Factors on Skeletal Integrity in Adults: Calcium, Phosphorus, Vitamin D, and Protein. Bethesda: Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.
  5. Seeman, E., Riggs, B.L. 1981. Dietary prevention of bone loss in the elderly. Geriatrics 36:71-79
  6. Bierman, E.L., Shank, R.E. Homogenized milk and coronary artery disease: theory, not fact. JAMA, 1975;234:630-31

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© 1996, National Council Against Health Fraud.
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This article was revised on September 24, 2001.