Does milk make us sick, can it carry a virus or is it beneficial to our health?
Milk makes you strong and healthy, says the advertising. Others warn: Those who drink milk get sick and die earlier. A look at the facts.
For opponents of the white liquid, one thing is clear: milk causes stomach and intestinal problems, leads to earlier death, it causes allergies, coughs, colds, acne, obesity, otitis media, diabetes, even broken bones – and cancer. Everything backed up by studies. But it’s not that easy.
Do we need milk?
Humans have been drinking cow’s milk for around 7,500 years. A new study even suggests that a large proportion of Central Europeans only tolerated it much later. The ability to tolerate it may only have developed significantly in the past 3,200 years.
Humans are the only living beings that still consume breast milk after weaning – albeit from a different species. Back then (and in many places today too) people lacked the enzyme necessary to digest the dairy drink with its sugar lactose. Milk is therefore not or only extremely difficult to digest for these people, especially in the quantities that are usual in this country.
The countries in which milk is not a staple food clearly show that people can live healthily even without it. We also get the important nutrients from other foods.
How many people cannot tolerate milk?
Milk is a staple food for many people – but it is clearly in the minority. A large part of the world’s population cannot tolerate milk. Around three quarters of all people worldwide are lactose intolerant: They lack lactase, the enzyme that can process lactose in the body.
In Europe, for example, it is the other way around. Around 30 percent of adults here suffer from lactose intolerance. For them, milk consumption can lead to abdominal pain, bubbling and gas
An allergy is even rarer, it occurs in around one percent. A medical check brings certainty here.
Does milk keep bones strong?
Obviously not. It was advertised for a long time, after all, milk is a good supplier of calcium. But apparently there is no connection between high milk consumption in adulthood and strong bones. Instead, some data suggest the opposite: there are far fewer cases of osteoporosis in countries where traditionally little milk is consumed. And some scientific research even concludes that milk does not reduce the risk of fractures, but increases it. But the data are contradicting itself – and the thesis is controversial.
Some studies confirm a connection between high consumption and an increased risk of bone fractures – but only in women. Other studies found no evidence for this. Even an extensive Harvard study of 43,000 men could not find any evidence of increased fractures on the forearm or hip. The Max Rubner Institute also comes to this judgment in its statement.
Calcium needs a partner: vitamin D.
It is now also known that a high calcium intake alone does not ensure strong bones. Calcium from food can only be used properly if sufficient vitamin D (and magnesium) is available at the same time. So you could drink gallons of milk and still have weak bones if you don’t spend enough time in the sun at the same time. Exercise also seems to be an important factor – and could explain the differences between Europeans and Asians.
Are growth factors in milk harmful?
A common argument that milk is harmful is a specific growth hormone called IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor). This occurs naturally in the human body – vegans also have and need this hormone. For example, it controls cell growth.
The concentration in the human body increases automatically, especially in childhood and puberty.
Milk drinkers are actually getting taller
Whoever drinks milk, whether in the growth phase or as an adult, takes in a little more of this growth hormone. The concentration is around ten percent higher than in people who do not drink milk. This could explain, for example, that milk drinkers are indeed getting “longer”.
In theory, growth hormone can also promote cancer – in practice, according to estimates, the additional amounts from milk are not enough to have a demonstrable, direct effect on cancer.
So far there has been only one indirect statistical connection: milk makes people longer and taller using IGF-1 – and more cells and more frequent cell division mean a higher risk of cancer. So far, however, there is no evidence here.
Does milk carry a virus?
The Heidelberg virologist Harald zur Hausen has been researching the risk of cancer from milk and meat consumption for years. His thesis: There is a pathogen in meat and dairy products from European cattle that leads to constant inflammatory reactions – and thereby increases the risk of cancer.
This thesis is based on a contradiction that he discovered in data from various countries: In countries such as India, South Korea and Japan, colon and breast cancer rates have traditionally been very low. However, after more and more meat and dairy products were consumed from the middle of the 20th century, the rates rose sharply. At the same time, there are countries like Mongolia or Bolivia, in which a lot of meat has always been consumed, but the cancer rate has remained at a low level.
Only European cattle affected?
At first glance, this contradiction gave the researcher at the German Cancer Research Center exactly the same question that he and his team are currently investigating: Does only the consumption of meat and milk from European cattle cause health problems? Because if Mongolia and other countries with high meat consumption and low cancer rates mainly keep other types of cattle such as yak cattle, the countries with higher cancer rates import European cattle.
Neither bacterium nor virus: the plasmidoma
In the meantime, the researchers have found what they are looking for – in blood samples from European cattle, from patients and healthy people. In all of them they were able to locate a kind of novel “pathogen” that is neither a bacterium nor a virus: the so-called plasmidoma. However, it was not found inside tumors, but in the surrounding tissue.
The researchers’ theory: After weaning, a child becomes infected with the pathogen by consuming milk or meat at the age of up to one year – if the immune system is not yet fully developed. The “pathogen” ensures constant inflammatory reactions in the cells, which accompany people for a lifetime – and this can lead to mutations in the cells’ genetic material. Over time, this increases the likelihood that precisely those mutations will occur that turn healthy cells into tumor cells.
No warning about milk and dairy products
So far, many more studies are missing to finally prove the thesis. Either way, the virologist sees a positive health effect when mothers breastfeed for a year. And: So far, according to Zur Hausen, there is no convincing data that the risk of cancer increases further if you continue to eat meat, milk or yogurt after being infected with the plasmidoma. Therefore, the Heidelberg researcher does not advise against milk and milk products.
The more processed, the more harmful
In general, the following applies: the higher the degree of processing of milk, i.e. the more it is heated, pasteurized or homogenized, the more often one finds harmful effects on the human body – this connection can be found in several studies. However, it is often not proven whether this is solely due to the milk or to the entire lifestyle.
You’d think that would be an argument in favor of switching to raw milk. However, due to the bacterial load and other hygienic reasons, experts advise against relying entirely on raw milk.
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