Forget Milk? - Nutrition Week


Photo by Janine Chedid.

A busy executive is arguing over a cell phone conversation on a crowded city sidewalk. He creams “You’re fired!” into the receiver, unknowingly jay walking into an intersection before being suddenly pancaked by an oncoming Mack truck. Upon his arrival in the afterlife, he is welcomed by a pair of beautiful angelic eyes, a mysterious albino goldfish, and a plate of very large and especially delicious-looking chocolate chip cookies. Happily munching on the fruits of his eternal peace, he reaches for one of the hundreds of milk cartons stacked endlessly high in a refrigerator adjacent to him, only to find that every last one of those cartons is empty.

The screen cuts to black with the words “got milk?” in classic, slim white font set aflame by the fires of yuppie damnation.


That 30-second television spot was part of one of the most recognizable ad campaigns in history that began nearly twenty years ago with a simple, two-word slogan. Following the success of the “Milk, It Does a Body Good” in the 1980s, “Got Milk?” was conjured in a joint effort by the dairy industry, the California Milk Processor Board, and the Clinton-era Agriculture Department to help keep milk farmers afloat through plummeting sales and decrease rates of osteoporosis.

Not only was the campaign successful in promoting the consumption of American dairy, but also made for quality entertainment. The famous “Aaron Burr” ad won three Gold Clios, including a Grand Prix Clio for Commercial of the Year, and a Silver Lion at the 1994 Cannes International Advertising Festival. Appearances in “Got Milk” commercials became a mainstay for ’90s celebrities as the ultimate no-brainer for feel-good PSA publicity.

Thanks largely to their efforts, the idea that to maintain strong and healthy bones necessitates drinking milk every day from birth until death is still considered the conventional wisdom, as likely any American school child would tell you. Further, not only has the dairy industry been served a disproportionally generous amount of support from the taxpayer over the last two decades (at least compared to other industries represented on the late, great Food Pyramid), but it also holds an assumedly permanent place on the Obama administration’s new Nutrition Plate.

However, milk does not enjoy the same report among health care professionals these days as it does with policy makers and the public. Beginning in 2005 with a study published in the American Journal of Pediatrics, more and more academics have taken issue with milk’s supposed role in weight loss and the potential health hazards that factory farm pasteurized milk poses to the public. The research authored by Dr. Amy Joy Lanou, among others, found the relationship between dairy product consumption and bone health in youth to be largely inconclusive. Largely, no substantive evidence was found to support the notion that “milk is a preferred source of calcium.”

Months later, another study concluded that compounds commonly added to factory farm-produced cow’s milk, such as Insulin-like Growth Factor (or IGF-I), increase the risk of prostate and breast cancer. Similar results connecting dairy products to ovarian cancer, along with those citing the hazards of antibiotics and cow steroids in factory farm cow’s milk, date back to the turn of the millennium.

Dr. Lanou is the director of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit organization that represents several new waves of thought in progressive approaches to many of today’s greatest health concerns. Primarily, the group espouses “preventative medicine” (a softly cooling buzzword among nutritionists and physicians) through reforms in federal nutrition policies, an overall rejection animal-based food products, and promoting a higher standard of “ethics and effectiveness” in animal research.

Since the committee’s mission slightly overlaps the agenda of animal rights groups like PETA, the latter actively cites the committee’s research for their own ends. Though a more frequently cited source by PETA and others on the subject is Dr. T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D, who published The China Study with his son, Dr. Thomas Campbell II, M.D. in 2005 to better educate the public on the benefits of preventative care and plant-based diets.

Their book takes a look at a 20-year study conducted by the Chinese Academy of Preventative Medicine, Cornell University, and the University of Oxford in examining the diets and lifestyles of thousands of rural China residents. Conclusions found and detailed in the Campbells’ text serve as the scientific and philosophic basis for beliefs held by many in the field who reject carnivorous lifestyles, influence, and diets.

Given the overwhelming presence of veganism and animal rights groups on the aforementioned research, the mainstream media has been slow to wholly consider the full weight of these findings. Many popular health and lifestyle publications have stood by the dairy industry. A pedestrian example is this 2010 article from Men’s Health where nutritionist Alan Aragon, M.S. casually takes on several scientific charges against dairy consumption made by academics like Lanou and Campbell, as well as those made by typical governmental nay-sayers.

Aragon sites older research from the University of Tennessee connecting calcium to muscle growth and thus weight loss, but like much of the academia written prior to this controversy, there’s no judgement passed on the quality of milk as a primary source of calcium — a point widely disputed by Lanou’s and Campbell’s work.

While these contrasting voices have yet to confront each other on larger stages, further interest in the role of government and public health in current events may predicate a louder conversation about the true nutritional benefits of dairy in the near future.