Not necessarily, says Alissa Hamilton, the author of the new book Got Milked: The Great Dairy Deception and Why You’ll Thrive Without Milk? In an interview with Julia Belluz at Vox, Hamilton chronicles how, for Americans, milk has become synonymous with health (even though, as she points out, 60 percent of the population is lactose intolerant). Plenty of people—and certainly children in other cultures—don’t drink the recommended amount of milk per day and still grow up to be perfectly healthy adults. We know this in our rational minds, but we’re still bothered by the niggling feeling that if our kids don’t drink milk, they’re missing something.
Our national devotion to milk is just the product of a really good marketing campaign, says Hamilton. School milk programs started at the beginning of the last century; the demands of provisioning soldiers during World War II also boosted milk production. Government subsidies for farmers mean the dairy industry has an incentive to create demand. And with women in the workforce, no longer home and nursing their children, milk became a convenient source of calories and fat for babies.
Says Hamilton: “I can’t say which one of these many different forces did it, but it’s just a combination that has led to this health halo around milk. I think what’s more troubling is how deeply ingrained the idea has become and how inaccurate many of our assumptions about milk are.”
Milk holds an undeserved special status as the only vehicle for calcium. Even the dairy industry can’t claim that milk is the only source of calcium, says Hamilton: “The National Dairy Council recognizes that foods like kale, bok choy, and broccoli all have higher rates of calcium absorption than milk. Who knew that two tablespoons of dried basil have almost the same amount of calcium as a glass of milk? We don’t know that because we have this dairy food group [consisting only of milk], which has created a crutch for people who don’t think about getting calcium in places other than milk.”
The primary problem is that we rely on health information from food businesses that have a stake in selling their products, as well as the government agencies designed to prop them up. Nutritional guidelines that push animal products may be outmoded: As Michael Pollan and others write in the Washington Post, “Our food system is largely a product of agricultural policies that made sense when the most important public health problem concerning food was the lack of it.”
So I’m gradually trying to lose the milk guilt and focusing instead on cooking more non-animal-product meals for my kids. It’s a new food policy, at least in our home—one that means that milk is off the table.