Dangers Of The Human Breast Milk Craze

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If you grew up in the United States, odds are you’ve seen advertisements featuring celebrities and world-class athletes sporting milk mustaches for “Got Milk?” campaigns. Perhaps your parents adopted a similar promotion of milk by encouraging a tall glass with dinner each evening, claiming you will have stronger bones and teeth because of it.

The prevalence of milk cartons in school cafeteria lunches, or the sheer size of the milk section in the local supermarket, is enough to convince children and adults alike that milk is a staple ingredient to a healthy diet.

The constant bombardment ensconces dairy into the standard American diet. And it’s this type of popularity, according to Dr. David Tener, an associate doctor at The Goldberg Clinic in Kennesaw, Georgia, that’s warped our thinking about dairy altogether.

“We’ve taken the weirdness out of it by putting it in nicely designed milk cartons, pouring it in a glass, and eating Oreos with it,” Tener tells BTRtoday. “It creates this whole new picture, but in reality, it’s not what’s actually going on.”

In his article “The Case Against Dairy,” Tener outlines the detractions of drinking cow’s milk, beginning with the idea that it’s not designed for human beings to consume.

“Cow’s milk is specifically produced for its calf,” Tener explains, “and the nutrients in that material are what’s needed for that calf to grow and develop appropriately.”

One of those key nutrients is casein, a family of related phosphoproteins that make up the majority of the protein in milk. Many understand these proteins as the main cause of common milk allergies. There is also lactose, or milk sugar, which many human beings have a difficult time digesting, leading to diagnoses of lactose intolerance. Tener says he sees the same allergy issues in a number of the patients that visit him at The Goldberg Clinic.

“Those are two primary components that humans really aren’t able to tolerate well, which is why we have so much lactose intolerance and so much milk allergy,” Tener says. “And I don’t think that’s necessarily reflective of patients we work with; I think that’s probably a good reflection of the general population at large.”

Tener’s observation seems accurate—according to Genetics Home Reference, the National Library of Medicine’s website for consumer information about genetic conditions, about 65 percent of the world’s population has a “reduced ability to digest lactose after infancy.”

The arguments against dairy are widespread, and people have begun to look elsewhere for dairy nutrients. The market is saturated with milk alternatives, with options including soy, almond, rice or coconut. Though most of the auxiliary milk options are fairly innocuous, another far more shocking alternative exists—human breast milk.

“People that are looking into this have been receiving messages that this is a clean eat, that human beings are supposed to drink human milk,” Dr. Sarah Steele, of Queen Mary University London, tells BTRtoday. “These people are hearing that this is a clean superfood designed optimally as a nutrition for the human body.”

In June 2015, Steele co-authored a piece in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine talking about the online sale of breast milk via online marketplaces and the inherent risks therein. One such site, Only the Breast, contains a category of mothers “Willing to Sell to Men.” Aside from people looking for a more natural alternative, there are also those who believe breast milk has inherent immune-building qualities.

Yet beyond the bizarre idea of drinking human milk at leisure is the true danger these online markets pose due to their lack of regulation. Milk sold in online marketplaces isn’t tested or processed, and thus is extremely vulnerable to being contaminated during transport, storage, and even expression from the source.

“Human milk receives various things into it that are being put into the producer’s body,” Steele explains. “Anything the mother has coming into her in terms of chemicals has a chance to cross into the milk itself. So the breast milk may not be as clean as the consumer thinks, depending on the diet, lifestyle, and environmental contaminants the person producing the milk is exposed to.”

Steele continues that communities of adults drinking breast milk have existed for years, but the ease of transaction and interaction between buyer and seller can create undue hype for the product. In these settings, the milk can be touted as a cure-all for a variety of conditions, from cancer to neurological and immune disorders.

“It’s absolutely fascinating to me that breast milk is now seen as having all these health-providing qualities, not just for babies, but for adults,” Dr. Janet Golden, graduate program director and professor of history at Rutgers tells BTRtoday. “As a historian, I love that sort of thing.”

Golden is the author of the 1996 book “A Social History of Wet Nursing in America: From Breast to Bottle,” which explores the changes in attitude toward breastfeeding throughout the 20th century.

Though it was once viewed as taboo in the 1940s after the development of formula, the natural childbirth movement of the 1950s and ‘60s brought breastfeeding back into the widely accepted culture, and nowadays it’s considered to be the healthiest way to satiate babies—just the opposite of the way it was perceived generations ago.

“This attitude has gone in waves, and it’s really been shaped by science, by marketing and advertising, and by political beliefs about women and their opportunities in the workplace,” Golden says.

She also explains that the for-profit sale of breast milk is not a new phenomenon, at least on a corporate level. Breast milk has always been in demand for premature infants, and lactating mothers have long been able to donate their milk to donation banks, which turn around and sell the milk to hospitals at a high markup.

According to Golden, that resale brings up ethical questions about human profiteering that are just as relevant as those surrounding unregulated breast milk markets.

“We’re kind of exploiting the qualities of women who want to donate something, and it’s turned into a capitalist marketplace product,” Golden says. “It’s transmuted, in a sense, from a natural product to a pharmaceutical product.”

In theory, a market that allows individual mothers to pump for profit and sell to online buyers could subvert that model, but according to Steele, the adverse implications would be enormous.

“A huge commercial market in breast milk could be replete with ethical and medical issues based on false science in many respects,” Steele says. “Certainly its nutritional capacity has been overplayed amongst these superfood, fitness, and bodybuilding communities that exist in these marketplaces.”

Steele continues to warn against the possible abuse of both the human milk consumer and the woman straining her body to lactate at such a capacity.

“The use of antibiotics would be necessary for someone pumping that much,” she explains. “It’s potentially exploitative, and also it could introduce real risks to the person doing it, especially if it were to be sold per ounce.”

Steele maintains that there are benefits to be drawn from breast milk through the extraction process and, perhaps, avenues like stem cell research, but even these benefits aren’t fully scientifically understood—and none of them can be drawn from drinking it.

“It’s not more digestible than other milk,” she says. “It’s not nutritionally richer than other milk.”