It’s the first food that we have after birth. We are the only mammals continue to drink other animal’s milk throughout our life. There is no doubt that milk is nutritious and has multiple health benefits. But generally how healthy and safe is milk today? Is milk safe for you? Let’s find out.
What do we mean by “is milk safe”?
Food is safe only when after regular consumption it ensures all its benefits without causing any side effects.
That means milk should –
- provide good quality complete protein for growth, build and repair muscle, present muscle loss (1, 2, 3)
- supply an ample amount of vitamin D, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, vitamin K2, and protein to maintain strong healthy bones and teeth. (4, 5)
- contain an excellent amount of vitamin B 12, omega 3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) which are limited in other food sources (6,7,8, 9, 10)
- gives you good satiety and prevent being obese (11, 12)
- bring variety in the regular diet (think about curd, cheese, paneer, buttermilk, ice-cream, etc)
– without causing any physical discomfort or negative physiological impact.
However, these days including milk/milk products in daily diet is under question. Two types of question-related to milk may have to bother you these days.
Table 1: Category of questions you must ask to ensure safety –
|A. Is milk safe for you?||B. Is your milk safe?|
| Aa. Can you digest milk sugar? Are you Lactose intolerant?|
Ab. Can you process milk protein? Do you have milk allergy/ inflammation?
Ac. Is milk fat safe for you? Are you having any inflammation?
| Ba. Does your milk contain a high amount of hormone/ antibiotics?|
Bb. Does your milk contain adulterants?
A. Is milk safe for you?
Milk is healthy. Milk is nutritious. Even if you have access to pure, unadulterated, grass-fed, pasture-raised, organic milk, your body can still ditch you during digestion.
There is a large percentage of the population who fail to digest milk properly.
Therefore no matter how healthy the food is, if your body rejects to digest it, it’s of no use rather becomes unsafe for you.
Why does your body fail to process milk?
There are three major factors in milk that may create trouble processing milk or leave a negative impact on your body. Let’s check the table below to understand it better.
Table 2: Factors that may cause difficulties in milk digestion
|Factors||What they do|
|Milk Carbohydrate||Lactose intolerance|
|Milk protein||Milk allergy|
Aa. Can you digest milk sugar?
Lactose or milk sugar is the main carbohydrate present in milk. Lactose makes up 5% of milk. An enzyme called lactase- released from the small intestine helps to split lactose into glucose and galactose during digestion. After digestion, glucose, and galactose both enter our metabolic pathway to form energy.
Are you Lactose intolerant?
Some people are unable to produce the enzyme lactase thus fail to digest lactose. This condition is called lactose intolerance.
The undigested lactose passes the small intestine and reaches the colon, where it gets fermented by the gut bacteria and form a huge amount of gas – a mixture of carbon dioxide, hydrogen, and methane. This gas makes you feel bloated; develop an abdominal cramp, flatulence, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, etc. Do you face the same?
Data suggest about 75% of people around the world and 60% of Indians suffer from lactose intolerance. (14).
Which is your type of lactose intolerance?
Lactose intolerance may be of 4 types –
- Primary lactose intolerance – here the amount of lactase production decrease with age. Many of you may complain you used to love milk and milk products but with the age, you fail to digest it any more. Then you are in this category.
- Secondary lactose intolerance – this happens when you have some injury in the small intestine due to an infection, celiac disease, inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBS), or due to some other disease.
- Developmental lactose intolerance – this may occur in premature babies and also get corrected with time.
- Congenital lactose intolerance – this one is a rare genetic disorder where little or no lactase is produced in your body from birth.
What to do? How to deal with lactose intolerance?
If you fall into any of the above categories, clearly milk is not very safe for you. So consider taking any of the following options –
- Avoid milk, milk products, and other products where milk is one of the ingredients –
It’s the old school of treatment to deal with your lactose intolerance where you are advised to avoid not only milk and other milk products but also the food products which use milk during preparation in the form of – milk, cheese, buttermilk, milk powder, milk by-product, whey, whey protein, whey protein concentrate, milk solids, dry milk solids, milk sugar, milk casein, malted milk, sour cream, etc.
Follow this chart to ensure avoiding milk completely-
Table 3: Details of milk, milk product, and milk as an ingredient
|Milk||Milk products||Milk as ingredient|
|Whole milk, Toned milk, Double toned milk, skimmed milk||Curd, chena, paneer, yogurt, cheese, chena, buttermilk, ice cream, milk-based dessert||Biscuits, cookies, bread, cake, muffins, donut, spread, sauce, breakfast cereal, chocolate, etc.|
If you are extremely sensitive to milk then this is probably the safest option for you. You should focus on getting your daily dose of protein, calcium, vitamin D, B 12, etc from other food sources.
- Avoid milk and milk products –
This means you can try consuming all the products that use milk as one of the non-prime ingredients but avoid all milk and milk products.
- Avoid milk :
This means you can try to consume milk products but not too much at one go. Research suggests one can handle 18 g of lactose if spread throughout the day (15). So you can try taking a small amount of curd, buttermilk, paneer, or cheese and see how your body is reacting to this.
- Take milk in moderation :
If you are an absolute milk fan, you can still try taking milk besides some other foods, for example with any cereal (cornflakes/puffed rice/ broken wheat/ semolina, etc). Recent studies suggest that you may tolerate 12 gm of lactose (that’s 1 cup of milk -230 ml) at one sitting (16). So you this and observe the changes if any.
- Take enzyme supplements
Lactase supplements may help you dealing your lactose intolerance. Yes, this is another option that you may think of. But consult a doctor and get it prescribed before consuming the tablets.
Ab. Can you process milk protein?
Milk is rich in protein. Most importantly it contains a high-quality complete protein that means it contains all the essential amino acids that our body requires. But milk protein can make trouble at times if your body is sensitive to processing it properly.
Before getting into what makes milk protein unsafe for a few, let’s understand milk protein in brief.
Table 4: Details of milk protein
|Types of protein||Soluble protein||Insoluble milk protein|
|Presence in percentage||– 20% of the total milk protein||– 80% of the total milk protein|
|Importance||– Helps to reduce blood pressure||– Helps to reduce blood pressure|
|Excellent for growth & maintenance of muscle||Improves absorption of calcium, phosphorus|
|Types||– Rich in Branched Chain Amino Acid (BCAA) – leucine, isoleucine, valine|| – Alpha casein (most abundant) |
– Beta casein (second most abundant – present in 13 different forms)
Two types of risk may be associated with milk protein which may make milk unsafe for you.
- Milk allergy
1. Do you have a milk allergy?
It’s common among children (1- 3% for under 4 years children), but not common among adults as they outgrow it by the time they become a teenager. Alpha S1 casein – a specific protein type in milk generally causes milk allergy. But few can even have an allergy to whey protein too (17).
Milk allergy is often misunderstood as lactose intolerance but both are completely different.
Note that milk allergy involves your immune system whereas lactose intolerance mostly affects your digestive system.
If you have a milk allergy, your body perceives milk protein as a harmful element (allergen) and starts producing allergic antibodies Ig E (Immunoglobulin E) for protection. Within a minute the interaction between antibodies and specific protein triggers the release of a chemical called histamine and you may start experiencing – skin reactions like swelling of lips, tongue, mouth, throat, hives or rashes, itchy skin, respiratory problem – coughing, wheezing, sneezing, difficulty in breathing, etc.
The most serious condition is called anaphylaxis which may happen suddenly and changes breathing patterns, heart rate, and functions of other body organs. It’s needless to say that this condition requires immediate medical attention.
What to do ? How to deal with a milk allergy?
Avoid milk, milk products, and all the other food products which contain even little amount of milk-based ingredients (mentioned in the table -). Plan your diet. Carry your food as far as possible. Keep your medicine handy to avoid symptoms like anaphylaxis.
2. Do you have Inflammation?
You must have heard of A1 and A2 milk in recent days. If you are used to going grocery shopping then you may have seen this milk in the supermarket.
As explained in table no- 4, milk protein – Beta casein has 13 different forms (19). Among these, the two most common forms are A1 and A2 beta-casein. The structure of both the proteins is almost similar except A1 beta-casein has the amino acid histidine in its 67th position whereas A2 beta-casein contains amino acid proline in that position.
But this single difference makes a considerable change during digestion. Studies show that A1 beta-casein forms BCM-7 (beta casomorphin 7) after enzymatic hydrolysis in our body which may cause harm to many.
The effect of BCM 7 has been studied and showed that it may increase the risk of – type 1 diabetes in children, heart disease, autism, etc. Studies have shown that this may cause an inflammatory response in the gut (18)
Normal regular milk contains both A1 and A2 beta-casein. Whereas in A2 milk, A 1 beta-casein is removed and contains only A2 beta-casein which may be safe for those who are sensitive to A1 beta-casein.
What to do? How to deal with inflammation?
Please note the studies associated with A1 beta-casein and impact of BCM -7 are limited in number, having no large trial, limited human trial, industry influenced, and questioned for their methodology. Therefore more human trials are still needed to clear the connection. If you have enough budget and no issues in digesting milk so far, you may try A2 milk otherwise consider continuing to take the normal milk.
Ac. Is milk fat safe for you?
Milk fat generally comes under the question of safety for primarily two reasons.
- Is saturated fat in milk safe for health?
- Can milk fat create inflammation?
Let’s understand the reality one by one.
1. Is saturated fat in milk safe for health?
The entire milk industry is somewhat based on the fat content of milk. Various types of milk popular in the market are –
Table 5: Percentage of milk fat in various types of milk
|Type of milk||Fat percentage|
|Whole milk||3.5 %|
|Double toned milk||1.5%|
Milk fat is one of the most complex of all-natural fats containing more than 400 different types of fatty acids. In whole milk there are –
- 70% of saturated fat
- 28% of monounsaturated fat
- 2.3% of polyunsaturated fat
- Slight amount of trans fat (don’t panic). The trans fat naturally present in milk are healthy called ruminant fat. Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is one such ruminant fat which may have multiple health benefits.
Are you the one who avoids milk fat and consume double-toned or skimmed milk? I can’t blame you. Since childhood, we have been heard that saturated fat in milk will make us fat, increase cholesterol levels, develop the risk of heart diseases, etc . right?
But you will be surprised to know that there is no solid evidence that saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease or make you fat.
Many pieces of evidence say that saturated fat increases LDL and also HDL cholesterol. Now don’t think all LDL cholesterol is bad and dangerous. Only very small, the dense particle of LDL have the most damaging effects on the heart and arteries. Saturated fat change the small, dense LDL to large harmless LDL (19,20)
Whole milk gives you satiety therefore somehow preventing you to consume extra calories. It also ensures the supply of all fat-soluble vitamins – vitamin A, D, E, K, and omega -3- fatty acids. (21,22, 23, 24)
What to do? How to deal with saturated fat?
If you can digest milk without causing any physical discomfort, start taking whole milk without any second thought to ensure consuming the entire goodness of milk.
2. Can milk fat create inflammation?
Inflammation is good when little (acute inflammation) and bad when prolonged sometimes even more than 6 weeks (chronic inflammation).
But, the saturated fats in whole milk may play a role in inflammation. Please note that saturated fat does not cause inflammation but if inflammation is already present then it can worsen the situation. Saturated fat increases the absorption of inflammatory molecules called lipopolysaccharide and can play a role in aggravating inflammation. (25)
What to do? How to deal with inflammation?
Therefore if you are already struggling with some allergy, asthma, celiac disease, autoimmune disease – rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, lupus, Irritable bowel syndrome, multiple sclerosis (MS), Hashimoto thyroiditis, hepatitis, etc you may consider avoiding milk and milk products for some time.
B. Is your milk safe?
Even if your body can digest and process milk without causing any side effects, is your milk still safe? What about the overall quality of milk?
You must have heard of changes in animal feed, treatment, usage of hormones/antibiotics to animals, and seen the packets of grass-fed pasture-raised milk, organic milk in the supermarket. This must have made you curious to know how safe is your regular milk? Is your milk free from any adulterants? Let’s find out.
Ba. Is your regular milk safe? Does it contain a high amount of hormone/ antibiotics?
The cow eats grass and gives us milk. That’s what you read in your childhood, right? Well, today the scenario is not that simple. To meet the high demand milk farms are putting all the effort to increase the yield.
The cows used for dairy, eat grain, hay, straw, grass- generally given a mixed diet. In most cases, they are confined within a limited space. Hardly get the opportunity to graze.
They are given shots of hormones like –
- Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) also referred to as Bovine somatotropin (BST) to promote milk production
- Steroid hormones like estrogen, progesterone, testosterone to promote growth and production
Cows treated with BGH are more likely to get an udder infection called mastitis. Therefore this infection is treated with antibiotics. Just like humans cows also develop resistance to antibiotics and make the treatment difficult in the later phase. But there is not enough data that these antibiotics get into the human body through the milk and create any harm.
So obviously the questions that come are –
- Does your body absorb these hormones?
- If yes, then how much they can alter your hormone levels?
Recent research shows that there is no significant difference in levels of BGH between rBGH treated and rBGH not treated cows. Besides this BGH is not active on humans so even if it gets absorbed from drinking milk it may not create any adverse health effects. (28)
Is milk safe for PCOS patients and those struggling with acne?
In Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), your body already becomes resistant to insulin. That means your body fails to use insulin. Therefore your body’s demand for insulin increases and it starts producing more insulin. The extra insulin triggers the ovaries to produce more male hormones. Therefore it delays your menstrual cycle, increases body hair growth, acne, etc.
Generally, BGH-treated cows have a higher level of Insulin-Like Growth Hormone-1 (IGH-1). When your body is struggling to handle excess insulin, this insulin-like hormone makes the situation worst. It aggravates the growth of acne (29. 30, 31). Some studies show that IGH-1 can stimulate the growth of a tumor. But again more studies are required to confirm that IGH-1 comes from drinking milk, not from any other animal food source, and creating harm. (28).
What to do? How to deal with hormone and antibiotics of milk?
Since there is not enough evidence to prove the safety or harm of using hormone/ antibiotics for an animal, it’s safe to consume milk and milk products in moderation. A glass of milk (200-230 ml) is enough to drink or to use as chena/ paneer/curd/ buttermilk etc of your choice. If your budget permits, you may try getting organic milk.
If you are suffering from acne, PCOS, it’s better to avoid milk and milk products (whole as well as skimmed milk) for some time. But you may consume cheese once in a while.
Bb. Does your milk contain adulterants?
Even if you are blessed with the capacity to digest milk and lucky enough to get good quality milk, can you be sure that your milk does not have any adulterants?
Adding adulterants to regular milk is not rare in our country. We keep getting news on this at times. A wide range of adulterants – starting from water, glucose, common salt, buffalo milk to hydrogen peroxide, detergents, formalin, urea, melamine, etc – your milk may have anything.
To meet the demand and make more profit, suppliers add water to milk to increase the quantity and then add starch, glucose, detergent, melamine, etc to increase the viscosity and thickness. Chemicals like formalin, boric acid, hydrogen peroxide, etc are added to increase the shelf life of the milk.
It’s needless to say if by chance your milk contains any such adulterants then it’s not safe for you anymore. These adulterants cause irreversible damage to the organs – heart, liver, kidney, etc. creating gastrointestinal complications and even death. (13)
What to do? How to deal with adulterants ?
No, It’s not always possible to keep a lactometer or litmus paper or any chemicals at home to check the milk quality. But what you can do is to become more alert for any visible change in your daily supplied milk. Follow the tips mentioned below –
- Milk without any added water should leave a white trail when dropped on a slanting polished surface.
- Put the milk in a bottle and shake, if you see any lathers then it contains detergent.
- Check if the milk leaves a bitter aftertaste.
- Rub a few drops of milk in between your finger and check if it gives any soapy texture.
- Boil milk and see if there is any change in colors. Generally, adulterated milk turns yellowish after getting boiled.
Bottom line –
Milk is nutritious and loaded with good quality protein, saturated fat, omega -3 – fatty acid, Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), vitamin A, D, K2, B complex including vitamin B 12, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, etc.
But being nutritious in general is not enough. It has to be safely digested and processed well in your body to ensure its goodness. If you are struggling with lactose intolerance check your milk consumption. If you have milk allergy then stop taking milk or any milk products.
You should be avoiding milk even if you are suffering from an autoimmune disease or inflammation like rheumatoid arthritis, allergy, Hashimoto thyroiditis, lupus, etc.
Even if you don’t have any such conditions, stay alert for your milk quality. If you are struggling with PCOS or acne, better to avoid milk. Otherwise taking a glass of milk daily in any form that you like should be fine. If you have enough budgets you may think of trying organic milk replacing regular milk.
If you are taking branded milk or from the local milkman, both have a good chance of being adulterated. Be careful to check the quality of your milk as mentioned above.
Stay alert. Stay safe. After all, it’s a matter of your health.