Trigger Warning: Dairy Milk

By: Vivienne Rachmansky

View all Vivienne Rachmansky's works

Is Milk Actually Unhealthy, or Is Ditching Dairy Just Another Way to Be “Woke?”

“Got Milk?” In 2021, the answer is exhaustive—“Yes: almond, soy, oat, rice, coconut, hemp, cashew, macadamia, flax…” (the list goes on and on…and on). Gone are the simple evenings of warm chocolate chip cookies dunked in a glass of pure dairy and rushed mornings of Cheerios floating in bowls of “moo juice.”

What Happened To Plain Old Milk?

In an era of fleeting trends, dairy milk, just like last season’s clothing or hair styles, is no longer “in.” In many ways, milk has become obsolete and old-fashioned—a star of retro movie breakfast spreads, featured just before the picture-perfect protagonist rides off to their suburban high school. Even if you ignore today’s reactionary commentary or the constant need for novelty on social media, statistics further emphasize growing distaste towards dairy milk. But how has a product which was once America’s refrigerated sweetheart fallen from prominence?

Now, more than ever, milk alternative brands such Oatly and Almond Breeze are consistently growing, with the latter achieving over $800 million in sales in 2020. For groups like the 36% of Americans who are lactose-intolerant, it’s understandable why they opt to consume non-dairy options, but that doesn’t account for the majority of the population. And, with increasingly conflicting information being published regarding the health benefits and drawbacks of milk, it’s become not only tedious but practically impossible for the average consumer to determine what they should stir into their Starbucks latte.

Dairy milk has been marketed for decades as a way to become stronger, grow healthy bones and teeth, and get your nutrients in. Now, we are left with the question: Has classic milk soured past its expiration date? And more importantly, why?

Let’s Hear From The Experts

Chef and registered dietitian, Abbie Gellman, MS, RD, CDN believes that “unless there is an allergy or lactose intolerance issue, the positives [of dairy milk] outweigh any negatives.” Gellman explains that dairy milk has more “vitamins and minerals” than most alternatives, and “if you compare the labels of dairy milk to non-dairy milk, you see a stark contrast between the two.” She’s of the opinion that “much of what is in the non-dairy milk is simply an added supplement.” 

Gellman stresses the importance of calcium, vitamin D, magnesium, and phosphorus, principally “up until age 30,” when our bones stop growing and instead “shift to maintaining density.” So, she argues that most teenagers need “some sort of dairy product” incorporated into their diet whether it’s milk, cheese, or yogurt “since they are unlikely to be eating enough plant-based foods to get appropriate calcium levels.” (Plant based foods that contain these nutrients include leafy greens, soy, and legumes.) 

This dietitian’s stance is in line with the once commonly-held opinion that dominated American diets through the decades. Milk’s (now arguably tarnished) reputation of helping develop bone strength is upheld by Gellman and her final verdict: “Milk is the quickest way…to get the nutrients we need.”

Zina Kroner, DO, offers a different perspective. Unlike Gellman, who herself uses both dairy and non-dairy products, Kroner’s family stopped drinking milk about 15 years ago. Dr. Kroner’s choice was based on what she felt were numerous negative effects that dairy milk can have on your body and skin.

Dermatological consequences that Kroner cites include that dairy can “trigger the production of acne as well as induce eczema and psoriasis.” She usually suggests that her patients who suffer from acne should stay away from dairy milk. Given today’s obsession with “Insta-worthy” skin, it’s not surprising that people are forgoing milk in hopes of achieving a clear complexion.

“Non-fat dairy is the worst culprit being that it is higher on the glycemic index and lacks the beneficial fats found in regular full fat organic grass-fed dairy.”
–Dr. Zina Kroner, DO

Furthermore, Kroner articulates that dairy is an “issue for a majority of people with irritable bowel disease and inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohns or ulcerative colitis.” And for those with autoimmune diseases, dairy is often a “significant” trigger.  By the same token, since Kroner states that dairy milk is mucogenic, she argues that “it stimulates the production of mucus in most people, which can have an effect if someone has underlying asthma, sinus congestion, other pulmonary issues or seasonal allergies.” (The jury is still out on whether milk is in fact mucogenic, and multiple studies have shown that it’s not.)

Ultimately, Kroner recommends coconut and flax milk as alternatives since they are “free of oxalates, which are found in almond milk.” Oxalate toxicity, she explains “is a highly underdiagnosed condition.” The doctor additionally points out that while numerous non-dairy alternatives are sweetened, they’re relatively safe as long as they’re free of carrageenan, an additive which acts as a stabilizer and thickener and has been linked to colitis and other systemic inflammatory processes. 

Kroner’s outlook is more illustrative of recent health trends, where it seems like just about everything has the potential to harm you. Juxtaposed with Gellman’s more traditional viewpoint, Dr. Kroner throws in a dash of modern reality—and if her au fait explanations don’t make you want to chuck your cartons into the dumpster, nothing will.

What Now?

As made clear by these two professionals, the issue of dairy milk isn’t as black and white as the cow it comes from. However, as we continue to witness the advent of more non-dairy drinks, it’s critical to find what works for your body instead of falling victim to the ever-changing health propaganda that lurks on the internet and the wives’ tales of decades ago. 

In today’s environment, we’ve learned that groupthink, catchy hashtags, and social pressure can often be more powerful than studies and facts. So, regardless of the scientific research that many choose not to read, perhaps milk will make a comeback. Who says that the mom jeans, scrunchies, and disposable cameras of the past are the only things that can resurface into the zeitgeist of the 21st century?

For now, as some wait for the anti-milk trend to die and others fight to keep it alive, the choice is up to you: To drink milk, or not to drink milk, that is the question.

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