Cow’s Milk: Good or Bad?
Dairy is one of the most contentious issues in the nutrition community and heavily debated as to whether it is beneficial or detrimental to health. Although cow’s milk has been a staple food for many cultures for centuries, in the past number of years it has come under heavy fire with many questioning its nutritional benefit if any. So, it begs the question: is cow’s milk actually healthy? As with everything in nutrition, the answer is; it depends. So, let’s tackle the dairy debate one component at a time, so that you can find the answer that is best for you.
Real Milk vs. Processed Milk
The first thing that I need to point out is that not all milk or milk products are created equal. Given milk is a food that comes from a living animal, everything from the animal itself to the processing of the milk to the products the milk is made into needs to be taken into account. Unfortunately, this is a piece of the puzzle that is all too often forgotten. As with all food, there is a big difference between real milk, cheese, yogurt, cream and butter, and processed versions of it. Whole milk is not the same as chocolate milk, plain yogurt is not the same as flavoured yogurt, and real cheese is not the same as cheese slices or cheese spreads. Real dairy, much like any real food, is made with whole, unprocessed, and real ingredients. Whether it’s milk, cheese, yogurt, cream or butter, real dairy, depending on the product, is made of a combination of milk, bacteria, enzymes, and/or salt, and that’s it. It is important to distinguish the difference between real milk and processed milk products, the same way it is important to distinguish between real food and processed food. Yes, chicken is a whole food and can be considered healthy, but chicken nuggets are not, the same way cheese can be considered healthy, but cheese slices are not.
It is also important to point out that whole milk is real milk, and that non-fat, low-fat or skim versions of it are not. Mother nature is no fool and she put nutrients together for a reason. Real whole milk from a cow can range anywhere between 3% and 6% fat depending on the breed and diet, however, because milk production is standardized in Canada, whole milk products in the grocery store are typically labeled as 3.25% or 3.5%.
So, now that we are all on the same page about what real dairy is, let’s discuss the factors that play into whether dairy is a good choice or not.
Raw Milk vs. Pasteurized Milk
Dairy, in its most natural form, is milk straight from the cow and is often referred to as raw dairy. Raw dairy is a whole food that naturally contains a balance of carbohydrates, proteins and fats, and is considered the most natural and nutrient dense version of milk. However, in Canada, all raw milk is pasteurized before it is sold, to help kill harmful bacteria for health and safety reason (some may argue it’s also done to increase shelf life), so the sale of raw milk is illegal.
The process of pasteurization involves gently heating milk to 72°C for 16 seconds to destroy any possible pathogens, before being rapidly cooled and refrigerated. Although this is done with good intention, the processing of a whole food always comes at a cost. In its natural form, raw milk contains enzymes and lactase-producing bacteria, the enzyme needed to digest lactose present in the milk (another sign of mother nature’s wisdom). Humans are born with the capacity to produce the enzymes that breaks down lactose, the sugar found in both cow’s milk and breast milk, but, as we grow up, many of us lose this capacity. Depending on race and ethnicity, some people don’t produce lactase on their own, affecting varying percentages of the population depending on background. Although some people will have no issues digesting cow’s milk, for those without the necessary enzyme consuming pasteurized dairy may be more difficult given the process of pasteurization kills the enzymes and lactase-producing bacteria that are naturally present in milk.
Farming & Living Conditions
Let me begin by stating that Canada has some of the highest dairy standards in the world, and Canadian milk is among the best milk in the world. With so many US-based movies, documentaries and articles being released, people often forget that dairy standards can vary dramatically from one country to the next.
Healthy cows are happy cows, and cows that have access to pasture and sunlight are going to be happier cows. Compared to other countries, namely the US, Canadian farms are much smaller in size. Canada has about 11,000 dairy farms with an average of 85 cattle per farm. Canada has a zero tolerance for animal neglect or abuse. Dairy farmers are with their herd for many hours per day in the pasture, the barn, milking them, getting to know them and assessing their needs.
Although it may be ideal for cattle to be pastured year-round, eating a natural diet of grass, for many parts of Canada this is simply not realistic given our temperatures and climate. Therefore, most dairy farmers work with nutritionists to create a feed ration that is best suited for their cows, typically a mixture of grass hay, alfalfa hay, grains and grass silage. Having dry hay ensures that cows have food all year round, and grains are added as need, typically a mixture of corn, oats, and barley with added minerals and vitamins.
Antibiotics & Hormones
Like any living animal, cow’s can get sick, and farmers do their best to ensure the health and safety of their animals. However, when it does happen, dairy farmers work in close collaboration with veterinarians to give them treatment, following strict guidelines on the use of antibiotics. When cows are on antibiotic treatment, the milk they produce is discarded for a regulated period of time to ensure the milk collected at the farm is antibiotic-free. Canada has a zero tolerance policy for antibiotics in milk and all milk is tested for antibiotic residues before a processing plant will accept it. Every truckload of milk is tested before being unloaded at the processing plant; if antibiotics are found, the entire load is discarded and the farmer who contaminated the load is heavily penalized.
As for hormones, while the administration of growth hormones known as rbST or rBGH to dairy cows is allowed in the US, it is illegal in Canada and therefore not permitted for use with any dairy cows. This means that no Canadian dairy cow can be given artificial growth hormones.
Organic vs. Non-Organic
The main difference between organic and conventional milk has to do with access to pasture, antibiotic use, and diet.
Organic cattle must have access to pasture during grazing season and to open air whenever weather conditions permit, consume a diet of a minimum 60% grass, forage or silage, while the other 40% of the diet may come from organic feed that is free of genetically engineered organisms and has not been treated with synthetic pesticides. Moreover, organic cattle must undergo a double withdrawal period when antibiotics are used, while many organic farmers chose to use no antibiotics at all. Access to outdoor grazing is beneficial for cattle health, and the nutrition of the milk they produce, given a natural diet of grass helps to promote higher levels of essential fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fat. On the reverse, a diet rich in grains has been shown to produces higher levels of omega-6 fatty acids in the cow itself and the milk they produce. Research suggests an omega-6:omega-3 ratio between 1:1 and 2:1 is ideal for health, as higher levels of omega-6 fatty acids are inflammatory to the body, so minimizing your intake of omega-6 fatty acids, in all forms, is vital for health.
It should be noted that the cost and time associated with organic certification are quite high and some small-scale family farms simply do not have the means to do so. So although a farm may not be officially labeled as organic, they may still practice similar farming standards, and organic or not, all Canadian milk is free of artificial hormones and antibiotics.
Not All Dairy is Created Equal
Although this may seem obvious for some, for many it is not. It is important to understand that milk comes from a natural living being so not all milk is created equal. The same way not all strawberries are nutritionally equivalent, it depends on the soil, climate, temperature, etc.., milk from one cow to another is not the same. The nutrient density of milk depends on many factors including; the breed of the cow, how much sun exposure they received, how much grass they ate, how much grain they ate, the nutrient density of the soil that the grass and grain were grown in, and many other factors that are too lengthy to list. For instance, cows who eat a larger portion of corn tend to have higher levels of lactose and omega-6 fatty acids in their milk, while different breeds of cows will produce different proteins in their milk. Casein is the largest group of proteins in milk, of which there are several types, and beta-casein is the second most common. The most common forms are A1 and A2 beta-casein and these different proteins are digested differently. It has been suggested for some people A2 milk, from jersey cows for example, is more easily digested, however, most of the milk available in grocery stores is from holsteins, which is A1 milk. However, this research still remains debated and is under review at this time.
One Person’s Pleasure is Another Person’s Poison
As with everything in nutrition, what works for one person may not work for another. There is no perfect diet, and there is no perfect food. The truth is, although some may digest dairy very well and feel good consuming it, for others dairy will be detrimental to their health. Aside from lactose intolerance, pasteurization, and organic, a person’s gut health plays a huge role in their ability digest and consume dairy. If someone has compromised gut health, also known as “leaky gut”, their ability to digest and assimilate dairy will likely be compromised. For some, consuming dairy may be the cause of leaky gut, while for others it may be something that is simply perpetuating the cycle. The question is not if dairy is healthy or not, it is if dairy is healthy or not for YOU. Nutrition is individual and is important that you pay attention to how what you eat affects you, aside from just your weight. Everything from chronic fatigue to joint pain to digestive issues to hormone imbalances and seasonal allergies can be linked to the food that you eat. There are many common signs of impaired gut health, and if you have never considered how your diet may be contributing to them, it is probably time that you do.
The Bottom Line
If you want to consume dairy, my advice is to opt for the most natural and high-quality option you can. Opt for real food options such whole milk, real yogurt, real cheese, and avoid as many processed forms of dairy as you possibly can. If the choice permits, you can opt for organic dairy, but do not stress over this. Regardless of what type of dairy you choose, ensure that you are sourcing Canadian dairy. Canada imports dairy and dairy products from other countries, including the US, so look for the little blue cow symbol on all dairy products to ensure you are getting a high-quality local product from farmers you can trust.