Dairy & Health, Revisited

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CIRO DE LUCA / REUTERS

We have plenty of reasons to celebrate the vegans among us. But we committed to think about this dairy’s future and in doing so I have avoided the cow-versus-other-milk health implications. Now I have reason to reconsider:

The Vindication of Cheese, Butter, and Full-Fat Milk

A new study exonerates dairy fats as a cause of early death, even as low-fat products continue to be misperceived as healthier.

As a young child I missed a question on a psychological test: “What comes in a bottle?”

The answer was supposed to be milk.I said beer.

Milk almost always came in cartons and plastic jugs, so I was right. But this isn’t about rehashing old grudges. I barely even think about it anymore! The point is that the test was a relic of a time before me, when milk did come in bottles. It arrived on doorsteps each morning, by the hand of some vanishing man. And just as such a world was alien to me as a kid, the current generation of small children might miss a similar question: “Where does milk come from?”

Many would likely answer almonds or beans or oats.

Indeed, the already booming nut-milk industry is projected to grow another 50 percent by 2020. Much of this is driven by beliefs about health, with ads claiming “dairy free” as a virtue that resonates for nebulous reasons—many stemming from an earlier scare over saturated fat—among consumers lactose intolerant and tolerant alike. The dairy industry is now scrambling to market milk to Millennial families, as the quintessential American-heartland beverage once thought of as necessary for all aspiring, straight-boned children has become widely seen as something to be avoided.

Should it be?

It all happened quickly. In the 1990s, during the original “Got Milk?” campaign, it was plausible to look at a magazine, see supermodels with dairy-milk mustaches, and think little of it. Now many people would cry foul. With nut milks dominating the luxury café-grocery scenes frequented by celebrities, an image like that would surely elicit cries of disingenuousness: There’s no way you actually drink cow’s milk! And if you do, it’s probably skim or 2-percent milk, which leave no such thick mustache!

Difficult as it may be for Millennials to imagine, the average American in the 1970s drank about 30 gallons of milk a year. That’s now down to 18 gallons, according to the Department of Agriculture. And just as it appears that the long arc of American beverage consumption could bend fully away from the udder, new evidence is making it more apparent that the perceived health risks of dairy fats (which are mostly saturated) are less clear than many previously believed.

A new study this week in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition is relevant to an ongoing vindication process for saturated fats, which turned many people away from dairy products such as whole milk, cheese, and butter in the 1980s and ’90s. An analysis of 2,907 adults found that people with higher and lower levels of dairy fats in their blood had the same rate of death during a 22-year period.

The implication is that it didn’t matter if people drank whole or skim or 2-percent milk, ate butter versus margarine, etc. The researchers concluded that dairy-fat consumption later in life “does not significantly influence total mortality.”…

Read the whole story here.

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