Updated: Mar 1
We've always been told that milk helps you grow up to become strong and healthy, yet when we study the longest living and healthiest populations on the planet, we quickly notice that some don't consume the milk of other species. Does milk "do a body good"? What about all the celebrities showing off their milk mustaches? Is the dairy industry simply a marketing genius? What are the odds of us having been duped by huge dairy corporations? Could it be a coincidence that the government of Canada officially removed the dairy food group from the Canadian food guide in 2019?
Does milk really help build strong bones? That's the message we've been told since our childhood. We associate milk with calcium, with strong bones and teeth and with health in general. Is this true? Would we all be frail and weak without cow's milk? Why is it normal to drink cow's milk, but not dog or cat's milk, or even moose milk, considering it actually contains way more calcium? That's a question I've asked myself for a long time, and in my simple human brain, there was always something very weird about drinking the milk of another lactating species. In this article, I'll review the nutrient content of milk, how it's made along with the process and necessary steps from the farm to your fridge.
Reader discretion is advised, since this article will not hold any punches. The truth, and milk, might be hard to swallow after having read this. I do recognize that milk is a staple on many people's grocery list, so to be fair, I will also discuss the proven benefits of consuming it! Also as a disclaimer, I want to specify that I have met local farmers who take good care and put much effort into the ethical treatment of animals. If you are a dairy farmer, I’m not pointing a finger at you. I’m talking about large scale and million dollar corporations that want to pump out as much profit as possible, with total disregard for the ethical treatment of animals. Although I do disagree with using animals as food or commodities, I do recognize that this industry pays the bills for many people and that many farmers likely do get attached sentimentally to their animals and wish them nothing but great care.
Where does milk come from?
I don't think anyone will be surprised to learn that dairy milk comes from cows! But many don't realize that it comes from female lactating cows. Yup, that's right, cows are mammals, meaning that they produce milk only after becoming pregnant and after having given birth to baby calves. Cow's milk is made by lactating mothers specifically for their newborn baby cows. Cows do not make milk in any other circumstances, or for any other reason. They produce milk in order to feed their babies, period. In the dairy industry, they’re forcefully impregnated (the politically correct term for raped), just to have their babies removed from their mothers and their milk taken away for humans while the babies are given industrial formulas in solitary confinement.
The life of a cow
A cow generally lives up to 25-30 years, except in dairy farms, where they live less than 5 on average. Female cows must be pregnant in order to produce milk and be useful and so they are forcefully impregnated (or raped), using the semen of a bull that was manually obtained (another clever way of saying that the bull got a hand, or machine-job). Sounds gross doesn't it? That's because it is. We are just starting and you can definitely choose to stop reading at this point, but I strongly recommend that if you choose to keep consuming dairy for its health and nutrient benefits, that you at least know the truth about where it's coming from and what's in it.
Once the pregnant cow has given birth, the newborn calves are taken away from their mother since milk is money. Milk prices are super low and competitive, so it can't be waisted. We wouldn't want to waist this precious resource on feeding baby calves now would we? The babies are isolated and confined, where their faith will be determined by their sex. Tales of farmers having broken their silence speak of mothers weeping for her babies, and babies longing for their mothers, an often unspoken side of dairy milk production. Male babies are useless in the dairy industry, so they're quickly slaughtered for veal. Veal can be produced from a calf of either sex and any breed. However most veal comes from young male calves of dairy breeds which are not used for breeding. Generally, veal is more expensive per pound than beef. Females are fed cheaper industrialized powdered milk formulas instead of their mother's breast milk, so we can save the milk for human consumption. The mature female cow will be repeatedly impregnated so she can continuously provide us humans with the milk we so desire. This process takes an intense toll on their bodies, and at around 5 years old, their battered bodies aren't as milk producing, so they are slaughtered for beef. If slaughter houses had glass walls, most of us would reconsider our food choices. Next time you walk into your local supermarket, I want you to think of me and to consciously look at all of the dairy, and be mindful of all the disturbing events that had to take place so that the milk from a living and breathing mother ended up in a milk carton in the dairy aisle, instead of being used to feed the baby cow it was actually made for.
Think about it, we wean our human babies off of their mother's milk, just so we can wean them on to the milk of another species. Now let's say you're a pro capable of blocking off all of this fear mongering, at least dairy is healthy, right?
The nutrient content of dairy: the good and the bad
In most cases, it isn't useful to describe food as inherently good or bad. I also realize that a doctor from the east coast of Canada is unlikely to convince milk lovers to obtain their calcium from other healthier sources. If you’re drinking soda as your main means of hydration, then switching to milk will likely improve your health parameters and disease risk. But if you give milk to a whole food plant-predominant eater, it's interesting to find that many health parameters, including the risk of getting certain chronic diseases, gets worse.
Milk is an excellent source of many vital nutrients, and there's no debating that. For many who are consuming a healthy plant-predominant diet, small amounts of dairy can actually live harmoniously. It's a great source of calcium, is fortified with vitamin D, contains potassium and is a significant source of protein. When evaluating whether something is healthy or not, one must look at the totality of nutrients and whether there are healthier sources of those same nutrients out there in other foods.
Although milk comes with its fair share of beneficial nutrients, it also comes packaged with cholesterol, saturated fat, bovine hormones made for baby cows, antibiotics as well as other contaminants detailed in the paragraph below. There's no denying that the milk does contain nutrients that are vital for health, but that's not the issue. The issue is that we can obtain all of these nutrients in other healthier foods. Milk is in no way necessary for health. If you want to consume milk of another species, do it because you want to, not because the company selling it to you tells you through clever marketing campaigns that it's required for optimal health.
We need calcium for strong bones, not milk.
Most people know that dairy cows live in awful conditions. The only way for them to survive is to get bombarded with antibiotics that then make their way into the milk that humans consume. It's important to recognize that cow's milk has naturally evolved to help a baby calf grow from 50-60 pounds to 400 pounds within months. As Dr. Klaper so eloquently put it: "whether you pour it onto cereal, coagulate it into cheese, or freeze it into ice cream, it's still baby calf growth fluid". The IGF-1, hormones, lipids and protein it contains was formulated for no other reason than to make a baby calf grow into a 400 pound cow in as little time as possible. Other dairy contaminants range from growth hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), and dioxins, all of which have been linked to chronic diseases, including cancer. Studies do show that the blood of meat and dairy eaters contain measurable amounts of all of these contaminants. If you moderately drink milk or consume meat, then right now, you likely have low levels of antibiotics and other contaminants circulating in your blood.
Strong bones have been linked to adequate intakes of calcium, vitamin D, vitamin K, protein and most importantly, exercise. All of the mentioned nutrients can be obtained in other sources than cow’s milk. Soy milk and fortified orange juice contains about the same amount of calcium as dairy. Most plant-milks are fortified in vitamin D, just like dairy. Cow's milk contains very little vitamin K, and this nutrient can be found in many plant foods, like kale and broccoli. These are especially good for bones since they contain both calcium and vitamin K. The interesting thing is that recent studies have actually found that excessive dairy consumption was linked to increased bone fractures, instead of the protective properties we had been left to believe.
Dairy products, including milk, cheese, ice cream and butter, contribute to significant amounts of dietary cholesterol and saturated fat. Diets high in unhealthy saturated fats have been shown to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Also this subject will likely remain controversial for years to come, studies have linked dairy consumption to increased risk of many types of cancers, like prostate, breast and ovarian cancers. Some studies do show that it seems protective against colon cancer, likely due to its calcium content.
Cow's milk has been linked to many allergic and immune conditions, like asthma, rhinitis, eczema and urticaria. Both of my daughters had milk protein allergies as newborn babies, including eczema and asthma. I suffered from chronic idiopathic urticaria, as well as a severe form of cholinergic angioedema. They all magically disappeared once we all weaned off of cow's milk. It has also been linked to to development of type 1 diabetes in infancy, constipation, acne and infant colic. It has also been shown to worsen rosacea in some people.
In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance is the perception of contradictory information, when taking into consideration a person's actions, feelings, ideas, beliefs, values, and things in the environment. Cognitive dissonance is typically experienced as psychological stress when persons participate in an action that goes against one or more of those things. According to this theory, when two actions or ideas are not psychologically consistent with each other, people do all in their power to change them until they become consistent. This often leads to justifying certain behaviors with misinformation or conspiracy theories. I once had a patient who justified smoking by telling me that the government was trying to lower smoking rates because they were jealous of tobacco companies' profits! The discomfort is triggered by the person's belief clashing with new information perceived, like a person who continues to smoke even knowing it’s unhealthy, wherein the individual tries to find a way to resolve the contradiction to reduce their discomfort. We have grown to dissociate the suffering of animals implicated in the production of dairy from the pleasurable experience of consuming it. This explains why dairy lovers get quite riled up when people make statements that contradict their views or beliefs. It also explains why most people would rather avoid talking about the suffering that goes on in animal agriculture if their plan would be to continue consuming their products. If you become easily irritated when someone mentions animals getting tortured in order for you to enjoy a burger, you're likely experiencing the psychological stress of cognitive dissonance. Keep in mind that some humans used to enslave others. Many never dared to talk about it even if many certainly realized it was wrong. I'm confident that many had just accepted that this was a natural, normal or necessary practice. The 3 "N's" of cognitive dissonance seem to justify many of the behaviors that deep-down we think are inherently wrong.
Let me illustrate my point with an incredible example, and this is a true story. A cow escapes a dairy farm. The cow is non-aggressive, calmly and casually roaming the streets, interacting kindly with onlookers. The people start connecting with the cow and shortly, this adventurous cow is on the 5 o'clock news. They decide to call her Daisy. Daisy is gentle and calm, but her presence is disrupting local businesses. The police are called to intervene. They quickly show up at the seen and proceed to shoot Daisy, killing her instantly. Onlookers are furious and the police get great backlash from the onlookers that find this act to be cruel and merciless. What many don't realize is that Daisy the cow escaped a life of rape and torture. After 5 years of abuse and of continually being impregnated so we can then steal her calves and the milk designed for them, she would be slaughtered in inhumane conditions so we could make burgers, and everyone seemed perfectly ok with that. I've heard and read stories of meat-eating animal lovers mourning the loss of hundreds of pigs killed after the truck that was carrying them tipped over. Those pigs were on their way to the slaughter house to get brutally murdered for bacon. For some reason, we can accept them dying in certain contexts, where they remain nameless and faceless, but not in other ones where we’ve connected with them. Cognitive dissonance and dissociation helps protect us against the psychological stress that would be caused by accepting certain conditions that we know are inherently, morally and ethically wrong.
Marketing has done a great job of slapping on labels with smiling cow, when what these animals go through is far from being funny, and when their products are far from being healthy.
Milk alternatives and substitutes
If you're looking for dairy alternatives, consider trying plant milks. They can be used in recipes, or as a mode of hydration, or as a replacement for the milk you would use in your smoothies, cereal, coffee or oatmeal. The market is getting flooded with milk alternatives, like soy milk, oat milk, almond milk, rice milk, hemp milk, coconut milk, cashew milk, quinoa milk, etc. They’re all highly nutritious and I drink them daily.
While plant-based margarines are commonly available, many different alternatives to butter can be used. Coconut oil is an easy replacement for butter in most recipes. Some people would recommend heating the oil and adding a bit of salt to neutralize the sweeter coconut flavor. Olive oil is best to use it for sautéing foods or caramelizing them rather than for baking. Avocados are very versatile in the kitchen. Depending on the recipe, a ripe avocado can make the perfect butter replacement for baking. The avocado flavor tends to dissipate, leaving only the creamy, fatty texture, which can be perfect for baked goods. For sweet recipes, a ripe banana can also replace butter. Please leave your suggestions for substitutions in the comments!
Dairy-free cheeses made out of cashews or other nuts are now readily available in most supermarkets. Nutritional yeast has a parmesan like texture and flavor and can also be used as a cheese substitute or used to add cheesy flavors to home-made vegan cheeses.
Shrink your carbon footprint
Dairy production is a significant contributor to greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change and switching to dairy free alternatives is a surefire way of reducing the environmental impacts of our food choices. Dairy's contribution to GHG emission is significant when compared to the alternatives.
Finding milk's nutrients from healthier sources
Remember that cows get their calcium by eating grass. You can easily cut out the middle man and eat calcium straight from plant sources. Many green vegetables, like spinach and broccoli contain calcium. It can also be found in soy milk, and other soy foods, like edamame and tofu. Legumes are also significant providers of calcium, so make sure to include beans and chickpeas in your meals. These provide healthy complex carbs, fiber that feed your microbiome and are healthy plant-based protein sources. Chia seeds contain calcium, as well nuts like almonds or brazil nuts. Plant-based milks, like cow's milk, are often fortified with vitamin D, so look for these vitamin enriched versions.
When consuming plant-based sources of calcium, you're also getting a myriad of other magical nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, healthy fats, fiber and complex carbohydrates, while avoiding saturated fat, cholesterol, antibiotics, steroids, growth hormones as well as other contaminants. You're also considerably reducing your carbon footprint and showing compassion towards animals that are born, raised, forcefully impregnated and farmed in horrible conditions, just to be slaughtered as soon as their milk production, and profitability, declines.
My cow's milk conclusion
I'll finish with this intellectual exercise. The dairy industry has been great at marketing milk as being necessary for health. They've also done a great job at normalizing us drinking the milk of another lactating species. Would you drink the milk of a lactating dog, cat, mouse, or elephant? Then why do we arbitrarily choose the lactations of a cow? Why do you think dairy was on top of the food guide for decades? Why do you think it was removed as a food group as soon as the Canadian food guide removed industry bias and influence from their decision making? Drinking the milk of a pregnant cow has been normalized in our society, but science is catching up and we are quickly realizing that drinking baby cow growth fluid is not normal, is unsustainable for our planet, is unethical, unhealthy and downright disturbing. I drank cow's milk for most of my life, while coping with allergies, eczema, asthma, chronic idiopathic urticaria and cholinergic angioedema, all conditions that magically disappeared after a few months of eliminating dairy from my diet. If you choose to drink the milk of a lactating cow, do it because you want to, but not because you think it is in any way necessary for health. If you choose to eliminate dairy from your diet, and I hope you do, do it responsibly, since for many, cow's milk is their main source of dietary calcium and vitamin D, and care must be given to making sure that these vital nutrients are consumed through other healthier plant options.
If you'd like to experience first hand what cognitive dissonance is, consider watching documentaries like "Earthlings", or "Dominion", available for free on YouTube. Viewer discretion is strongly advised. If you decide to watch it, then get ready to drastically reduce your intake of animal products, unless your cognitive dissonance game is strong. If you've just felt strong emotions of anger and hate, you are normal. It's hard to read information about things that seem counter intuitive at first glance, but then start to make sense the more that you reflect on it. It's even harder to accept when a sensory experience like drinking a cold glass of milk is associated with cookies and smiles, or family and traditions. Much effort and thought goes into the marketing of dairy products, all in order to take your mind off of the horror that goes into producing a glass of milk. Labels featuring smiling cows distract us from forceful impregnation and rape, from the separation of a new born baby from its crying mother and from their brutal slaughter after 4-5 years of living hell. After living that miserable life, the cow is most likely relieved to die for your burger. All that for calcium and protein? You can get all the calcium and protein you need from plants.
Check out my website plantbaseddrjules.com and look for the “How To” section in the menu. There, you’ll find tips and tricks that helped me on my journey towards a plant-predominant diet. Everything there is completely free, no catches!
Look for me on the socials, @plantbased_dr_jules on Instagram and go like my Facebook Page, Plant-based Dr. Jules. If you’re looking for some fitness motivation and are curious to see what a plant-based athlete can accomplish, follow me, @maritimeninja, on my fitness account on Instagram or check out my fitness group on Facebook, called Maritime Ninja Warrior.
Thanks so much for reading!
Plant-Based Dr. Jules 💚🌱