Is Cow’s Milk Healthy?

by Maria Deloso, ’15

So, according to the USDA, we’re supposed to be drinking three cups of milk a day. Yes, milk with every breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Such a rate of dairy consumption is unprecedented in human history. But should we really be surprised? This information is coming from the department that counts pizza as a vegetable and allows 70% of the ground beef we buy in grocery stores to be contaminated with ammonium hydroxide (found in your typical household cleaner).

But back to the milk issue. Interestingly enough, this topic was controversial enough for Harvard to come out with their own “healthy plate,” in which the USDA’s milk is replaced with good ole’ water. In fact– and I quoting directly from Harvard — “ Milk and dairy are not must-have foods—limit them to 1-2 servings/day.” If the top ranked university in our own nation is directly contradicting our own government’s recommendations, then who are we to believe?


Why we “need” milk

Apparently, we need milk every day because Americans are deficient in Vitamin D, calcium and potassium. The educators at Harvard aren’t so sure, stating that “there is little evidence that high dairy intake protects against osteoporosis and substantial evidence that consuming a lot of milk and dairy foods can be harmful.” The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (which includes medical professionals from Cornell University, George Washington University School of Medicine and Kaiser Permanente) recommends that people stay away from animal products in order to prevent calcium losses. A Harvard Nurses’ Health study tracked 77,761 women for 12 years and found that those who drank three or more glasses of milk a day had slightly higher fracture rates compared to those who drank little or no milk. Another study published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine by the American Medical Association suggested that active children consuming the most milk also had higher fracture rates than those who drank less. We can actually get enough calcium from eating green vegetables and beans, while also increasing the fiber and nutrient content of our food.

As for Vitamin D, the government-run National Institutes of Health says that “Most people meet at least some of their vitamin D needs through exposure to sunlight.” And potassium? The USDA Nutrient Database for Standard Reference lists that 1% fat milk has 381 mg of potassium per cup. In comparison, the same serving of lima beans has 955 mg.

Modern Milk

If we don’t really need milk, then why does everyone else seem to think we do? For those with limited access to a variety of foods, then milk can be a great source of nutrients. But for those of us fortunate enough to have better options, then why not pick them?  According to Dr. Ganmaa Davaasambuu, Ph.D. of Harvard University, “The milk we drink today is quite unlike the milk our ancestors were drinking.” Today’s milk comes from cows that become so sick and exhausted that they die within 3 to 5 years. A cow’s natural lifespan is 20 to 25 years. By the end of their lifetimes, the 33% of all dairy cows are suffering from mastitis, an udder infection.  If the cows are so sick that they’re dying young, what can we say about the milk that they are producing? And illnesses are only the tip of the iceberg. Much of our milk comes from more modern cattle breeds, which produce milk with unnaturally high amounts of the naturally occurring protein A1 beta casein. While cows in the past used to graze on grass (converting the plants into a more digestible form for human consumption), most cows today are fed grain (predominantly soy and corn).  The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry published a study that found a single glass of milk may contain traces of up to 20 antibiotics, painkillers and growth hormones, including 17a-ethinylestradiol, a steroid hormone. Granted, the amounts found have not yet been correlated to any illnesses, but the fact remains that the stuff your breakfast cereal’s floating in isn’t 100% all- natural milk. And I haven’t even gotten to discussing the genetically engineered bovine growth hormone, pasteurization, homogenization or how dairy cows are kept pregnant year round.

Organic milk isn’t that great, either, despite the premium prices consumers put in– the label “organic” only means that the cow feed lacked pesticides, GMO crops or chemical fertilizers and that the cows are not treated with hormones or antibiotics. Take Horizon Organics, the nation’s leading producer of organic milk. Owned by Dean Foods (the largest dairy agribusiness in the country), Horizon Organics is actually boycotted by the Organic Consumers Association for their factory farming practices. While most of the milk Horizon sells is from family-run farms, where (ideally) farmers can better ensure the health of the cows, the other part comes from factory farms. One of Horizon’s dairy farms houses 4000-5000 cows, and one can only imagine how “cared for” and “healthy” these animals are. To save on costs, the company purchases conventionally raised 1-year-old cows to produce their “organic” milk (and yes, this is actually legal). Finally, Horizon milk (like most organic milk companies) ultra-pasteurized their milk, giving it a shelf life of 6 to 9 months compared to unpasteurized, straight-from-the-cow milk that lasts 2 weeks. This is a transportation issue– although it would be cheaper to just pasteurize the milk, organic milk is not widely produced enough and so must be shipped throughout the country. I’m not going to get into much detail here, but the main deal with ultra pasteurized milk is that certain enzymes are killed, preventing one’s body from properly digesting and absorbing the nutrients. In a nutshell: you can’t make yogurt from ultra pasteurized milk, because it’s essentially dead.

    Now raw milk is also an option, but considering that it may only be legally sold in retail stores in 10 states. Even though it is legal in California, my local Whole Foods in the Los Angeles area won’t sell it for fear of getting sued. From an outsider’s perspective, organic raw milk seems better than the conventional and organic options, right? But what if we went back to the basics, straight to the start and thought about things from a historical perspective. Researchers at University College, London believe milk-consumption began around 7,500 years ago. In the general lifespan of the world (estimated at 4.5 billion years), 7,500 appears to be relatively recent. Interestingly enough, humans are the only mammals to drink milk from another species. Few proteins found in cow’s milk are naturally within human mothers’ breast milk. Cow’s milk also has different hormones specifically for cows, not humans. In the same way breast milk is to fatten up and feed a human baby, cow’s milk is supposed to help fatten up a baby cow before it moves onto solid foods. While I personally do sometimes consume dairy products, it is rather uncomfortable to remember that my grilled cheese sandwich sitting on the table was made up from food meant for another creature’s baby.

A Childhood Memory

Don’t you remember the days when your mom would beg you to drink that one glass of milk to give you strong bones? Suspiciously sniffing the slightly stinky white liquid in the cup, you would hold your nose and gulp it down as quickly as possible. If milk was so palatable for kids, then 71% of the milk fed to public school children in the United States would not need to be flavored, packed with chemicals to provide appealing colors and containing as much sugar as soda. The federal government spends more on dairy than any other food in the public school lunch program, despite the fact that over 1 million American children have milk allergies. One cup of milk contains 300 mg calcium, of which 32% is absorbed by the human body, leading to a 96 mg net. Compare that with turnip greens, of which 52% is absorbed giving a 102 mg net. Were the government to really care about giving the kids good amounts of calcium and other essential nutrients, then we’d be feeding them turnip greens, not milk meant for a baby cow.

One in eight of us is lactose intolerant, but we don’t see those non-milk drinkers breaking bones all over the place or dying earlier. The next time you’re out grocery shopping, break the milk habit and try something new– these days, we have all sorts of milks: hemp, soy, almond, coconut (even chocolate and green-tea flavored stuff for you die-hard flavored milk folks!). Who knows, you might even experience some of the benefits of going milk free, such as reduced acne or stomach problems!


Maria is a sophomore fascinated by the stuff we put into our mouths three times a day, seven days a week. Send her your thoughts/questions/rants at mdeloso@stanford.edu.

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One thought on “Is Cow’s Milk Healthy?

  1. Michelle says:

    Thanks for the insight Maria! Such a great article!! Hope to hear more in the future!

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