If I ask you to think of milk what comes to mind? One of the first images has got to be of a skinny, smiling celebrity with a milk moustache, next to ad copy proclaiming that milk helps you maintain strong bones, or lose weight, or grow taller. Over the last century the American dairy industry has spent a ton of money, and enlisted clever marketing minds, to convince us that we should consume a lot of dairy products.
But what if it were all a big conspiracy? What if milk not only does not make our bones strong but actually leaches calcium from them? What if the claim that it helps us lose weight is a bald-faced lie? What if dairy products actually cause heart disease, cancer, asthma, and allergies? What if milk is actually killing us?
Those are the claims made by a new documentary called Got the Facts On Milk? which was just released on DVD last week. These are some of the key accusations the filmmakers level at milk:
Milk weakens bones. Although dairy products contain calcium, the animal protein they contain causes our blood to become acidic and our bodies have to pull calcium from our bones to neutralize acidity (the way calcium pills like Tums nix heartburn, I suppose). One expert memorably quips that milk makes you "urinate your bones into the toilet."
Milk causes cancer. Dairy products contain hormones such as Insulin-like Growth Factor, or IGF, which is in there to help baby cows grow, but can feed human cancer cells too. The film presents China Study author T. Colin Campbell talking about his studies finding that cancer cells can be activated at the cellular level by milk protein, and the documentary shows a list of the countries with the highest rates of cancer next to a list of countries that consume the most dairy products (yes, they're very similar).
Milk is poorly tolerated by many people. According to the film, 75% of the world is lactose intolerant and for many others milk is a trigger for asthma and allergies.. You might say, "So what? They don't need to eat it," but the film makes clear that some of these people sort of do have to eat it: Overweight Native American women talk about how the food assistance programs they rely on give them vouchers for milk, cheese and butter, and that's followed by tales of school staff pressuring children to finish the milk provided by the federally funded school lunch program. This is explained by Neal Barnard, MD, chairman of the Physicians' Committee for Responsible Medicine, who calls federal food assistance programs a "dumping ground for agricultural commodities," because when dairy prices are low the government buys the industry's excess and gives it to schools, prisons and programs like WIC.
"Milk is a Diet Food" is total BS. Apparently only three studies, out of 50, found that dairy product consumption correlated with weight loss, and those three studies were all done by one man at the University of Tennessee, whose work was funded by the dairy industry. The documentary's experts call the weight loss claim "nonsense" and "fraud."
The Film's Shortcomings
So, should you order the DVD of Got the Facts on Milk? I'd only spend your time and money on it if you're brand new to this issue, and maybe eating lots of dairy, struggling with health issues and wondering if the two could be connected. But if you're already pretty schooled on the subject of America's industrialized food system and its many faults—and have read books like Fast Food Nation or The Omnivore's Dilemma, or seen movies like Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead or Forks Over Knives—then the film doesn't contain much that you haven't heard before.
What's more, Got the Facts on Milk? undermines its argument by being totally one-sided and un-nuanced. The filmmakers rely solely on experts who agree with their thesis that dairy products are evil (with the exception of a hilarious interview with a shockingly dim-witted dietician representing the dairy industry), ignoring the fact that there are esteemed nutrition authorities unrelated to the industry or the government who believe that dairy products can play a role in a healthy diet (the Weston Price Foundation, for one). They also fail to examine issues like whether organic or raw milk is superior to the industrial kind, and whether there are benefits to the fermented dairy products that have been consumed in traditional diets around the world for centuries. And they try to pin nearly all of our modern health woes on milk, ignoring ample evidence that other foods (sugar, trans fats, all those corn and soy-based ingredients packed in snack foods) play a role, and probably a larger one.
That said, if you like conspiracy theories and enjoy getting angry about how messed up our food system is (I'll admit to both) then you will enjoy this film. I did, and learned a few things too—the most bizarre of which may be that the vitamin D milk is fortified with gets sourced from the lanolin in sheep's wool. Who knew?
More about milk and its (possible) health risks: