By Karan Verma
Throughout life, not a day goes by when we don’t taste the ubiquitous milk in some form or another. We are convinced that it is a ‘complete food’ that takes care of all our nutritional needs. Yet, is it really so? Is milk and other milk products really all that healthy?
‘Milk!’ The very word is comforting. ‘How about a nice cup of hot milk?’ The last time you heard that question; it was from someone who cared for you. In fact, the entire matter of food, especially milk, is surrounded with a great deal of emotional and cultural conditioning. More so in India because we revere Lord Krishna who was a cowherd in his childhood.
‘I grew up with the ayurvedic wisdom that milk and milk products are essential, not only as nutrients but also because they have medicinal value,’ says Noida-based ayurveda researcher Dr Vinod Verma. ‘For instance, eye infections could be cured with human milk. When fatigued, there was nothing like a glass of fresh hot milk. Mixed with sugar and a pinch of saffron, it did wonders for your sexual health. Raw milk made for a good vaginal douche.’
Milk is our very first food. In infancy, it is a link of love with our mother, and our only way to survival. As we grow up, mother’s milk is replaced by cow’s, buffalo’s, or even goat’s milk. We Indians are a nation of milk drinkers. Nearly all of us—infants, children, adults and the aged—drink milk. We consume several hundred gallons a year, and add to that milk products, such as cheese, butter, curd, khoya and sweets. So, can there be anything wrong with milk?
We constantly hear messages that assure us: ‘Milk is good for you.’ Our dietitians insist: ‘You’ve got to have milk, or where will you get your calcium from?’ Nutritionists have also been harping for years that dairy products are an ‘essential food group’. ‘And why not?’ asks DR R.C. Bhasin, cardio-respiratory consultant at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in Delhi, India. ‘Milk is nutritious and affordable. It remains drinkable for a long time, if refrigerated. Its nutritional value remains unchanged.’ DR Verma insists she consumes a liter of milk every day. But she’s quick to add: ‘This is not the milk from plastic bags nor is it homogenized in any way. I get it directly from the dairy farmers.’
What’s the scare all about? ‘If cows or other milch cattle are injected with antibiotics or thirst-promoting chemicals to increase their milk produce, or they are fed on greens grown with artificial fertilizers and pesticides, obviously we are consuming these poisons with the milk,’ reasons DR Verma. ‘Milk preservation techniques play their own role and in the end, what we get is a harmful white liquid.’
Not just cattle, that’s true in the case of lactating women too. DR Verma says that ayurveda has specific instructions for the nursing mother to alter her diet if her baby develops any ailment. ‘Ayurveda treats the baby through her mother’s milk. If the mother eats too much ginger, garlic, chilies or other pitta (heat) promoting stuff, the baby will fall sick due to imbalance. To create an equilibrium, we prescribe foods for the mother that have a cooling effect, like rice, fennel, coriander and bitter-tasting vegetables,’ she says.
Sunita Pant Bansal, a Delhi-based nutritionist and publisher, contends that many avoid milk believing it to be high in calories. ‘This needn’t be so,’ she says. ‘Cow’s milk contains half as much fat as buffalo’s, and if you are scared of putting on the pounds, all you have to do is skim off the malai (milk crust) and you have a low calorie nutritious drink!’
Sunita informs that the average protein content of milk is about 4 per cent, yet it boasts of all vitamins, except vitamin C, in appreciable amounts. Milk is also a good source of calcium and phosphorous required for growth and development of bones.
DR Walter Willett, veteran nutrition researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health, however, doesn’t buy Sunita’s point when he says that calcium consumption ‘has become something of a religious crusade’, overshadowing true beneficial measures such as exercise. In any case, green leafy vegetables and legumes are better sources of calcium than milk.
In an e-mail interview, DR Willett pooh-poohed the dairy industry’s claim that three glasses of milk daily would strengthen our bones and rule out osteoporosis forever. He quotes The McDougall Program for Women, 2000: ‘The primary cause of osteoporosis is the high-protein diet most Americans consume today… both clinical and population evidence strongly implicate dairy in causing, rather than preventing, osteoporosis.’
DR Willett argues that osteoporosis being caused by calcium deficiency is a myth created to sell dairy products and calcium supplements. ‘American women are among the biggest consumers of calcium in the world and they still have among the highest levels of osteoporosis.’ Who is right? Where best to get our answers? Can we trust milk industry spokespersons? Are nutritionists up-to-date or are they simply repeating what their professors learned decades ago? What about the new voices urging caution?
Writes Delhi-based naturopath and reiki master, DR Nand Kishore Sharma in his book Milk: A Silent Killer: ‘One shouldn’t drink milk just because it has been favored by rishi-munisor the ancient sages. Seek your own truth by using your brains, common sense and all the research available on the subject today.’ According to him, milk is a maternal lactating secretion, a short-term nutrient for newborns. Nothing more, nothing less.
Moreover, mammals provide milk for a short period after birth. ‘When the time comes for weaning, the offspring is introduced to the proper food for that species of mammal,’ says DR Sharma. For instance, the puppy is nursed for a few weeks and then rejected by its mother so that it learns to eat solid food.
Osho said something similar three decades ago. ‘The milk you are drinking has not been produced for you. You drink cow’s milk… it’s for calves. After a certain age, no animal drinks milk, with the exception of man. To drink a little in tea, coffee is okay, but don’t become a milk dieter.’
Agrees eminent pediatrician DR Anupam Sibal of Delhi’s Indraprastha Apollo Hospital: ‘Though I don’t go by such rigid rules myself, it’s true that after a certain age when a child can eat solid food, he doesn’t need milk.’ He adds that many parents complain that their children hate milk even though they are otherwise eating normally. ‘It’s well-established in the medical world that milk’s got the goodies. Personally, too, I don’t feel milk is bad, but if your child is getting all the nutrients from foods other than milk, it’s all right,’ he says.
Agrees Sunita: ‘Milk is not indispensable. Once the child can eat other foodstuffs, milk ceases to be a priority. Individual milk nutrients can be obtained from other dietary sources. You can get your proteins from lentils, and your vitamins and minerals from fruit and vegetables,’ she says.
As for medical studies on intestinal colic, intestinal irritation and bleeding, anemia, allergic reactions in infants and children as well as infections such as salmonella and lactose intolerance, DR Bhasin says these are more of a scare than anything else. ‘Milk allergies are definitely there, but not as rampant as they are made out to be,’ he says.
There’s more. It seems that nature provides newborns with lactase, the enzymatic equipment to metabolize lactose, or milk sugar, but this ability often disappears by age four or five. Lactose is a disaccharide, which is too large to be absorbed into the bloodstream without first being broken down into monosaccharides, namely galactose and glucose for which, lactase is a must.
Let’s think about this for a moment. Nature gives us the ability to metabolize lactose for a few years and then shuts off the mechanism. Is Mother Nature trying to tell us something? Infants must drink milk. The fact that so many adults cannot might be related to the tendency of nature to abandon mechanisms that are not needed. At least half the adult humans on this planet are ‘lactose intolerant’, which means they cannot digest lactose, and so, milk.
What if you are lactose-intolerant but lust after dairy products? Is all lost? ‘Not at all,’ assures DR Bhasin. ‘It seems that lactose is largely digested by bacteria and you will be able to enjoy your cheese despite lactose intolerance. Curd is similar in this respect.’ Blasting another myth, he says mothers with asthma can breast-feed their newborns. ‘In fact, they must,’ he insists. ‘Also, cow’s milk is definitely not a replacement for the mother’s, but at the same time not all babies who are fed cow’s milk turn colicky.’
But is all milk the same? Buffalos and cows have been the traditional source of milk mainly because of their abundant milk supply. ‘Goat’s milk is deficient in folic acid,’ informs DR Sibal. ‘But goat’s milk fortified with folic acid is now available abroad.’
But is it natural? Is it wise to drink the milk of another species of mammal? Consider for a moment, if it was possible, to drink the milk of, let’s say a cat. Or perhaps of a dog. Possibly some horse milk. Get the idea?
Food is not just food, and milk is not just milk. It is not only the proper amount of food but also the proper qualitative composition that is critical for the very best in health and growth. Biochemists and physiologists—and rarely medical doctors—are gradually learning that foods contain the crucial elements that allow a particular species to develop its unique specializations.
Human specialization is for advanced neurological development and delicate neuromuscular control. We do not have much need of massive skeletal growth or huge muscles, as does a calf. Human newborns specifically need critical material for their brains, spinal cord and nerves. Can consuming mother’s milk increase intelligence? It seems it does. In a remarkable study published in Lancet in 1992, a group of British workers randomly placed premature infants into two groups. One group received a milk formula; the other human breast milk, both given by stomach tubes. These children were followed for over 10 years. In intelligence testing, the human milk children averaged 10 IQ points higher.
It’s worthwhile to note here that milk products are linked to all sorts of health problems, including obesity, heart disease and cancer. Eminent heart specialist DR Upendra Kaul, of SAARC Cardiac Society, is serious when he advises drinking skimmed milk for your heart’s well being.
DR N.K. Sharma goes to the extent of saying that milk is the sole progenitor of a variety of diseases ranging from cancer and heart disease to gall bladder stones, artherosclerosis, even cataract and dental problems. Says he: ‘Milk is largely responsible for the human cells going crazy. This is because of the constant inflow in the body of growth hormones meant for promoting the growth of a calf, not a human being. Today, this problem is more acute because cows have become something of freaks. In an effort to get them to produce more and more milk for a longer period of time, they have been bred and developed to have overactive pituitary glands. This is evidenced in the milk they produce and the high amount of protein in it.’
The scare becomes all the more real when experts tell you that dairy products are likely to be contaminated with trace levels of antibiotics, hormones, and other chemicals, including dioxin, one of the most toxic substances known to humans.
The late DR Benjamin Spock, in Baby and Child Care (a Bible for many on the subject), after recommending that no one consume cow’s milk and cataloguing a host of ills associated with milk consumption, concludes: ‘In nature, animals do not drink milk after infancy, and that is the normal pattern for humans, too. Children stay in better calcium balance when their protein comes from plant sources.’
DR Sharma offers ‘nut milk’ as an alternative to animal milk in his book. Nut milk is made from raw, unroasted nuts, and can also be turned into curds, shakes and butters. Nut milk can be made not only from cashews, pistachios and almonds, but also with sunflower, pumpkin, melon and cucumber seeds. DR Sharma is not in favor of soymilk, though, which has been a popular milk-substitute in the West.
So there. And so be it.
—photographs by Martin Louis
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