Is milk bad for you? It's something we have wondered for a while. As of late, almond milk might be the milk alternative of choice, but is it as healthy as we think it is? Not only do we need to think about our health, but what are the environmental implications? Essentially, as a nutritionist, I want to find out whether cow's milk should be off the menu or are these non-dairy switches just a fad? Are nut, rice and soy milks just as processed or are they really better, viable alternatives? If you do drink cow's milk should you also choose full fat over skimmed, which is less processed, or organic over non-organic? And unless you're truly lactose intolerant are there any good reasons not to drink it? Keep scrolling to find out whether cow's milk has been getting an unnecessarily bad rap in recent years.
The Dark Side of Dairy Farming
The farming industry has changed a lot over the years, and whilst we like to think of it being a safe and clean environment for animals, this may not be the case. Cow's milk has long been claimed as the go-to source of calcium, especially for young children. But dairy milk is now so overproduced, and a change in law has meant it is currently legal within the EU for dairy farmers to use antibiotics routinely, mostly for mastitis (inflammation of the mammary gland and udder tissue, usually due to bacterial infection). Where do you think the excretion of these antibiotics goes? Into your milk, that's where.
Is Organic Cow's Milk Better?
It has been shown that as people switch to organic milk by way of being healthier, they are showing signs of iodine deficiency, which in turn has public health implications. The research showed a third less iodine was seen in the body. Iodine is essential for our thyroid, in creating thyroxine—our master hormone that controls all metabolic processes—particularly metabolic rate, i.e., how quickly you burn off food from your diet. Up to 70% of teenage girls across the UK are now iodine-deficient, which is probably a result of a decline in milk consumption, said scientists, whose findings are reported in the journal Food Chemistry.
So, What Can Cow’s Milk Do for Your Health?
Reports have shown that due to the antibiotics are pumped into the milk, increasing growth hormones can lead to cancer. Skin health is another issue, where studies have linked dairy to acne and skin problems in both boys and girls. One growth hormone, in particular, IGF-1, which is great for baby cows, is highly inflammatory in humans.
Research has linked IGF-1 to acne, eczema and several other skin conditions. And you know how terrible sugar is for your skin, so we'll just point out that lactose is sugar too. The inflammatory properties of milk can be especially dangerous for women. A study found that the mortality rate in women who consumed three servings of milk a day was twice as high as those who drank less.
Drinking milk has been linked to Parkinson's and Crohn's. Research is continuing, and it's something as a practitioner, I am constantly on the watch for. While skimmed milk seems to have more of an adverse effect for acne sufferers, when it comes to the implications, it's the same whether full-fat or skimmed.
What’s the Alternative?
Dairy-free milks tend to be less processed, and you're free from the risk of taking in antibiotics. That's not to say the industry is an eco-dream. Some argue that the amount of water to create an almond is causing global water shortages—it takes around 1.1 gallons of water to create one almond. But is takes 5.4 to create a head a broccoli, so the argument could go on forever.
All alternative milks may also contain starches and thickeners to improve their consistency and shelf life. Watch out for almond-milk brands that only use 2% to 5% of almonds. You want to be looking at a high percentage to get the nutritional benefits. Read the labels. Rude Health is by far the best I've seen in terms of the number of almond percentage and stabiliser.
Soy milk is the closest to cow's milk in calcium levels, with almond milk and rice milk coming in after. Most of the soy produced in the United States comes from genetically modified plants, which is a concern; however, in the UK, our rules state we do not use genetically modified soy.
Each type of milk has its advantages and disadvantages, depending on a person's diet, health, nutritional needs or personal taste preferences. What we do know is that the farming industry has changed, and personally I find it hard to believe that it's not harming the animals and our health.
People in key development years—children older than 2, teens and pregnant women—need proteins, vitamin D and calcium, so increase your eggs (please use only organic) and fatty fish, like tuna, mackerel, and salmon. Or take a vitamin D supplement. I recommend Better You DLux 3000 Vitamin D Oral Spray (£8), which is easy to use. If calcium increase is your concern, rest assured there are many other food sources such as kale, broccoli, sardines and watercress. One cup of kale is only 55 milligrammes lower (245 milligrammes) than a cup of cow's milk (300mg calcium).
If increasing iodine is your concern, try increasing your uptake of seaweeds—think nori in sushi and kombu in a stock for soup. Cranberries and strawberries contain iodine, too. Please be guided with a nutritionist, as the increase and decrease of iodine in your body can have severe consequences, e.g., hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism.
Personally, I would try the alternatives and eat the rainbow, no less that five portions of fruits and vegetables a day. It can feel like a minefield knowing what is best to use, so speak to a nutritionist if you do have concerns.
Pandora Symes is a nutritionist and founder of Rooted London.