Got milk? You may wipe off that mustache

March 28, 2000|By Milton R. Mills

IN MID-MARCH, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sparked controversy with its campaign promoting beer's advantages over cow's milk to college students. Certainly, few health professionals would advocate beer as a health tonic, yet many mistakenly regard milk as a necessarily wholesome choice. Indeed, saying "don't drink your milk" may initially sound as un-American as "don't eat apple pie." But PETA's anti-milk points are well-taken.

For generations, most parents and physicians have kept urging children to drink their glasses of milk. To be sure, they generally had good intentions -- but they also had been flooded with endless promotions and ads from the financially well-set dairy industry. More recently, it's hard to miss those here, there and everywhere milk-mustache and "Got Milk?" billboards, bus ads, print ads, TV spots, and classroom promotions. The milk industry even hit the road with its "Better Bones Tour," visiting 100 U.S. cities with trucks carrying displays claiming a beneficial relationship between dairy and osteoporosis.

Science, however, has been raining on dairy's parade. Observations in South African black townships, with virtually no dairy consumption, showed residents there experience almost no osteoporosis, while the chronic bone disease afflicts millions in dairy-devouring places such as Scandinavia, Canada, and the United States. In a finding published in the

cf03 American Journal of Public Health

cf01 in June 1997, the 12-year Harvard Nurses' Study of almost 78,000 people found those regularly consuming dairy products had no protection at all against hip and forearm fractures. Indeed, women drinking three glasses of milk daily had more fractures than women who rarely or never touched milk.

Other studies are investigating dairy's links with breast cancer, ovarian cancer, iron deficiency, insulin-dependent diabetes, cataracts, food allergies, heart disease, asthma and colic. Common toxic contaminants in dairy include pesticides, drugs and antibiotics.

In attacking cow's milk, PETA actually echoes the growing number of nutritionists and doctors wiping off their milk mustaches.

From my perspective as an African-American physician, there is another troubling side to dairy promotions, and especially to government recommendations that it be part of every school lunch meal and similar nutrition programs.

While only about 15 percent to 20 percent of U.S. whites are intolerant of the milk sugar lactose, some 95 percent of Asian Americans, about 70 percent of African Americans and Native Americans, and more than 50 percent of Mexican-Americans cannot digest it. Many get quite sick from it. Nature starts to remove the enzymes that digest milk sugar once we have passed the age of weaning.

Indeed, one can call lactose intolerance nature's normal warning signal not to "do dairy," akin to the protective pain signals prompting you to snatch your hand away from a hot stove. Of course, some advocate taking lactose-tolerance pills or adding small amounts of dairy at intervals throughout the day to "trick" the body into accepting milk, ice cream, and so on. But, if you wouldn't want to trick your hand into not feeling a searingly painful stove, why would you want to temporarily mask the unhealthy downside of dairy? It's bad enough that current federal dietary guidelines encourage meat consumption, though they do list nutritionally sound alternatives, such as legumes (beans and peas). However, the 1992-issued federal Food Guide Pyramid's "dairy section" doesn't even bother to list substitutes, though the 2000 Dietary Guidelines for Americans draft does finally mention soymilk. Healthy dairy-free alternatives such as fortified soymilk and tofu are increasingly available.

Calcium, dairy's big "health" selling point, does indeed strengthen teeth and bones. But it's readily absorbable from broccoli, kale, mustard greens, turnip greens, Brussels sprouts, pinto beans, navy beans, black-eyed peas and fortified orange and apple juices. And none of those haul the health-damaging freight that dairy does.

cf03 Dr. Milton R. Mills , a Stanford University-trained physician specializing in nutrition, practices in Northern Virginia and volunteers as is associate director of preventive medicine at the Washington-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. He wrote this article for Knight Ridder/Tribune.

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