What Makes Milk So Special?
As it comes from cows, milk has many nutrients. After all, its natural purpose is for the development of calves, just as breast milk is intended for the development of human babies. Odd isn’t it that our culture does not hesitate to drink the milk of another mammal, but wouldn’t think of consuming the milk of our own species past infancy?
Let’s start with a little Milk 101. Cow’s milk can be broken down into 7 major components:
- Water – Cow’s Milk boasts approximately 88% water. Hmm, this could be a tough one to replace in our diets. Maybe we should try drinking, I don’t know, water?
- Protein – Cow’s milk contains roughly 3% to 4% protein, of which about 80% is casein and 20% is whey. Unfortunately, both casein and whey are top allergen sources. Beans, nuts, meat, fish, and poultry are better protein sources for most. See our section on Milk Allergies for more information.
- Fat – Naturally, the fat content of cow’s milk can range from 3% to 6%. In the United States, whole milk must contain at least 3.25% milk fat, while caps of 2%, 1%, and 0.5% milk fat are regulated for reduced fat, low fat, and skim varieties respectively. This doesn’t sound too bad, but the fat content is actually much higher than we perceive. These percentages are by weight, not calories. This means that the 88% water is not only diluting the milk itself, but also the % of fat. Whole milk derives 50% of its calories from fat, 2% gets 35% of its calories from fat; 1% weighs in with 23% of its calories from fat; and skim milk is the lone lightweight with 5% of calories from fat. Keep in mind; the fat in milk is mostly saturated (not that heart healthy kind). Is too little consumption of saturated fat really a problem in our society?
- Carbohydrate – When it comes to fiber and complex carbohydrates, milk is not a contender. It contains sugar, lactose to be specific. Approximately 5% of milk is sugar, and not the fun sweet kind either. As a matter of fact, a glass of milk contains half the sugar found in a serving of pop. Lactose is also a significant source of suffering for up to 75% of the world’s population. See our section on Lactose Intolerance for more information.
- Water-soluble Vitamins – Natural milk contains a fair amount of the C and B vitamins. However, milk is not considered a good source of Vitamin C, as most is weakened or destroyed during pasteurization. It is believed that about 38% of the B vitamins are also destroyed during pasteurization. Better sources of these vitamins can be found in a diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, lean meats, and fish. Vegetarians should supplement vitamin B12.
- Fat soluble Vitamins – Cow’s milk contains Vitamins A, D, E, and a very small amount of K. Unfortunately, these vitamins are removed with the fat in the production of reduced fat, low fat, and non-fat milks. Because of this dairy farmers are required to fortify these milks with vitamin A (at least 2,000 I.U. per quart), and may choose to fortify with vitamin D (at least 400 I.U. per quart). Just one BIG problem with this. Moderate to high intakes of Vitamin A have now been linked to an increased risk for hip fracture. Possibly because Vitamin A is believed to interfere with the activity of Vitamin D, a crucial bone building nutrient. This fortification process sounds a bit self-defeating. You are better off consuming these vitamins in your diet and through a bit of natural sunshine. Vitamin A is incredibly abundant in greens (spinach, kale, etc.), carrots, red bell peppers, and sweet potatoes. If you live in a gloomy place, it may be wise to take a Vitamin D supplement. If you are a vegetarian living in a gloomy place, just take a multivitamin!
- Minerals – The primary minerals in milk are phosphorous and calcium. The body needs to maintain a perfect balance of phosphorous and calcium. When too much of one is present, it depletes the other. Unfortunately, westernized diets are often loaded with phosphorous in the form of carbonated beverages and processed foods. To top it off, soluble calcium in milk is greatly reduced through pasteurization. The loss of soluble calcium in regards to infants and growing children must be a very important factor in growth and development, not only in the formation of bone and teeth, but also in the calcium content of the blood, the importance of which is now being raised. Luckily, there are many other excellent sources of calcium, see our Calcium Chart for details.
So what makes milk so special? It certainly isn’t the milk proteins, saturated fat, milk sugar, phosphorous, and Vitamin A. Milk is touted only for it’s calcium, fortified Vitamin D, B Vitamins, and water. A well balanced diet and some occasional sunshine will supply the dairy free consumer with each of these essential nutrients. If in doubt take a multivitamin, even milk drinkers take them.
- Report: Milk Composition and Nutritional Value; Michel A. Wattiaux of the Babcock Institute for International Dairy Research and Development
- Milk & Milk Products, Ch.11, Clark Ford, Ph.D; Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, Iowa State University
- Which Do You Choose? The Weston A. Price Foundation
- Serum retinol levels and the risk of fracture – Michaelsson K, Lithell H, Vessby B, Melhus H. New England Journal of Medicine. 2003;348:387-94. 5. US Department of Agriculture