The land of milk and money: How milk producers fool most of the people most of the time.

August 21, 2006 | By | 16 Replies More

Humans are creatures with limited attentional capacity.  We don’t have the time or brainpower to personally investigate every claim that comes our way.  We don’t like questioning ideas to which we’ve become accustomed.  Evil-minded people only need to get those lies into our heads.  Once in there, those false ideas rattle around for a long time. How to best get false information into people’s heads?  Employ a Trojan horse maneuver, i.e., plant credible-seeming information into our brains when we are young using credible intermediaries (such as our parents) through the use of the mass media.  And it always helps if the proponents of deceit are well-financed while the proponents of the truth are not. Once false information is safely in their heads, humans are willing to carry it around for decades, disseminating it to yet others and even fighting for it. No, I’m not writing about Iraq. Today’s case study is cow milk. Yeah, the kind of milk you probably drink.  Why drink milk?  You’ve probably seen lots of those slick ad campaigns.  You’ll hear lots of claims that it is important for humans to drink cow milk. Before I go further, here are my disclaimers.  For my first 4 ½ decades on this planet, I poured milk on my cereal.  About five years ago, my wife and I began to suspect that our youngest daughter was lactose intolerant.  People who are lactose intolerant can’t properly digest milk. We thus switched over to soy milk for her.  I also switched over to soy milk.  It tastes a bit different than cow milk, but I truly enjoy the flavor, with no growth hormones to worry about.  Here’s the brand I use, but there are many other good brands.  I don’t completely avoid dairy products.  For instance, I can’t imagine life without ice cream.  Enough disclaimers . . . But back to the ads of those milk producers. If you’ve been paying attention to the ad campaign, you know that humans need cow milk to maintain strong bones. You can check out the current Got Milk campaign here. The beauty of this misinformation is that the dairy industry has thrown enough money at our government that the government willingly does much of the dirty work through the use of its own “food pyramids.”  Until last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture told us that, to be healthy, each of us needs to have two to three servings of “milk, yogurt & cheese” every day.   A new pyramid was released in April 2005.  It was “designed to help Americans live longer, better and healthier lives.”   The glitzy new pyramid adjusts for age, gender and activity levels.  But it still tells most adults that we need to drink three cups of cow milk every day.  The USDA website buries a note that people can substitute lactose-free products only if they “don’t or can’t consume milk.”  How was the food pyramid built?  “Intense lobbying efforts from a variety of food industries” was a key contributor. I’m not going to disagree with the claim that milk is a source of calcium.  That aspect of the campaign is not a lie.  Here are the lies. Lie number one is that your diet needs a steady stream of cow milk so that you get enough calcium.  Lie number two (a lie by omission) is that there are no adverse side-effects to drinking milk. Do you need to drink cow milk to have enough calcium?  Has it been proven safe to drink lots of milk to obtain calcium?  No and no. Discussing the old food pyramid (which, again, provided for comparable amounts of milk consumption as the new pyramid), Walter C. Willett and Meir J. Stampfer (professors of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health) had this to say about milk consumption:

Yet another concern regarding the USDA pyramid is that it promotes overconsumption of dairy products, recommending the equivalent of two or three glasses of milk a day. This advice is usually justified by dairy’s calcium content, which is believed to prevent osteoporosis and bone fractures. But the highest rates of fractures are found in countries with high dairy consumption, and large prospective studies have not shown a lower risk of fractures among those who eat plenty of dairy products. Calcium is an essential nutrient, but the requirements for bone health have probably been overstated. What is more, we cannot assume that high dairy consumption is safe: in several studies, men who consumed large amounts of dairy products experienced an increased risk of prostate cancer, and in some studies, women with high intakes had elevated rates of ovarian cancer. Although fat was initially assumed to be the responsible factor, this has not been supported in more detailed analyses. High calcium intake itself seemed most clearly related to the risk of prostate cancer. More research is needed to determine the health effects of dairy products, but at the moment it seems imprudent to recommend high consumption. Most adults who are following a good overall diet can get the necessary amount of calcium by consuming the equivalent of one glass of milk a day. Under certain circumstances, such as after menopause, people may need more calcium than usual, but it can be obtained at lower cost and without saturated fat or calories by taking a supplement.

Walter Willett wrote more about milk in Eat, Drink and Be Healthy:  The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating (2001).  In that book (p. 132) Willett writes that “there are more reasons not to drink milk in large amounts than there are two drink it.  He also points out the following:

  • There are serious questions regarding the amount of calcium we need you stay healthy, the amount of calcium or milk that it’s safe, and whether milk is the best source of calcium.
  • There’s little evidence that boosting one’s calcium intake to the high levels recommended by the milk producers (and their good friends at the USDA) will prevent bone fractures (p. 139).
  • “Around the world there’s a huge variation in average daily and calcium intake … curiously, countries with the highest average calcium intake [like the U.S and New Zealand] tend to have higher, not lower, hip fracture rates [than Hong Kong and Singapore] . . . there is virtually no evidence that drinking two or three glasses of milk a day reduces the chances of breaking a bone.” (p. 141, 146).
  • There is also a dark side of consuming calcium of drinking three glasses of milk per day.  “Here are five good reasons: lactose intolerance, saturated fat, extra calories, a possible increased risk of prostate cancer and a possible increased risk of all very and cancer.” (p. 144).
  • How can you build strong bones?  Exercise, estrogen and testosterone replacement therapy, nutrients such as vitamin D, vitamin K and fluoride. Perhaps eating meat and fish.

If milk were such a necessary food, how are most of the people in the world surviving?  After all, only a quarter of the world’s adult population can fully digest milk. Half of Hispanic Americans, 75% of African Americans and 90% of Asian Americans can’t tolerate much milk.  Let’s see . . . most of the people of the world can’t drink milk.   What better evidence would you need that milk is not a necessary food?  [Side note: the explanation for why some adults can tolerate lactose is a good story combining evolution and culture.] Yes, milk is a great source of calcium.  But the “Got Milk” fails to mention the many other excellent sources of calcium to. They include green leafy vegetables such as spinach (yes, you can get your calcium from plants, just like cows do), calcium fortified orange juice, tofu and beans. Many organizations provide detailed information pointing out serious health concerns associated with daily consumption of cow milk.  Those sites can be found here and here and here and here. The bottom line?  Thanks to expensive ad campaigns by milk producers (given a big assist from the USDA, which prominently placed cow milk on the food pyramid), most of us know that we need to drink several cups of cow milk each day or our bones will start breaking.  Because we are afraid of breaking bones, we pump lots of expensive milk into our mouths and our children’s mouths. How effective is this mis-information?  Just pick someone at random and ask him or her what we need to eat to have strong bones.  Listen to their answer.  The milk producers’ campaign is incredibly effective. Getting the truth out, even on clear-cut undisputed facts requires people to re-examine old established assumptions.  Most people just aren’t willing to do that kind of hard work.  Most people like to believe the things that are familiar to them.  Though this is a lesson illustrated today by needless milk consumption, the lesson can also be applied to many many other issues of the day.


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Category: American Culture, Consumerism, Food, Health, Politics

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. 10 facts about dairy milk : Dangerous Intersection | February 25, 2013
  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    As a resident of Wisconsin — the self-proclaimed Dairy State — I feel obliged to challenge some of Erich's remarks.

    First, Erich says, "…we pump lots of expensive milk into our mouths and our children’s mouths." I don't know what prices are where he lives, but in most places I've been to, dairy milk is considerably cheaper than the soy products that Erich proposes as an alternative. Accordingly, whether the added cost of soy is a worthwhile investment to gain its incremental health benefits is an open question that should be addressed more rigorously before drawing conclusions about whether or not it offers a better cost/benefit. Likewise, while we can get calcium cheaper from a pill than from milk, what are people then going to pour onto their cereal?

    Second, the dairy lobby is hardly the only trade group that promotes its products, and it does nowhere near the amount of promotion that is done by makers of much less healthful products, such as soft drinks and fast foods. Indeed, to the extent that milk is promoted as an replacement for soft drinks, which are both more expensive and utterly devoid of nutritional value, the dairy lobby is arguably doing the public a favor. I realize this argument is a stretch — water would arguably be a better replacement for both milk and soft drinks — but most of the bottled waters that have significant ad budgets are also both more epensive and less nutritious than milk.

    BTW, speaking of the well-known "Got Milk?" advertising campaign, I once saw a funny parody ad here in Wisconin in which a young man is shown strapping a bungee cord to his ankles and jumping off a bridge. The ad shows the bungee cord rapidly uncoiling over the edge of the bridge, but when the bungee cord finishes uncoiling, we see that the end of the cord is not anchored to anything, so the entire cord disappears over the edge of the bridge. The screen goes black — exactly as in a "Got Milk?" ad — but, instead, the words "Got Jesus?" appear. It was an ad for a local church.

  2. Deb says:

    It's all about money- money spent on advertising prescription medication so consumers can dictate to their doctors what patent medicines they want; money pushing certain foods so the relevant industry can make a bigger bundle; money to political campaigns so industry trade organizations get sympathetic legislators who owe something to the industry. It was refreshing to hear today that this years' Field Prize winner, Grigory Perelman, didn't turn up to pick up his million dollar prize.

    Another invaluable resource for fair and accurate research is the Center for Science in the Public Interest :

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Grumpy: Here's what I'd substitute for milk: water. We have decent tap water in St. Louis for essentially no cost. It has tested safe compared to many bottled waters. If you want, you can even move up to those five-gallon tanks of distilled or spring water for not much more than $1/gallon delivered.

    What I really wanted to stress is that by dissing milk, I am in no way suggesting that soft drinks, fruit drinks or any other sugary concoction are healthy substitutes.

    I'm 90% water, I'm told. Therefore, I drink water. If I didn't, I might turn into someone else.

  4. Jennifer says:

    Erich – I've been a vegan for over 20 years and I know the vegeterian groups out there have been on a campaign to debunk the dairy campaign. I also think it's funny that cows, from which we get our milk, are vegans.

  5. high and mighty says:

    all media is propaganda, in one form or another. I severely limit my television viewing to avoid a constant barrage of images and thoughts that I am unable to process for veracity. That I might be manipulated past my ability to equalize this bothers me. I realize that this makes me a cultural recluse, but that is not my problem. Most television is the same stuff, simply repackaged with the appropriate nod to culture, and so is boring anyhow. I would prefer to approach questions from an unbiased standing when possible, and I also realize that there really is no such thing as an open mind. It is possible, but not plausible, that the commercial/capitalistic interests deliberately saturate the airwaves with images designed to keep us mindless and buying useless items, but I can't give them that much intelligence to have planned this all out, but it is more of the nature of the beast.

  6. Erika Price says:

    A vegan friend of mine once described one of the negatives of milk consumption very well: no other animal consumes milk as an adult other than humans. In the rest of the animal world, infants only drink milk before they can graduate to solids; milk may have a multitude of nutrients, but it also has the express purpose of fattening babies up. No wonder it does the same to the humans who never grow up and stop drinking it.

    As for the calcium issue: yes, humans (especially women) need a great deal of calcium to prevent weak bones and teeth later in life. But calcium doesn't just come in milk and Tums- surprise! Vegetables have calcium too. And what else prevents bone breakage and injury? Another surprise!- exercise. I think far too many people use milk as a quick fix for a problem that requires much more effort.

  7. Sujay says:

    Very well said Erich. The myth that milk is "essential food", is just that : a myth. I think Erika's above post pretty much covers it. Except for Vitamin B12, I cannot think of a single nutrient in milk which cannot be had from fruits and vegetables. It is a shame that milk is considered to be some kind of magic tonic, which cannot be substituted by anything. When I tell people I don't consume milk, I'm considered to be some kind of a mal-nourished person. Guess what, I've been a vegan for two years, and recent blood tests showed me having no deficiencies (not even calcium), except for Vitamin B12, for which I've started taking B12 capsules.

  8. Amanda says:

    I think Erika (and Sujay) are exactly right. I too, have been a vegan for two years. I became a vegan b/c of the health aspect but I do agree w/the ethics behind it as well.

    Erika's posted people use "milk as a quick fix" and I believe that's exactly right as well. You can find more reasons why milk is bad for you than good (also is true for meat). As far as the campaign ads I only find the "Got Milk" ones in the magazines I read, I don't find McDonalds, etc. I would say they're doing a good job getting their "good for you" message around. Maybe it's b/c you're the dairy state of the country b/c our soy milk (one state over from you) is less expensive for slightly more than the milk here. Also, I am undercertain how you could EVER say milk is better for you than water b/c that is certainly UNTRUE! I don't remember EVER reading water puts walls of plaque in my body.

    As far as "what else can we eat for breakfast" are you kidding me? The only option cannot possibly be cereal. Even when I was in my 20's and didn't even know how to cook I found more to eat in the mornings besides cereal.

    I too only drink 100% water-that's it!

    Erich thank you for this article. I enjoyed reading it very much (my husband as well)!!!

  9. Dan Klarmann says:

    Seeking a vegan milk sub? I like almond milk. Soy or rice "milks" are also reasonable substitutes as a white, sweetish liquid useful for moistening cereals, freezing into desserts, or drinking. These industrially processed alternatives to ruminant mammary squeezings are gaining in popularity among those who have gotten hooked on the white stuff, and would rather switch than fight.

  10. grumpypilgrim says:

    For people who are serious about soymilk, I'd like to recommend an alternative to buying commercial soymilk products (which might have additives or processing steps that diminish soy's health benefits): home soymilk machines. These are machines that grind soybeans into soymilk, for a much lower cost compared to buying commercial soymilk products.

    One popular brand of soymilk machine is the Soy Toy. It's expensive (~$160, from, but will pay for itself in just a few months. 'Soy Toy' might sound like a comical name, but the brand has apparently been around for many years and is one of the most popular on the market.

    Another benefit of using such a machine is that you can add (or not) your own additives to your soymilk. You might like to add a sweetener or some salt (1tsp/quart), for example.

  11. Erich Vieth says:

    Some people advocate drinking raw (unpasteurized) milk. Is it safe? This article says no. See here.

  12. Dan Klarmann says:

    I find myself mixing it up. Soy milk, almond milk, rice milk, mass-market milk, organic pasteurized milk, and occasionally raw milk. I figure that variety might be a good thing. Moderation.

    Mainly, I use it to moisten my amaranth and quinoa flakes (New world native grains), and to mellow the occasional cup of strong fair-trade coffee. Milk is not a major part of my diet.

    Sometimes I have cheese: The worlds best tasting spoiled natural food products! Especially with bread and wine, other microbe-excretion enhanced treasures.

  13. Erich Vieth says:

    Socialism is OK for dairy farms. So is lying about nutrition.

  14. Erich Vieth says:

    One of Walter Willett's issues is that Americans don’t really need all of the dairy products they are told that they need by big companies that sell milk and by the federal government. He points out that most of the adults in the world are “lactose intolerant” meaning that they can’t drink milk, yet many of those non-milk drinkers are extremely healthy. He also says this:

    There are other healthier ways to get calcium than from milk and cheese, which can contain a lot of saturated fat. Three glasses of whole milk, for example, contains as much saturated fat as 13 strips of cooked bacon. If you enjoy dairy foods, try to stick mainly with no-fat or low-fat products.

  15. Erich Vieth says:

    “Recently published research suggests that milk may actually make bones brittle and might lead to earlier mortality.”

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