Is Milk Good for You? Nutrition Facts and Myths

The “Got Milk?” campaign was one of the most memorable of its time. From the famous Michael Bay-directed “Aaron Burr” commercial to the to the endless milk mustache wearing celebrities like Dennis Rodman, Britney Spears, and Kermit the Frog, drinking milk was deemed a great way to help us stay healthy and build strong bones. But recent news and reviews have left us questioning, “Is milk good for you?”

Milk is a controversial topic. Some sources promote it as one of the most nourishing foods around, while others view it as more harmful than helpful. The USDA recommends enjoying three daily servings of low or fat-free milk or dairy to improve overall health and protect our bones, while Harvard University states that consuming more than one or two servings per day can lead to poor bone health and some cancers. Mix together with lactose intolerance, allergies, and varied production methods and you’ve got yourself a cold, tall glass of confusion. We’re here to show you the non-milky way.

A brief bovine milk history

The use of dairy was referenced in Western culture both in the Old and New Testaments. The wanderer lifestyle came about as a result of land not being suitable for farming. As a result, various cultures adapted by using the milk from animals to help sustain themselves, largely used in fermented forms. 

Getting geeky:
Some think cheese may have been created by accident. Wanderers stored milk in a sheep’s stomach, which reacted with enzymes found in the stomach lining, making cheese. What a pleasant surprise!

Is milk good for you?

Dairy has been in the human diet for over 9,000 years and yet the related symptoms, such as lactose intolerance and allergies, have been more recent. Modern processing has compromised the quality of milk and changed the way our bodies absorb it.

Milk processing

Pasteurization is the heating of milk in order to make it safe and extend the shelf life by destroying harmful bacteria. But some argue that pasteurizing can have detrimental effects because it also decreases the healthy bacteria which naturally protect against harmful pathogens. It also damages some protein, enzymes, and vitamins, making them more difficult to absorb.

Homogenization is an emulsion (mixture) of fat and oil. In its natural, raw form, the fat would rise to the top of the liquid. Homogenization is a mechanical process that pushes the milk fat under high pressure through a tiny strain. This makes the milk less likely to separate, improving the look and mouthfeel. It’s viewed as a negative practice by some professionals because it damages the structure of the fat, leading to irritation to the gut lining.

Growth hormones

Most commercial dairy cows are injected with hormones and growth factors that make them produce more milk. A common one, recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), can cause adverse health in cows but as for humans, the evidence is inconclusive. Since research is still new and inconclusive, we recommend erring on the safe side by choosing organic milk from cows that are free of growth hormones.

Antibiotics

The overuse of antibiotics in our modern day can cause an overgrowth of unhealthy bacteria. However, it’s unclear whether or not the antibiotics that are administered to dairy cows is reaching us via milk. Typically when cows require antibiotics, they are removed from production for 3-4 days and the milk is tested for antibiotics before loading it for delivery. The problem is when farms wrongfully process antibiotic-treated cows too soon, meaning the antibiotics are still in their systems and passed onto the milk. 

Wow cow:
Milk that advertises as “antibiotic-free” is misleading because it’s against the law to sell milk containing antibiotics.

As for organic milk, they are subject to antibiotics too, but are kept out of production for twice as long as commercial dairy cows. If the animal is treated with antibiotics more than once a year, it’s permanently removed from production.

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Lactose intolerance

For some people,  ilk can be difficult to digest. It contains large protein molecules which, in extreme cases, can cause allergic reactions. Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest milk sugar (lactose), due to inadequate amounts of a digestive enzyme (lactase). Those of you who experience lactose intolerance know that eating dairy makes for some uncomfortable and embarrassing symptoms: gas, bloating, and diarrhea.

If you suffer from lactose intolerance, you may want to consider taking Lactaid, buying Lactose-free milk, or switching to a non-dairy alternative. You may find that products such as hard cheeses and fermented dairy (yogurt and kefir) are easier to digest because the healthy bacteria have already partially broken down some of the lactose for you.

Milk nutrition facts

Although slightly processed, milk is considered to be a whole food. It provides all three macronutrients and is an excellent source of B vitamins as well as fat-soluble vitamins, A and E. It’s mineral profile includes calcium and phosphorus, which are both good for bone health. Due to its easy absorption as a liquid, it’s excellent to add to post-workout snacks or weight gain shakes.

Nutrition facts for 1 cup (240 ml):

  • Skim: 80 kcal, 8g protein, 0 g fat, 11 g carbs
  • Low-fat: 120 kcal, 10 g protein, 2.5 g fat, 15 g carbs
  • 2%: 140 kcal, 10 g protein, 5 g fat, 14 g carbs
  • Full-fat: 220 kcal, 8 g protein, 8 g fat, 28 g carbs

Down to the bone

One milk myth is that we have to drink it in order to get calcium. While calcium and dairy can lower the risk of osteoporosis and colon cancer, a high intake could possibly increase the risk of prostate and ovarian cancer. Harvard recommends limiting milk and dairy foods to no more than one to two servings per day. More won’t necessarily do your bones good. Other ways to keep your bones strong:

  • Eat plenty of leafy greens like broccoli, spinach, collard greens, and kale.
  • Get vitamin D from the sun. Or, in winter, eat foods rich in vitamin D.
  • Get active, prioritizing weight-bearing exercises such as walking, weight training, dancing or jogging.
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Pro tip:
Most milks are fortified with fat-soluble vitamins A and D. Since skim milk doesn’t contain fat, we recommend adding a fat source when you eat it. Peanut butter with your skim milk smoothie? Yes please.

Which milk is the best?

Milk is naturally packed with nutrients in a convenient and easily drinkable and portable form. However, not all milks are created equal. Our response to the question, “Is milk good for you?” is that it depends on how it makes you feel; you know yourself best.

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We recommend aiming for organic and grass-fed versions as much as possible since they provide beneficial fats (omega-3), a bit more vitamins, and has less hormones and antibiotics. When cows are free to roam and are fed what they’re meant to, they’re healthier. If you’re sensitive to cow’s milk, give goat’s milk a go!

Want to dive into dairy-containing meals (vegans, feel free to swap non-dairy alternatives)? Sign up for the 8fit app for cow’s milk containing, customizable recipes.