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Not everyone agrees with the dairy industry’s push for drinking milk

By Michelle Poirier [1]

BELLEVILLE – Should Canadians be told that milk is the best way to meet their calcium needs?

The dairy industry says so. The industry’s main focus when it comes to nutrition education is on milk.

But a 2013 paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association – Pediatrics [2] written by Harvard University pediatrician David Ludwig says the opposite.

“Humans have no nutritional requirement for animal milk, an evolutionarily recent addition to diet,” Ludwig said. 

Canada’s Food Guide [3] lists four food groups from which Canadians should choose their meals, one of them being milk and alternatives.

The Dairy Farmers of Ontario [4] have a Dairy Education Program [5] that sends dairy educators to schools.

“It was started to raise awareness about dairy farming,” says Lisa Mooney, the dairy educator for Lennox and Addington. “They started this program to actually go into schools so that kids would actually be aware of where their milk was coming from, and also to promote the product and the health benefits of milk.”

Mooney said that during the presentations she will only discuss milk alternatives, such as soy and almond milk, if there are students with a lactose intolerance.

For “kids that can’t drink milk, obviously we talk about the alternative products. But we are trying to promote milk, so I don’t promote (the alternatives) unless it’s needed,” she said.

Patricia Karl, the dairy educator for Hastings County, said that she does talk about milk alternatives to students. But soy and almond milk have to be enriched in a factory in order to have the same nutritional value as dairy milk, she said.

Dairy Nutrition [6], a nutritional information site funded by the Dairy Farmers of Canada, states that “while it is possible to achieve adequate calcium intake and meet calcium requirements with a Western plant-based diet, it is easier and more practical to meet calcium balance when milk and milk products are present in the diet … The replacement of milk and milk products with calcium-equivalent foods has been shown to be detrimental to the overall nutritional profile.”

But Ludwig’s paper says that many people around the world receive adequate amounts of calcium without consuming dairy products, without detriment to their health.

“Anatomically modern humans presumably achieved adequate nutrition for millennia before domestication of dairy animals, and many populations throughout the world today consume little or no milk for biological reasons (lactase deficiency), lack of availability, or cultural preferences. Adequate dietary calcium for bone health, often cited as the primary rationale for high intakes of milk, can be obtained from many other sources,” Ludwig says.

The paper also says that bone-fracture rates are lower in countries where people don’t consume dairy products.

Milk does provide protein and other essential nutrients, and Ludwig’s report says that it can have health benefits for kids and adults with poor diets. But for those with healthy diets that include a variety of leafy greens, legumes, nuts, seeds and enough protein, high milk consumption is not necessary, it says.

One of the five topics from the Dairy Education Program that Mooney and Karl teach is called Dairy Goodness. Its focus is on teaching students to recognize milk’s role in healthy living, to identify different milk products available and to explore the use of milk in different cultures.

When asked if this program has a conflict of interest since it is funded by the dairy industry and uses nutritional information from dietitians working for the dairy industry, both Mooney and Karl said that while they are promoting and talking about milk, they also discuss many other topics, like nutrition in general and the farming process.

“All the research is there for it. We’re not making this stuff up,” Mooney said. “Obviously we want to promote it. Milk is a great option, and I know you can get nutrition without it but it’s pretty hard – like you have to work pretty hard to do it. And especially with kids … if they don’t drink milk, you can’t get them to eat enough of the other things.”

The dairy industry needs to promote milk, and there is nothing wrong with that, she said, adding that any company promotes its product.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a conflict of interest. Yeah, I am paid by (Dairy Farmers of Ontario) or my local committee to go out and talk to kids about milk, and it’s up to the teachers to let us in to talk about milk. But half of the time we’re more talking about the actual farm and the processes on the farm – because you’d be amazed the amount of kids that you go in and don’t know much even about a cow. Like, some of them don’t even know their milk comes from a cow,” she said.

According to the agricultural magazine Better Farming [7], the Canadian dairy industry spends $100 million a year on advertising and promotional efforts.

The Harvard School of Public Health states that milk is not the only or even the best source of calcium [8]. Dairy products, if eaten in excess, can actually weaken bones, the school says.

Some non-dairy sources of calcium, according to Health.com [9], are collard greens, broccoli, kale, bok choy, edamame, figs, white beans, tofu, almonds and orange juice.