Milk has been a staple of dietary guidelines for decades. But, do kids actually need it?
Do Kids Really Need Milk?
Hana Kahleova, MD, PhD—director of clinical research at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a nonprofit that counts more than 12,000 members of the medical community—told LIVEKINDLY over the phone that you can raise healthy kids without dairy. In fact, they may be better off without it.
“There are several health issues associated with milk and dairy consumption,” Kahleova explained. “The first one is lactose intolerance.”
Around age five, “it is physiological that many humans develop lactose intolerance,” she explained. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), 95 percent of Asians, 60 to 80 percent of African Americans and Ashkenazi Jews, 80 to 100 percent of Native Americans, and 50 to 80 percent of Hispanics are affected by lactose intolerance.
“So, we’re talking about large numbers of people who are lactose intolerant and for these affected individuals, milk can cause bloating, diarrhea, and gas. They are just not able to digest milk properly,” Kahleova added.
Sugar is another issue. An eight-ounce serving of fat-free milk contains 11 grams of sugar. Too much sugar is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, tooth decay, weight gain, and poor nutrition, according to the Mayo Clinic. Kahleova explained, “if milk is a key component of a child’s diet, this is a significant source of added sugar that’s not only unhealthy but may be associated with other problems.”
Then, there’s the potential of negatively affecting heart health. “Milk is not only a source of lactose but also a source of cholesterol and fat, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease,” said Kahleova.
Milk and Cancer
Diets heavy in milk may also raise one’s risk of cancer. “In human studies, milk consumption has been tied to prostate, ovarian, and breast cancer,” she continued. Harvard University studies have confirmed this link.
There are more risks: “Another association has been identified between milk and ovarian cancer, particularly in African American women. A recent study from Loma Linda University by Dr. Gary Fraser has also shown that milk consumption is strongly associated with breast cancer,” Kahleova explained. According to the study, one cup of milk a day increases breast cancer risk by 50 percent. Two to three cups a day increases the risk by 70 to 80 percent. Even small amounts—like a third of a cup daily—raises the risk by 30 percent.
What is causing the cancer risk? The protein content may be one explanation, said Kahleova: “If we get such a huge amount of protein in our diets, this increases the Insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) concentrations and drives up the risk of cancer.”
Hormones may be another factor: dairy cows are forcibly impregnated to get them to produce milk and because of this, there are some traces of estrogen in milk. This has “been associated with higher mortality in women with breast cancer and also lower sperm count in men.”
Baby Cows, Baby Humans, and Milk
Another reason not to drink cow’s milk? Human babies and baby cows have different nutritional needs.
“It’s interesting to note that human milk has a slightly higher percentage of fat compared to cows’ milk,” said Kahleova. This is because infants need less protein and more fat as their source of energy. Fat is also needed to develop the brain, spinal cord, and nerves.
While breast milk is higher in fat, there’s a problem with the fat content in cow’s milk: it’s oxidized. When cow’s milk is processed, it comes into contact with oxygen, which oxidizes the cholesterol. Oxidized cholesterol is “highly atherogenic”—it can contribute to the formation of fatty plaques in the arteries, which in turn increases the risk of heart disease.
Whole milk contains 3.3 grams of protein per 100 grams in contrast to 1.3 grams in the same amount of breast milk. The difference is due to nature. “Babies need to double their birth weight in about 180 days while cows need to double their birth weight in about 40 days, so they have completely different physiological needs,” Kahleova explained.
She added, “In summary, milk and dairy consumption is associated with significant health risks and it’s definitely not something that humans need.”
Why Do We Think Kids Need Milk?
If kids don’t really need milk, then why do we think they do? A lot of it is about marketing.
The dairy industry is regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which also oversees checkoff marketing agencies like Dairy Management Inc., whose job is to promote milk.
The Washington, D.C.-based National Milk Processor Education Program (MilkPEP) plays a similar role. Its efforts include procuring Olympic athlete sponsorships, trying to convince athletes to “perform at their best and recover” with low-fat chocolate milk, and targetting children.
On Milk It!, a MilkPEP YouTube channel created to promote milk to kids, videos range from DIY ice cream to making a “milk plastic” replica of Neil Armstrong’s footprint on the moon. It features a young Olympic skateboarding hopeful who “fuels her awesome” with dairy. There is also a dramatic series of commercials called “The World Is Yours,” which shows child athletes dominating their sport-of-choice, thanks to milk.
The YouTube channel isn’t the MilkPEP’s first attempt at courting younger consumers. In 1995, it licensed the California Milk Board’s “Got Milk?” slogan to run a series of print ads featuring celebrities, athletes, and cartoon characters. “Power up!” said an ad featuring Nintendo’s Mario. “Want to grow? The calcium in milk helps your bones grow.”
Keeping in character, it added: “Mamma mia!”
If Not Cows Milk, Then What?
What should kids drink, if not cow’s milk? The U.S. government’s MyPlate Plan notes that fortified soy milk is fine. Not only is there no estrogen, like there is in cow’s milk, but there are also isoflavones, which are associated with a lower breast cancer risk.
“My daughter loves all vegan milk but she’s especially into Oatly oat milk,” said Jill Ettinger, editor-in-chief at LIVEKINDLY.
Despite pushback from the dairy industry and media op-eds about kids missing out on necessary nutrition from milk, she’s never received any pushback for raising her daughter vegan. “Not from my daughter’s pediatrician or from other parents. I’m often surprised at how many other families are no longer drinking cow’s milk. A lot of parents tell me they’re using almond or oat or other vegan milk at home,” she said.
While milk alternatives are easy to sort out, people still have reservations about cheese. “Parents (and kids!) can be doubtful, but then they try it and have a total change of heart. Miyoko’s has been a huge hit in our house and with friends,” she added.
And for infants, breast milk is best. “Children should be breastfed exclusively for at least six months and then should continue to be breastfed together with other food introduced to their diet until about a year,” said Kahleova. “The longer a child consumes breast milk, the better. There is no need for infants to consume cows milk.”
“At the age of five, most children in the cultures around the world develop lactose intolerance,” she added. “So to say that dairy is indispensable to their health, we would be ignoring the fact that most cultures don’t consume dairy or milk on a regular basis.”