FOR MANY AMERICANS, cow's milk constitutes an icon of whole-someness. Indeed, for generation after generation, the U.S.'s $75,000,000,000-per-year dairy industry--which dates back to a few cows shipped to Jamestown, Va., in 1611--has succeeded in promoting its products, often with considerable government help.
In 1916, in an era when "milkmen" in horse-drawn wagons delivered bottles door-to-door, the first daily food guidelines from the Federal government included "milk and meat" as one of five groups. By the time the "Basic Four Food Groups" debuted in 1956, milk and milk products had been given a group of their own. As time passed, the dairy industry garnered political clout via lavish campaign donations, such as the $600,000 illegally given to Pres. Richard M. Nixon's 1972 reelection bid in exchange for his backing higher milk-price subsidies. Meanwhile, starting in the 1970s, "skim milk" and "low-fat milk" aggressively were promoted to bolster milk sales among the health-conscious. Today, celebrity "milk-mustache" ads, athletic tie-ins, magazine modeling contests, in-school vending machines, and public relations events camouflaged as health conferences seek to distract the public from the merits of the strengthening case against dairy.
"The standard four food groups are based on American agricultural lobbies," maintains Marion Nestle, a nutrition policy researcher based at New York University and author of Food Politics. "Why do we have a milk group? Because we have a National Dairy Council." As she wrote in her book, "Certainly, much of the credit for the public's favorable views [of milk] must go to the National Dairy Council [NDC], which adopted the Basic Four for its own purposes and made its version of the guide widely available in schools ... [and] it stacked the food groups vertically and placed the milk group at the top. NDC's spin on the Food Guide Pyramid dodges the fat issue and pumps the daily servings recommendation from '2-3' to '3-4.'"
Excess fat, however, may not be milk's biggest drawback. Increasing numbers of medical studies indict dairy products as contributors not only to obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, but prostate cancer, allergies, and possibly breast cancer. In children, dairy products can cause chronic constipation, ear infections, colic, asthma, and skin disorders. Milk also is deficient in fiber, niacin, vitamin C, and iron, and often contains traces of pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics. Lactose intolerance, with its nasty gastrointestinal side effects--especially prevalent among non-Caucasians--presents yet another major issue. "There's no reason to drink cow's milk at any time in your life. It was designed for calves, not humans," advises Frank A. Oski, former Director of Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University.
Even milk's main selling point--its presumed ability to strengthen bones and stop osteoporosis--snaps like a twig. In the 12-year Harvard Nurses' Health Study of 78,000 women, heavy milk drinkers actually suffered more fractures than those who consumed little or no milk. Nevertheless, like a cynical version of Chicken Little, dairy industry operatives busily keep proclaiming a so-called "calcium crisis" in the U.S. That phrase, though, is more marketing lingo titan health care catastrophe, intended to panic the public into gulping down more milk to beef up dairy sales.
In June, 1999, and January, 2002, the NDC, Milk Processor Education Program, and dairy industry's hired public relations guns put on one-day milk promotions disguised as scientific meetings in the Ronald Reagan Federal Building in Washington, D.C. They were dubbed "Calcium Summit" and "Calcium Summit II," but, at both events, to paraphrase a line from George Orwell's Animal Farm. some calcium sources--dairy ones--were a lot more equal than others. For example, organizers billed 2002's $750,000 event as a way to bring together leading scientists, nutrition educators, and public health professionals for a closer look at calcium deficiency in youth and how to increase dietary calcium consumption. …