The Conscientious Consumer: Dairy & Your Health--Part 1

September 27, 2014

Where did that bottle of milk come from? Was it the cheapest one on sale this week at your local grocer, or have you met the cows that produced it and the people who bottle it? And does that matter?

Dairy is one of the recommended components of a healthy diet, according to the food pyramid and the new "Choose My Plate". Why? Well, why do infants drink it?--it's full of healthy proteins and fats, as well as many vitamins and minerals (great post-workout recovery drink for that reason!) 

But humans are the only species where adults drink milk--and maybe we weren't really meant to, if you consider that about 70% of the population is lactose intolerant. Our bodies stop being able to digest it properly after our first few years. Additionally, there's been a rising controversy over the processing of milk and what cows are fed, but my hope in this article is to increase your health by helping you become more conscious of what you're consuming and where it comes from. 

Disclaimer: I am by no means a nutritional expert, but I speak from knowledge of my own personal experience. If you're trying to eat healthy, probably one of the first things to start with is reading labels. That doesn't mean don't eat dairy! But do be conscious about what you are putting into your body--"you are what you eat", they say. In this post we'll discuss some different milk options, and next time some of the alternative options to milk.

 

 

 

Organic Milk


As a first step, ditch the toxins--look for milk that is free from rBST (a hormone produced by Monsanto which stimulates milk production but may act as an endocrine disruptor in humans). You will probably be able to find some regular milk brands that label their milk as rBST-free.

Horizon Organic is a great option when you want to go a step further, as they keep their cows free from rBST and antibiotics, but also feed them a diet that doesn't include genetically-modified food (such as GMO corn). Look for the label "USDA Organic".

 

 

Raw Milk

 


Going another step further, consider trying raw milk (milk which hasn't been pasteurized). Pasteurization is a process where the milk is heated to a high temperature to kill any bacteria and prolong its shelf life. However, the high heat also denatures the proteins (or causes them to lose their special shape). You can find raw milk at some farmer's markets or local farms. 

A few notes of caution: it tastes much better than store-bought milk, but doesn't last as long, so buy a smaller bottle. Also, know where your milk is coming from. Visit the farm if you can, meet the owners and the cows, ask about their bovine hygiene practices. Look for a place that's had some experience in producing and selling raw milk for a few years. Also, I wouldn't recommend giving raw milk to young children under 5, or to anyone who is elderly or has a weakened immune system, because there is a higher chance of bacteria in the milk. For healthy people, I can say I've never had any problems with it.

 

 

Lactose-Free


If milk seems to bother you, try a lactose-free version. Lactose is a sugar that's naturally present in milk. People who are lactose-intolerant have difficulty producing the enzyme lactase, which breaks down lactose so that it can be digested.  This can cause gas, bloating, and rapid bowel movements. "Lactose-free" label on milk simply means that the enzyme lactase was added to the milk to help break it down, so the first step of digestion been done for you.


You can also be tested at your doctor's office or health laboratory to see if you're lactose intolerant. It's a fasting blood test where they first take a blood sample, then you drink a suspension of lactose crystals and have two more blood samples taken at hour intervals to monitor how your blood sugar levels spike and decline. The test takes a few hours, but it may be worth your time for ease-of-mind. It certainly got me over my fear of needles!

 

 

Kefir


Kind of like a milk-smoothie, for those who have trouble digesting milk, this fermented milk version is a great option. Most local groceries carry it now in their refrigerated organic/natural food section, and there's usually a variety of flavors to choose from.  


It's similar to yogurt, but not as thick, and contains many different strains of pro-biotics, which are the "good" bacteria beneficial for your gut health. A word of caution: go slow the first time! If your intestinal flora is imbalanced, the kefir may cause gas and bloating until a proper balance of gut bacteria is restored. Great to add to protein shakes and smoothies.

 

 

Goat's Milk

 

 

There are other types of milk intolerances besides just lactose-intolerance. If you find that milk still bothers you, you may have a protein intolerance to milk, typically to either casein or whey. If it's casein, you can try drinking goat milk, which has beta-casein, and some alpha-s1 casein, instead of the dominant alpha-s1 casein version present in cow's milk, which typically causes more problems in casein-sensitive individuals.
 

 

(You can also try kefir, but check for the probiotic strain, L. casei, which helps break down casein). 

 

Sometimes, even these options may still bother you, or, for those who have a true allergy to milk and not a sensitivity, alternative milk options are the only option. Good news, there's a lot out there to choose from! Stay tuned for next week's post.

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