No Putting Dairy Debate Out to Pasture

July 7, 2008 - 7:03 PM

( - Conflicting evidence regarding the nutritional value of dairy products, particularly milk and cheese, is confusing a society of health conscious yet impressionable Americans.

Further impairing society's ability to distinguish nutritional fact from fiction is the influence exerted by a wide range of advocacy groups and the media outlets they use to communicate their message to the public.

"I really understand how confusing and how confused people can get because of all the conflicting messages that are coming out in our media," said American Dietetic Association (ADA) spokesperson Wahida Karmally. "You know, every single day, we are bombarded by messages."

The ADA contends that people need a certain amount of nutrients contained in diary products in their diets, and generally adhere to nutritional guidelines established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

However the animal rights group In Defense of Animals (IDA) warns milk drinkers that dairy cows are "pumped up with hormones and drugs" that can find their way into milk, and it suggests a conversion to veganism.

Veganism and its regimen of total avoidance of meat and dairy products, according to the IDA, can "dramatically reduce" such life threatening ailments as heart disease, cancer and stroke.

However, Karmally said, "It's a lot more difficult for the lay person to eat healthfully when they are deleting major food groups from their diet."

Karmally warned that a diet that excludes dairy products is void of vitamin B12. "You can't get B12 from any plant product," she noted.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical Center, the risks of low B12 levels can include "poor neurological development," with deficiencies showing up "quickly in children and breast-fed infants of women who follow a strict vegetarian diet."

The NIH also maintains that B12 deficiency can lead to neurological changes including "difficulty in maintaining balance, depression, confusion, poor memory, and soreness of the mouth or tongue."

But the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a Washington lobbying organization, warns of a different set of risks.

The CSPI, which advocates particular eating habits, promotes its position in part via its Internet feature called "Chow Club," which is located within the group's website section that targets kids.

CSPI lists whole milk and American cheese on its "10 of the Worst Children's Foods" list.

"Milk is by far the largest source of saturated fat in children's diets," said CSPI Senior Scientist Margo Wootan in a parental advisory entitled, "Ten Tips for Packing a Healthy Lunch for Kids." Cheese "is the second leading source," she added.

CSPI's advocacy extends to the classrooms of the public school system, and warns that a single cup of whole milk "has as much artery-clogging saturated fat as one hot dog, 5 strips of bacon, a Snickers candy bar, or a fast-food hamburger."

The CSPI also claims that if school children quit drinking whole milk or 2% milk in kindergarten, kids would "cut almost 19 pounds of fat from their diet during their 13 years of school."

Karmally acknowledged the validity of CPSI's "low-fat and non-fat" alternative diets, but warned against pursuing "crash diets" that completely eliminate these dairy products.

Instead, she urged children and adults alike to be enjoy their food and eat in moderation.

But Robert Cohen, executive director for the Dairy Education Board, warned that milk presents an even greater danger to human health than crash diets - addiction.

"Somebody markets this wonderful tasting substance (milk) to us, which, by the way, is addictive," said Cohen, the self-proclaimed "Not Milk Man" and anti-dairy advocate.

According to Cohen, a naturally occurring hormone in milk acts as "an opiate, very similar to morphine, called casomorphin."

Cohen also said casomorphin is the cause of Attention Deficit Disorder in children.

Karmally is skeptical of Cohen sources, saying that much of the information used in the diary debate is from "pseudo-professionals who give us information without even understanding the basics of any research." She further cautioned against "pushing ideology and not scientific facts."

But Cohen backed up his claim of practicing real science, citing that "little girls" are drinking "all these powerful female hormones" like estrogen and maturing "a little earlier than 20 years ago."

To verify this research, Cohen suggested "to drive by a school yard and see 9-year old girls with breasts."

However, Cohen claimed that the "nations with the highest rates of bone disease happen to be Denmark, Norway, Holland and Sweden - the ones drinking the most milk and eating the most cheese." Contrary to the research of Karmally, "Nations where they don't eat milk, they don't get bone disease," Cohen said.

Karmally disagreed, stating that the important roles that dairy products such as milk and cheese play in strengthening bones and preventing osteoporosis.

"So, we've got some really wonderful things from milk," Cohen quipped. "Every sip of milk" that's been pasteurized and packaged under strict FDA regulations still contains "virus, puss, bacteria, powerful growth hormones, proteins that cause allergies," he stated.

Karmally noted that there will always be special interests distorting the nutritional attributes of dairy products such as milk, but as a "practitioner and a researcher," she still believes that "milk is a very important food to provide us with nutrients we do need."

"People have to understand one study is not a final prescription," Karmally said. They must be careful not to confuse "ideology and emotion" with science because these "lifestyle habits have to stay forever -- good lifestyle habits."