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Jenny Lau/the Gauntlet

Milk. It Does a Body Good?

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Milk propaganda is rampant. From the time we're toddlers to the eve of our lives we're told that cows' milk is a natural and desirable requirement of our diet. The hold it has on our culture's psyche is so vast it's almost impossible to open a fridge door without seeing a carton of 2 per cent.

For most people, milk fulfils the recommended daily serving of dairy, but for others it has gone sour. You would think most people would clue in when doctors caution new parents with the popular caveat, "cows' milk is for baby cows, not baby humans." If in infancy, the most vulnerable time in one's life, we're advised against the ingestion of cows' milk, why would we want or need to drink it at any other time? Of all mammals on the tree of life we are the only ones who continue to drink milk after weaning. This should be another indication revealing the problematic nature of our consumption of cows' milk.

Our prolific use of cows' milk is trouble from both a biological and medical perspective. According to some biologists, only 25 per cent of the world's adult population retains the ability to produce an enzyme to digest lactose, a sugar found in milk. This percentage is skewed toward people of northern European descent, leaving 75 per cent of the world's non-European population unable to digest milk. If Canada represents a mosaic of the world's diversity, why are we among the top 10 consumers of milk in the world?

Another interesting, yet no less confusing asymmetry, is the positive correlation between increased consumption of calcium-rich milk and the increased levels of osteoporosis, a disease characterized by bone mineral density loss.

Before pasteurization became enforceable by law for the selling and distribution of milk, some cultures benefited from the nutrition garnered from this natural product. Nowadays, the cows' milk we buy at the supermarket has been so dramatically altered from its original state that we could call it anything but natural. From cow to carton, milk goes through a number of processes that would have most milk-moustached celebrities' heads rolling.

Let's take into consideration the treatment of the animals that faithfully produce this substance we so greedily procure. In order to supply the massive demand for milk, cows are usually factory farmed and confined to cramped stalls which increase stress to the animals and perpetuate the spread of disease. Canadian cows are not given the cocktail of drugs and hormones that other nations so lovingly administer, but let us not ignore the reality of the inhumanity from which this glorified product comes from. Cows experience harsh conditions and suffer many illnesses. To counteract this, they are given numerous injections of antibiotics which are transferred through the milk to us, the consumers. The proliferation of antibiotic drugs in our food supply could be linked to the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bugs and the debilitation of our immune system.

Next we have the pasteurization and homogenization processes. Originally, the pasteurization of milk was introduced to kill off harmful bacteria and to prevent milk from souring. The latter seems to be the more palpable reason since industry was burgeoning at that time, and making things more shelf-stable was highly beneficial to commercial exploits. Unfortunately, in the process of pasteurization, enzymes are destroyed, naturally occurring antioxidants are rendered inert and calcium becomes insoluble.

Homogenization, the process of making a mixture the same throughout, is also widespread in commercially sold milk. The fats in whole milk typically separate from the water content. This is unappealing to the average consumer who would much rather have a beverage she doesn't have to shake every time she wants a swig. The problem with homogenization is that it alters the composition of the fat molecule so that it bypasses the normal digestive process and delivers undigested proteins and hormones directly into the blood stream. In many cases, the immune system does not recognize the undigested proteins found in homogenized milk, and so initiates an allergic response.

Further down the line, what was once cows' milk is now fortified with synthetic vitamins, and cut with tap water. In some instances, high fructose corn syrup and artificial colourings are added and the beverage is packaged and shipped to your local food market, or worse, to kids' elementary school lunchroom.

In defence of cows' milk, people laud its protein content, calcium richness and nutritional benefits to the world's poor. In North America and elsewhere, I propose the consumption of other protein-rich foods like grains and pulses which require far less energy inputs than do the maintenance of dairy cows. I also suggest sea vegetables and seeds for alternative and much more richer sources of calcium. As for adults living in Canada and seeking optimal health and wellness, milk does a body bad.

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\"If in infancy, the most vulnerable time in one\'s life, we\'re advised against the ingestion of cows\' milk, why would we want or need to drink it at any other time?\"

—NB this argument also applies to beer, wine, spirits, etc.