Got milk? No thanks

Milk products are everywhere. It’s in your breakfast cereal, your pick-me-up morning Starbucks, that thin-crust Domino’s you devour for lunch and the late-night McDonalds BigMac you crave.

Few other food products are as pervasive as milk. It’s become a staple of our diet, being consumed by over 6 billion people around the world.

Its production provides a livelihood for a stunning 750 million people around the globe.

India, the largest milk producer in the world, has even gone so far as to deify cows, a major source of milk.

But despite its prevalence, our consumption of milk is a fairly recent occurrence – it’s thought to have started around 10,000 years ago.

This might seem like an unimaginably long time ago but keep in mind that modern humans have been around for roughly 200,000 years.

Humans have historically been lactose intolerant. Once children reach the age of six or seven, they stop producing lactase, the enzyme that breaks down the sugar in milk called lactose. Anyone above this age who drinks milk is asking for trouble, often suffering from cramps, vomiting and diarrhea.

Then something interesting happened around 7,000 – 10,000 years ago. A genetic mutation allowed some people to produce lactase into adulthood. This provided them with an evolutionary advantage as milk is satiating and calorie-dense. The genes that allowed this were then propagated and milk consumption became prevalent the world over.

So what’s the problem here?

The problem is two-fold: (1) Today’s milk has been commercialised to the point that it’s probably more detrimental than healthy to humans; and (2) producing it is incredibly energy intensive, exacerbating climate change, wreaking havoc on the environment and causing undue pain and suffering to cows.

Let’s look at the first problem.

“The milk we drink today is quite unlike the milk our ancestors were drinking,” Harvard researcher Ganmaa Davaasambuu, an expert on milk-related illnesses says.

When she first started investigating why the rates of prostate cancer had risen an alarming 25-fold over the past 50 years in Japan, the strongest correlation she could find was with the increase in milk consumption right at the heel of World War Two. This was when Japan adopted the practice of mass milk consumption.

Digging further, she realised Japan was not the exception. Milk consumption correlated strongly with rates of uterine, ovarian and breast cancer in 40 countries. However, one fact stuck out like a sore thumb, apparently at odds with the rest of the data.

Even though traditional cow herding societies consumed comparable amounts of milk, they did not suffer from the same cancer rates she saw in Japan and other countries which consumed mass-produced, commercial milk. Intrigued, the Mongolian-born Davaasambuu looked at her own country.

The big difference she noticed was that the free-range cows kept by Mongolian nomads get pregnant naturally and are only milked for five or six months after they give birth.

However, in countries like the United States and Japan, cows are milked for around double that duration, are artificially inseminated (the place this happens is colloquially and terrifyingly referred to as a rape rack) and worst of all are impregnated while they are still producing milk from their previous pregnancy.

The reason this is a major issue is that milk from pregnant cows has far higher levels of the sex hormone estrogen – anywhere from five times to a staggering 33 times more than normal. And this difference in hormonal levels seems to be the cause of the higher cancer rate.

An important fact to remember is, today’s commercial milk is a processed food.

The rosy fantasy that is often depicted on milk cartons where healthy-looking cows are roaming around on beautiful green pastures is exactly that – a fantasy. Commercial milk production mostly happens in a crowded and unbelievably dirty factory farm.

These unfortunate, sentient beings are sometimes injected with a synthetic, man-made hormone called recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). This controversial substance is used to increase milk production in cows and tends to cause udder infections (mastitis). To treat this, they are given antibiotics which can cause the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Also, pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and dioxins which are found in milk can harm our reproductive, immune and nervous systems in addition to increasing our proclivity for cancer.

So how do we live without milk?

That’s exactly what we’ll cover in my next column, along with the dastardly effects the dairy industry has on the environment and how terribly cows suffer for it.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.