School Milk

Yesterday the papers were full of the news that Michael Gove has announced the return of school milk for all pupils. Semi-skimmed milk must be available to all primary and secondary pupils at some point during the school day (although not necessarily for free), while fruit juice consumption will be reduced. In addition deep-fried, battered or breadcrumb-coated foods will be limited to twice a week, and schools will not be allowed to offer sweets and chocolates in canteens or tuck shops. Salt-shakers will be banned and schools will have to serve a meagre (but nevertheless better than what is currently on offer in many places) three different types of fruit and vegetables over the course of the school week. Cakes, biscuits and desserts will still be allowed at lunchtime.

While this clearly represents a good effort in the right general direction (less sugar, less salt, less fat, more fruit and vegetables), it still falls woefully short on many counts. For now though, I’m going to focus on milk:

The Daily Mail reported that “officials believe it forms a key part of a healthy diet. They also hope the measure will slash pupils’ consumption of fruit juices, with their high sugar content.” Perhaps more telling however, is the slipped-in comment that “it is hoped making small cartons available will encourage more pupils to make a habit of drinking it.”

Why? School milk is not a public health initiative: it is a particularly insidious form of marketing. If you don’t believe me, check out the Dairyco website where they state that “The School Milk Project continues to be a key consumer communications activity for Dairyco, helping to promote the positive image of milk and dairy farming.” Dairy companies must be rubbing their hands in glee at the growing anti-sugar lobby that is placing the blame for obesity and chronic disease firmly at sugar’s feet (it is but one part of the jigsaw, imo). Also in the Daily Mail article: “Under the guidelines, fruit juice will be restricted to one 150ml glass per day from January amid growing evidence of the damaging effect of its rich natural sugars on children’s developing teeth. Many nutritionists now recommend that children are only allowed one small glass of fruit juice per week as a treat.

I will be writing more about dental care in children soon, but for now let me just say that I was relieved last week when the dentist declared that my girls had 20 perfect teeth each, and they drink fruit juice or eat dried fruit several times a day (good oral hygiene makes all the difference). I have also commented previously on the fact that what is generally termed “juice” in everyday language is a highly variable thing. Pasteurised juices made from concentrate or not-from-concentrate, even if they don’t include added sugars (which many do, and still pass off as juice or juice drink) or artificial additives, are very sweet and nutritionally inferior in comparison to their freshly-squeezed cousins. I’m not suggesting that schools serve freshly-squeezed juices, although it would be great if they did, but I do want to acknowledge that there is a difference. Green juice is of course the best and a good way to get an additional nutrient-punch in addition to eating a wide range of whole fruits and vegetables.

Anyway back to milk. I’m going to try not to re-invent the wheel, as many, many commentators have written and spoken at length about the health-risks associated with cow’s milk consumption. I’ll make a few points, and offer up some links for further exploration. Here is my understanding to date:

  • Around 70% of the world’s population do not drink milk of any sort after weaning (although many cultures practice extended breastfeeding well into the pre-school years).
  • No other mammalian species on Earth drinks the milk of another species, but all of them have bones and most of them have teeth.
  • The rate of hip fracture (resulting from osteoporosis) in countries worldwide shows a strong correlation with calcium consumption (yes, that means that as calcium consumption goes UP, hip fracture rates go UP too.
  • Calcium consumption at a national level is generally related to levels of dairy consumption, which in turn is related to levels of meat consumption, as the meat and dairy industries are inextricably linked and cannot exist in isolation.
  • So it may not be the calcium, or even the milk, that is responsible directly for the increase in hip fractures. It has been shown that protein consumption, particularly acidic proteins from animal sources, results in increased calcium loss in the urine (salt and caffeine also have a similar effect).
  • Total calcium intake is less important than calcium BALANCE, which is a product of how much calcium we consume, how much we absorb from our digestive systems, and how much we excrete in our urine.
  • Calcium is not the only or even perhaps the most important nutrient required for bone health. If our bones were all calcium then they would be chalk, and we all know how easily that breaks. The National Osteoporosis Society has produced an informative fact-sheet on this.
  • In those countries where people generally consume more plant-based diets, calcium intake is much lower than in the West, but so are rates of osteoporosis.
  • Calcium is available from a wide variety of plant sources, with green and orange vegetables and legumes such as beans, peas and lentils topping the list. Other good sources are wholegrains, dried figs, almonds, tahini, calcium-set tofu and blackberries. Then of course there is always the option of drinking fortified soya milk or (dare I say it) fortified orange juice.
  • Cow’s milk is designed to enable a newborn calf to reach adult size in one year. To achieve this it contains growth factors and hormones (as well as antibiotic and pesticide residues) human children have no need for, and may even be harmed by. One such factor is IGF-1, a potent promoter of cell growth and division. This is good for growing calves, but in humans high levels of IGF-1 are a risk factor for several cancers, including cancer of the breast, prostate and colon.
  • It has been suggested that milk consumption promotes breast cancer development, both in animal models and individual human cases where cessation of dairy consumption has resulted in tumour regression. This remains to be proven, but is theoretically plausible given the above.
  • Of course, there is also the question of Professor Campbell’s rats. If you are not familiar with this piece of the puzzle, go here.
  • Then there is the issue of allergy. Cow’s milk protein is a potent allergen, and in severe cases this can be detected by skin-prick testing or a blood test. However mild allergic responses may be widespread and remain undiagnosed. The suggestions that cow’s milk consumption is related to the development of asthma, eczema, allergic rhinitis, recurrent/chronic ear infections and constipation in children remain controversial, with incomplete evidence supporting such claims.
  • Even semi-skimmed milk contains harmful saturated fat, as well as sugar in the form of lactose. Some children will be lactose intolerant, which is different from having an allergy to cow’s milk protein. The skimming procedure of course reduces the fat content somewhat, but correspondingly increases the protein (primarily casein) content. If you haven’t read about the rats yet, do so now!
  • Remember that milk does not contain any of the tens of thousands of phytochemicals and antioxidants, both discovered and not-yet-discovered, that exist in abundance in plant foods and help to protect against cancer. Since we consume a fairly set number of calories per day, any calories consumed in the form of milk are not being consumed in the form of fruit and vegetables. So it isn’t only what we are consuming, but also what we are not consuming that is important. Perhaps give the children water, an apple and some figs instead?

For more information please see the links below:

Calcium in Plant-Based Diets (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine)

White Lies (Vegetarian and Vegan Foundation Report)

NutritionFacts: Milk (several interesting short videos here, covering topics including acne and asthma)


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