Have you ever paused to consider the fact that not only are we humans the only species to consume milk into adulthood, but that we’re the only species to ingest the milk of another species? Most people haven’t, and indeed I myself never contemplated the absurdity of this fact until after I became vegan.
The dairy industry doesn’t want you to think about how completely unnatural it is for humans to drink the milk of cows and ingest dairy products. Instead, they want you to believe that you need dairy products, and that life without dairy would be dull and devoid of palate pleasure.
But when you actually think about it – the fact that we put the growth formula meant for the young of another species into almost everything we eat – you have to admit it’s pretty damned strange. In this post, we will address some of the common misconceptions with regards to dairy dairy consumption and how we as a society came to be so misguided in the first place.
Common misconceptions about dairy
#1 – Consuming dairy is natural and healthy
Is it natural to consume the milk intended for the young of another species, especially an animal that is much larger than us?
Let’s consider the fact that the average healthy human weighs 110-200 pounds. Full grown cows and bulls, on the other hand, weigh around 1,600 pounds and 2,400 pounds, respectively. The hormones and proteins in cows’ milk enables a calf to gain 70 pounds per month and triple their weight in 10 weeks. Cows and bulls reach puberty usually after about 1 year thanks to this impressive formula.
Cows’ milk contains several components that are not suited to grown humans.
The first of these is the protein casein, which gives milk a higher molecular weight (233K) than human breast milk (14K). Calves have a digestive enzyme called rennin which helps them to break down the casein. Humans do not have this enzyme. Dr. T. Colin Campbell, nutrition expert and the author of The China Study, a book synthesizing data from the largest nutrition study ever conducted, has stated that he believes casein is the single greatest carcinogen to which humans are exposed.
The human body’s reaction to casein is to recognize it as a foreign body and to form an immune response, otherwise known as inflammation. Chronic inflammation increases risk for inflammatory diseases such as heart disease, arthritis, and IBS.
The second problematic element in cows’ milk is insulin growth factor 1 (IGF-1). This is a hormone, that unlike casein, is present in human breast milk. IGF-1 triggers rapid cell division, which is important when we’re small growing babies. But as adults we do not need rapid cell division, unless we want cancer.
Next, milk is high in estrogen, which is not safe to consume in high quantities. Our society’s overconsumption of milk is likely responsible in part for the fact that girls are reaching puberty earlier.
Milk also has addictive properties. Casomorphins, opiates found in casein, attach themselves to opioid receptors in our brains. Opioid receptors are associated with pain, pleasure, reward, and addiction.
The reason that milk contains opiates is that they enable a baby or calf – whichever the case may be – to associate positive feelings with breast-feeding.
But it’s one thing physiologically addicted to your mother’s breast milk as a baby; it’s quite another to be addicted to the milk of another species as an adult.
Dairy is also rich in saturated fat and cholesterol, contributing to the buildup of plaque along the arteries. This buildup eventually can lead to heart disease – the #1 killer amidst Americans.
Finally, dairy has no fiber. Fiber is important for cleaning the walls of our 22-inch long small intestine.
Unlike plant foods, which help to scrub the walls of our small intestine, dairy coats the surface of our small intestine with a fatty film, preventing villi – fingerlike hairs along our intestine that help to absorb nutrients and antioxidants – from doing their job.
Other health problems with milk
Milk produced at factory farms may contain recombinant growth hormone (rBGH), a genetically engineered artificial hormone designed to get the cows to produce more milk. rBGH has been linked to higher levels of IGF-1, which itself increases risk for cancer.
Cow’s milk can carry a heavy load of pathogens due partly to mastitis, the inflammation of cows’ udders resulting from factory farm practices. As a result the average amount of somatic blood cells (otherwise known as white blood cells or pus) comes in at approximately 1,000,000 cells per spoonful.
To counter this, antibiotics are used to reduce risk of illness upon ingestion. The assimilation of antibiotics through our food makes us more antibiotic resistant and therefore less equipped to fight illness should the need arise.
#2 – Cows need to be milked
I have had many a conversation with people curious about veganism who genuinely thought that this was the case. As for myself, I’m pretty sure I didn’t think about it at all before I went vegan.
The truth is that cows, like humans, only produce milk after giving birth.
Knowing this all too well, the dairy industry keep their cows in a constant cycle of insemination, pregnancy, and lactation, until they’re considered “tapped out” at about 4 years of age.
Here’s a breakdown of exactly how this cycle is implemented:
- Bulls are sexually manipulated to produce semen, which is put into a vial
- Cows are situated along a “rape rack” (industry term). A man comes along and inserts a “sperm gun” elbow-deep into her vagina
- Several months later, the cow gives birth. Her calf is taken from her after about 1 day. Pain, anguish, and despair ensue
- She may be injected with rBGH, a hormone that will increase her milk production. This will also make her udder much larger and heavier
- She is hooked up to machines 2 or 3 times a day. The abrasiveness of the machines, coupled with the effects of rBGH, often leads to a painful condition called mastitis – inflammation of the mammary glands
And then the cycle starts again.
#3 – Dairy products are better than meat, because animals don’t have to be killed for it
The truth is that dairy products may in fact be ethically worse than meat, because cows bred in the dairy business are abused over longer periods of time, and because both they and their calves are ultimately slaughtered.
Let’s start with the calves. When a calf is taken from her mother – usually after about 1 day, so he or she doesn’t take too much of her milk, the calf’s fate is to be either:
- Raised to be another dairy cow
- Confined and made into veal, killed at about 4 months old
- Sold to the meat industry and raised for beef
- Simply killed. This is a common occurrence due to decreased demand for beef and veal
Next let’s consider the cow’s fate. She is deemed as “tapped out” at age 4 even though in natural circumstances, cows live to about 20 years. She may impregnated once again, just so that the hide of her unborn calf can be made into supple leather. When her time’s up, she’ brought to the slaughterhouse where she’s ground into meat to be made into a hamburger. Due to the inefficiency of stunning practices, there’s a chance she won’t be properly anesthetized prior to slaughter.
It’s also worth mentioning that most of these dairy cows are kept in extreme confinement most of their lives. They are forced to be in isolation, unable to socialize with one another. Their physical mobility is limited, they have no access whatsoever to the outdoors so as to breathe the fresh air and feel grass beneath their feet. Often, their first glimpse of sunshine and natural daylight is during the trip to the slaughterhouse.
Sound too ludicrous to be true? It should be. But because we never talk about the lives of factory farmed animals or consider the origin of our food choices, these injustices are rarely brought to light in our culture.
Of note here is that female cows have the worst of it, so feminists and women in general ought to consider how we would feel our reproductive system was exploited and our babies taken, so that other people could drink our breast milk
#4 – We need dairy products for calcium and strong bones
As with most others raised in the U.S., the idea that I needed to drink three glasses of milk per day to support my growing bones was drilled into me throughout my childhood. I got it not only from my parents and school, but from the dairy industry’s milk mustache ads, which I now consider to be perverse.
Above: Venus and Serena Williams once endorsed milk, but are now vegan
Back then, I actually didn’t like milk at all – it just seemed a little gross to me and my body was intuitively repelled by it. Still, I drank it because I was told to and when I didn’t drink those three glasses per day I felt guilty.
Little did I know back then that this whole “3 glasses of milk per day” thing was mostly a marketing scam designed to boost the profits of the dairy industry.
I eventually learned, that even though it is true that milk contains calcium, what’s not true is that:
Milk is the only form of calcium
Cows, which are herbivorous, get their calcium from the plant foods they eat. So can we. Plant foods that are high in calcium include broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, kale, sweet potatoes, legumes (beans), and whole grains.
The calcium contained in milk neutralizes the amount of calcium taken from our bones when we consume milk
Ironically, milk takes more calcium from our bones than it provides. The reason for this is that dairy, being rich in animal protein, creates acid in our bodies. Our bodies need to be at a very precise, slightly alkaline pH level in order for all of our organs and systems to function properly. If we consume too much dairy, we run the risk of making our bodies acidic. In an effort to alkalize itself, the body will undergo metabolic acidosis – where calcium and phosphate (which are bonded together) are taken from our bones. This process happens in the kidneys and the excess protein, along with the calcium that was pulled, is excreted through our urine.
The countries with the highest dairy intake are not the countries with the lowest rates of osteoporosis. In fact, it is the countries with the highest dairy intake – the United States, the UK, Sweden, and Finland – that have the highest incidence of osteoporosis.
Rural areas in Africa and Asia with the lowest dairy intake have a significantly lower risk for osteoporosis and fractures.
How did all this information fall through the cracks?
There are countless reasons as to why people have remained ignorant about both the health perils of consuming dairy, and the grave injustices perpetrated against cows used in dairy production. However, they generally fall under the categories of advertising, political lobbying, modern medicine, and culture.
The notion that meat is the only form of protein, and that cow’s milk is the only form of calcium goes back to the beginning of the second half of the 19th century and the beginning 20th century.
Prior to the industrial revolution, people’s diets had mainly consisted of plant foods – with an emphasis on vegetables and whole grains.
Meat and dairy-rich diets were considered luxuries and only rich people had regular access to them.
Following the industrial revolution, however, the agricultural industry saw an opportunity to make a killing – literally and figuratively – by making the animal-rich diet accessible to everyone. The technological advances resulting from the industrial revolution allowed them to dramatically scale up the production of animal products. This led to the beginning of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and what we know today as factory farming.
One of animal agribusiness’ main selling points were the few nutrients that had been found in meat and dairy. In meat, they knew, there was protein. In dairy, there was calcium. They leveraged these two nutrients as much as possible in their advertising campaigns, upon which they lavished considerable amounts of money.
As a result of this messaging, impressionable Americans concluded that animal products were the only form of these nutrients.
Because this propaganda goes back so far and encompasses several generations, the idea that meat is the only source of protein and dairy is the only form of source is very entrenched in our society. Our great-grandparents and grandparents grew up believing this, as did our parents. And this is part of why our society’s conviction about the need to consume animal products is so strong.
The meat and dairy industry’s have a long-established foothold in Washington, where they have been able to influence the government’s dietary recommendations.
The USDA, which is really an agency set up promote the agricultural industry, has had control of the US dietary guidelines since 1980.
This fundamental conflation of private corporate interests with the health of Americans has gone more or less unchecked since then.
When I was growing up, I was taught the food pyramid in school. Naively, I believed that this pyramid had been constructed with the pure intention to help protect the well-being and health of Americans. Had I known that vested interests were at stake in this, and that the food pyramid would look much different had agribusiness not had a say in it, I know for sure I would not have eaten nearly as much meat and dairy as I did.
Now, young kids are taught “MyPlate” in school – which is essentially not much different than the food pyramid in that it still promotes animal products. Knowing what I now know, it is my strong belief that nutrition education in schools needs a complete overhaul. Nutrition is not a light, frivolous subject to be taught sporadically throughout one’s school years. It needs to be treated just as seriously, if not more seriously, than Math, Science, English, and History. It should be an entire subject studied throughout middle and high school. Children need to understand the intricacies of nutrition, and they should be taught this by nutritionists whose education was not influenced by meat and dairy industry propaganda.
As of right now, however, this is not happening, And until this happens, misinformation will continue to be absorbed by well-meaning individuals.
Contemporary or allopathic medicine concerns itself not with a preventative approach to health, but rather a reactive approach. In this model, the symptoms of health issues are treated instead of the root problem. And the root problem is often caused by diet.
It is true that genes may affect our potential of getting certain diseases. However, scientists are now starting to figure out that, for the most part, whether or not these genes express themselves ultimately comes down to lifestyle choices. This means we have more individual agency than modern medicine would have us think.
But nutrition is not taught in medical schools so most doctors know little about how to heal through dietary changes.
Instead they’re taught, for x problem, do x procedure or prescribe x medication.
And as a result, Americans never learn that if they simply eliminated dairy from their diet, they might not have had the health issue in the first place.
Some of our fondest memories in life are of moments gathering around the dinner table, surrounded by people we care about. And for many of us, particular foods can trigger nostalgic memories of growing up.
Because of my emotional and cultural attachments to food, I was resistant to learning about the ethical issues involved in food production, and thus remained willfully ignorant as to what was going on for several years. Eventually, I decided to go vegan even though I worried I would be giving up any claim to ever enjoying food again, and that it would make me feel socially ostracized. It turned out, surprisingly, that people were supportive of my decision and that I began enjoying food in a way I never had before. The most challenging part was making the decision to eat differently from the way the rest of my culture was eating, but everything fell into place after that.
It was Voltaire who said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” Absurdities and atrocities. That to me is our society’s production and consumption of dairy products, in a nutshell.
Now we have the opportunity to wake up from the cultural spell that was cast upon us – the spell that told us we needed milk, that it was good for us, and that consuming it was normal and natural. And whether or not we choose to wake up is on us.
Milk in Reverse – 1-minute video by Peta
Death by Dairy – Fascinating talk by Dr. John MacDougal
Documentaries to watch
My awareness of dairy and meat industry propaganda was shaped by For the Prevention of Cruelty: The History and Legacy of Animal Rights Activism in the U.S., as well as the documentaries Forks Over Knives and Eating.
Learn about the dairy-free products I recommend in my post Veganize Your Fridge.