Familiar, safe, evoking childhood memories of dunking cookies or cafeteria lunches with school friends. Cool, refreshing and good for you.
Maybe. While some consider milk a nutritional powerhouse, others see it as unnecessary for good health and question the rationale behind some government-related programs that try to help the marketing of milk.
“When I was growing up, drinking milk at every meal, I had a chronic upset stomach,” cookbook author Mark Bittman wrote in his New York Times blog in July. As a teenager, that worsened into chronic heartburn and acid reflux, which led to a dependence on medications and a series of attempts to relieve his esophagus with other remedies.
Finally, his doctor advised him to see if eliminating certain foods from his diet would help. So, as an experiment, he tried cutting out dairy products and 24 hours later, “my heartburn was gone. Never, it seems, to return.”
It has long been known that some people have trouble digesting cow’s milk. The National Institutes of Health estimates about 30 million Americans have lactose intolerance, the inability to digest a type of sugar in milk. The condition is more common in people of Asian, African, Native American or Mediterranean ethnicity, and, while not dangerous, it can cause nausea, bloating, gas and diarrhea. Milk allergy, an immune system reaction that can cause hives, eczema and wheezing, as well as digestive problems, is thought to affect 2% to 5% of babies, though many outgrow it by age 3, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
While there are drawbacks for some, the nutritional benefits of milk are clear, says Ruth Frechman, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, formerly the American Dietetic Association. “Milk is a nutrient-dense beverage; it’s relatively inexpensive and is an easy source of hydration,” she says. It contains protein, calcium, vitamin D, phosphorus, potassium, vitamin B12 and other vitamins and minerals.
But its main nutrient, says Frechman, is calcium, “and most Americans are not getting the recommended amounts of calcium.” Calcium is needed to build bone and teeth, help muscles to contract, and improve nerve function, she says. It plays a role in blood clotting and the dilation and contraction of blood vessels, which affects blood pressure.
Robert Post, deputy director of the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, says of the four nutrients that are of public health concern because Americans don’t get enough of them — calcium, potassium, vitamin D and fiber– three are in dairy foods. (There’s no fiber in milk.)
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