Milk does a body good

A university professor is giving dairy researchers a failing grade for their efforts to inform the public about the benefits of milk.

Bruce German

Bruce German

A university professor is giving dairy researchers a failing grade for their efforts to inform the public about the benefits of milk.

Bruce German, who is director of the Foods for Health Institute at the University of California, Davis, offered this critical evaluation while speaking at the Western Canadian Dairy Seminar in Red Deer on Wednesday.

He noted how, at the airport in Sacramento, Calif., it costs more to buy water than milk.

“What that means is, literally from a value perspective, California dairy farmers are lowering the value of water by putting it though their cows.”

The problem, said German, is that milk is being marketed as a “cheap bag of nutrients” rather than as the “greatest agricultural asset humans have ever invented.”

He described how people began using cows’ milk as a source of food some 10,000 years ago, when only those with a genetic mutation were able to digest lactose beyond infancy.

“Everyone who didn’t have that mutation is now gone from the gene pool,” said German.

“This is the strongest selective pressure on humans in recorded history. How did we manage to get to the point where milk is lower value than water, when from an evolutionary perspective, if you couldn’t digest milk lactose, you didn’t survive?”

He cited research that indicates milk helps prevent health problems like heart disease, strokes, diabetes and a variety of cancers, and provides a variety of other health benefits.

“The real value of milk, wherever you look at it around the world, you are taller, leaner, stronger, you break fewer bones at all ages and you live longer. How did we get into this position that it’s lowering the value of water?”

The process of lactation has evolved over millennia to become the optimal means by which a mother can ensure the health of her offspring, he said.

“The absolutely ingenious process of producing milk by the mother for the infant meant that milk was under the constant Darwinian selective pressure to be nourishing in all aspects.”

For instance, oligosaccharides — indigestible sugar-like molecules that are abundant in breast milk — promotes the development of beneficial bacteria in the intestines of breast-fed infants, said German. And intestinal bacteria has been found to differ between overweight and normal-weight people, diabetics and non-diabetics, people with intestinal diseases and those without, and even autistic and non-autistic individuals.

Instead of pursuing a model that emphasizes quantity — which has resulted in milk being valued at less than water — the dairy industry should emphasize its product’s quality, said German.

“The value is in the health it promotes. We need to think about processing so that it enhances those properties and dairy marketing should channel those so they go to the appropriate consumers.”

Asked about the debate concerning mandatory pasteurization of milk, German pointed out that raw milk can carry pathogens. Eliminating this danger through heat treatment is a reasonable requirement, he suggested.

“The vast majority of benefits of milk are retained in pasteurization.”