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Expanding the conversation about the health benefits of milk

Stephen Weststeyn for Progressive Dairyman Published on 28 January 2016

Milk – it’s a four-letter word that carries so many connotations. Today, milk is old fashioned and unexciting. It’s not new. It’s not exciting. It’s the same milk our parents were drinking. Perhaps that’s why milk has been losing market share as a beverage. As an industry, we need to find a way to revitalize the conversation about milk and generate excitement.

The truth is we don’t actually know much about milk. Milk has been around since the dawn of time, yet we still don’t understand fully how its beneficial life-giving powers work. But there has been a lot of research that has emerged, and it really is exciting. The problem is that our conversations have not changed; they’re still the boring facts we’ve been telling people for decades.

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Milk provides so many health benefits; it’s often hard to talk about them all, and we end up talking only about the big ones. We hide the full spectrum of health benefits. But there are so many health benefits to milk, and we should be communicating this to people. Let’s stand back and refresh our thoughts. Here are a few ideas:

Lactose is a healthy sugar

Lactose gets a bad rap, but why? We don’t like to talk about lactose, but has anyone thought that there may be health benefits? Why would nature include something non-beneficial in a product meant to foster life?

Interestingly, lactose is comprised of a sugar called galactose. Galactose is considered the brain sugar and has been shown to help in the brain development of babies. Galactose also is a requirement for your body’s cellular health, functioning as the structural substance for your body’s cells, cell walls and the intracellular matrix. Galactose in lactose has also been shown to prevent tumor growth, enhance wound healing, decrease inflammation, enhance cellular communication and increase calcium absorption.

As a sugar, there is no fructose in lactose. This is big – milk isn’t like soda. Researchers are discovering that fructose is difficult for the body to break down and is stored in the liver. It’s actually toxic. People drinking a lot of soft drinks can end up with fatty liver similar to alcoholics. Lactose is different in that it has a low glycemic index. There is less conversion to fat because it breaks down more slowly, allowing your body to burn it as needed.

Milk makes you tall

We know milk has the building blocks for life, but this means people can grow better. An article in the BBC highlighted the fact that Holland has the tallest people in the world. This has been correlated to dairy intake – the average Dutchman consumes 25 percent more dairy products than the UK or U.S. In the mid-1800s, the average Dutchman was only 5 feet 4 inches tall. After consuming more dairy products than any other nation, they are more than 6 feet tall on average. Genetics you might say, but it’s not exclusive to any genes. The phenomenon is not only genetic because even immigrants who move to the Netherlands end up taller.

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Milk’s effect on growth has been well researched. Researchers in Denmark studied the dairy consumption of pregnant women and how it affected the growth of children. The women who consumed the most milk had the tallest children. There was a direct correlation between the amount of milk consumed and the height of their children in not only adolescence, but even 20 years later.

Should this be a surprise? We all know milk has calcium, but for proper bone health, your body also needs phosphorous, magnesium, vitamin D and protein. All of the essentials for bones are in milk. More available nutrients allow your body to keep building.

Milk fat is healthy fat

Calling milk fat “fat” is an overgeneralization and doesn’t convey its true essence. Milk fat is a treasure trove of health enhancing components.

While Americans have transitioned to low-fat diets in the past several decades, cancer rates have skyrocketed – perhaps because we are not consuming the same nutrients (from dairy and fat) as generations did in the past. In 1909, Americans consumed 14.3 pounds of butter per person per year; 2004 butter consumption was only at 3.7 pounds per person per year.

The milk fat globule membrane (the structure than encases the milk fat) has been found to hold many antiviral and antimicrobial mechanisms to help combat infections and harmful bacteria in the gut. Many of these compounds on the milk fat globule membrane have anti-carcinogenic properties and have been shown to prevent the growth of cancer.

Not consuming enough healthy fat can show itself in detrimental ways, like in proper hormone function. Milk fat helps promote proper hormone regulation in your body. The hormones produced by your body is composed of certain fatty acids and cholesterol – interestingly the same ones that are in milk.

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Milk fuels your mind

Milk powers more than your body; it can power your mind. A study published in the International Dairy Journal by researchers at the University of Maine found that adults who consumed more dairy products scored "significantly" higher on memory and other cognitive tests than those who drank little to no milk. Those people who drank high amounts of milk were five times less likely to fail a test than non-milk drinkers.

This could be because of an antioxidant in milk called glutathione, which is composed of amino acids. Researchers have noted that glutathione helps stave off oxidative stress and damage caused by reactive chemical compounds produced during the normal metabolic process in the brain. Oxidative stress is known to be associated with a number of different diseases and conditions related to aging, including Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Conclusion

When we talk to people about the health benefits of dairy, it’s easy to talk about the same old things. But to reverse the current trend, we need to change our thinking. We need to refresh our approach to how we talk about milk. Exposing additional health effects that milk has can reinvigorate a person’s thinking about milk. If we can build excitement, we can revitalize milk’s image. We can make milk culturally relevant again.  PD

Stephen Weststeyn is a California dairy farmer. Read his blog, Dairy Moos.

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

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