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The Truth About Milk

The white stuff may look like the ultimate health drink, but could it be doing your child more harm than good


Posted: 26 June 2012
by Nikki Sheehan

Milk, the white stuff. There is not much that looks quite as pure and wholesome as a glass of delicious cold milk. And the sight of milk-moustachioed children after they’ve downed a glass of snowy goodness makes most of us feel virtuous because we’re giving our children nature’s most perfect food. But the reality is, of course, that cow’s milk is really only perfect for cows. For at least some young humans, who consume cow’s milk once their breast or bottle days are over, there are increasing concerns that it may not live up to its health-giving reputation. 

The UK Government recommends that, from one year old, children should drink around three-fifths of a pint each day. This is to ensure that growing bones and teeth receive the calcium and other nutrients that they need for a good start in life, and that children with small appetites get enough calories and protein. And, unlike platefuls of beans and greens, young children tend to love it. But this, in itself, is one of the problems with milk. Toddlers can love it too much.

Children who drink too much milk actually risk becoming malnourished. The problem occurs when children are allowed to fill up on bottles of cow’s milk, and then they can’t eat a nutritious meal. Milk contains very little iron, and these children can easily become anaemic. In addition, cow’s milk can cause intestinal irritation and some degree of blood loss in the immature gut, which can exacerbate the problem.

The second major problem is the prevalence of allergy and intolerance. Globally, milk intolerance is the norm. Babies start out able to digest their mother’s milk. But at around the age of four, all races, except for white northern Europeans and a few rare groups, become deficient in the enzymes necessary to digest the milk sugar, lactose.

In the UK, we have relatively easy access to alternative types of 
milk. However, thesemay not be the answer. Children develop allergies to sheep’s milk, goat’s milk and soya milk,” Cow’s milk intolerance is common because this is what UK children are mainly exposed to.

Being allergic to milk and having a milk intolerance are two different conditions. A true allergy is caused by a reaction to milk protein, called casein, or whey. It can be detected by a blood or skin-prick test, and if positive, a child will need to avoid cow’s milk and milk products completely. Milk allergy should always be taken extremely seriously as, in rare cases, it can cause a life-threatening anaphylactic shock.

Cow’s milk intolerance is considerably more common, and less dramatic. It’s caused by having insufficient lactase, the enzyme that digests milk. If the lactose we absorb is greater than our lactase capacity, undigested lactose travels to the large intestine, where it ferments, producing symptoms such as nausea, burping, bloating and diarrhoea. People with lactose intolerance can sometimes consume limited amounts of dairy products, and some types of which, for example cheese and yogurt, are better tolerated than others.

If your child is lactose intolerant you have a choice between removing all dairy from their diet, or using the medications and special lactose-reduced dairy products that are now available. Although it has long been marketed as the calcium king, milk doesn’t actually have the monopoly on it. Calcium is available from many sources, including vegetables, nuts, seeds, bread, and seafood. And it’s not just the quantity that counts, but also the body’s ability to absorb the mineral. For bone health, children need more than just a good input of calcium. Certain substances, such as salt, meat, eggs, and, ironically, dairy produce, ‘rob’ calcium from the body, while potassium-rich foods, such as peppers and bananas reduce calcium losses. In addition, many studies have found that the key to good bone health is enough physical activity and exposure to sunlight.

Organic milk, however, is making the headlines for the right reason. Recent research from the Universities of Aberdeen and Aberystwyth in Scotland has shown that organic milk may contain more valuable nutrients than the average doorstep pint. According to the Organic Milk Suppliers’ Cooperative, organically-reared cows can also produce milk that is higher in beta-carotene and other antioxidants, and packs as much vitamin E per pint as a portion of Brussels sprouts.

So, with milk coming under increasingly close scrutiny, and our communities more multicultural and lactose intolerant, does milk still deserve its reputation as the first choice for growing children? While the scientific jury is still out, many parents are making the change for themselves and their children, and it may not be long before we see the ubiquitous pinta making way for a carton of rice milk.

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milk, children, drink, hydration, lactase
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