The Dairy Debate: A Healthy Essential or a Risky Pleasure?

Do you experience sensitivities, allergies, bloating, skin problems, or other reactions from dairy consumption?

As kids, we were bombarded with advertisements, food pyramids, and government recommendations telling us that milk and its by-products like cheese and yogurt helps to builds strong bones. Despite these advantages and claims, more and more people are starting to question dairy’s importance to their diet.  Do you experience sensitivities, allergies, bloating, skin problems or other reactions from dairy consumption? Do you worry that these health issues may be linked to the industrial alterations in milk - or the antibiotics used on mass production farms? Do you wonder if dairy is the only food group that can help you grow? Or are you concerned about animal treatment and the environment?

Let’s explore each of these inquiries.

Where does cow’s milk come from? Cows, of course. But it’s no longer a direct transfer to your cup for most of us. Many intermediate steps transpire. First, mass production facilities feed and grow the cows.


Animal Treatment: Mass Production Facilities

Modern industrialization means mass production, but when dairy is the product, things get messy. In the first place,

“the methods of modern food animal production, in which large numbers of animals are confined to houses or feedlots, creates opportunities for intensive host-to-host transfers. Crowding, inadequate housing, and unsanitary conditions facilitate the spread of infectious disease in human populations.” [1]


“animal feed containing animal tissues and by-products is a major concern, as spore-forming bacteria likely will be present even after processing. Included are feathers, offal, carcasses, bone and blood meal, and nervous system and brain tissue. Gram-negative enterobacteria of the genus Salmonella will multiply in the food when it is reintroduced at the feeding unit.” [2]

To mitigate food poisoning, antibiotics are used. Cases of food poisonings and outbreaks are still occurring, despite their use, but it’s the best option available to date.

“While antimicrobial resistance does occur, we are of the opinion that advantages of using antibiotics in adult dairy cows far outweigh the disadvantages. Clinical consequences of antimicrobial resistance of dairy pathogens affecting humans appear small. Antimicrobial resistance among dairy pathogens, particularly those found in milk, is likely not a human health concern as long as the milk is pasteurized.”[3]

Things get even more messy from here.


mass production facilities

A long time ago, milk came directly from a cow’s utter. Now, before you can have a cup of milk, mass production facilities crowd cows and give them cheap feed with disease potential. This necessitates the use of antibiotics to contain human food poisoning cases.


The second step in getting milk to your cup involves separating cows from calves.

Animal Treatment: Separation

In the second case, mass production of dairy also means altering the natural course of a cow’s life in another way. As soon as a female cow can get pregnant, it is forcibly impregnated. Treatment of cows and calves during milking process is horrible. “The farmer normally separates the calf from the cow within the first few days, so that the cow can be milked for human consumption. The cow has a strong maternal instinct and is normally distressed by the removal of her calf. Both the calf and mother will make loud calls trying to locate each other after they are separated.” [4] Additionally, “Cow mothers who are separated from their calves also display increased eye whites, in addition to other behavioral signs of frustration. The eye white percentage significantly decreases when cows are reunited with their calves.” [5] Some people think the way to lessen this tragedy is to increase the bonding time for a few days, so the separation isn’t as dramatic for the calf and its mother. However, this has the opposite effect. “Cows and calves showed vocal and other behavioural responses to separation at 6 h, 1 day and 4 days post-partum, but response was strongest after longer periods together. These results indicate that both cow and calf experience greater distress with later separation.” [6] Because of high yield demands, a female cow will be forced to endure three or four more forced pregnancies. We all then knows the cow’s fate after the milking period.


Because of mass production demands, farmers are pressured to get the most milk yield from their female cows. This means separating calves from their mothers as soon as possible, so the calves don’t waste the milk needed for humans. But what’s mostly forgotten when we go to drink our cups of milk is the feelings that have been proven cows have, the distress of a mother whose child is stolen.  

The third step involved in getting milk to your cup is processing.

Health Issues: Processing

Pasteurization and homogenization of milk alters it from its natural state and is also partially responsible for allergies. “During industrial treatments, milk proteins could be oxidatively modified… these oxidative protein modifications tend to increase the natural allergenicity of milk proteins.” [7] To make other dairy products, even more processing is needed. The additional stages of milk processing also have health consequences.

“Severe heating in the dairy industry and exposure to sunlight are the most important factors that could produce changes in dairy ingredients (such as proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and vitamins) and generate compounds with carcinogenic and mutagenic potential. Improper reactions such as pyrolysis, fat oxidation, and the Maillard reaction can noticeably be intensified by elevated temperatures.” [8]

Furthermore, “the high calcium content of processed cheese products may be offset by the high sodium, polyphosphate, and protein contents of these products, which can be expected to increase calcium losses.” [9]

For those following plant-based diets, it’s also important to realize store-bought plant milks, even if they contain no added sugar or other ingredients, have still been altered by industrial processes. “As the plant-based drinks have undergone processing and fortification, any health effects of natural soy, rice, oats, and almonds cannot be directly transferred to the drinks, but need to be studied directly.” [10] If you enjoy the taste and texture of milk, making plant-based milks from home, cold-pressed, bypasses many of these drawbacks.

Once milk is tragically obtained, you still don’t get to drink it from your cup.

Milk production .jpg

Processing of the milk occurs first, which is partially responsible for allergies and calcium losses in cheese products, among other health issues in the human body that we will see later in this article. 

After processing, milk gets transported to a place where you can buy it and finally pour it into your cup. But outside this milk obtainment process, dairy inherently has other issues.


Most dairy-related cancers have been linked to natural hormones in cows, most notably insulin growth factor one (IGF-1). This hormone helps calves grow. In humans, the effect is quite different. Because IGF-1 also naturally occurs in humans, and it’s structurally identical to IGF-1 in the female cow, some researchers “propose a hypothesis that female sex hormones in milk and dairy products may have an effect on the development of testicular and prostatic cancers.” [11] Others have corroborated this hypothesis. “A strong positive association was observed between IGF-I levels and prostate cancer risk.” [12] Still other scientists “found a positive association between milk consumption and prostate cancer.” [13] Finally, “Milk may either be a promoting factor or a marker of other aspects of lifestyle that stimulate testicular and other non-epithelial cancers in young men.” [14] Men are not the only ones that should be concerned about consuming dairy, however.

Because cow’s milk also contains estrogens, women are at risk of developing cancers, too. “The higher mean concentrations of total and free estradiol associated with the high dairy consumption that we observed, lends support to the hypothesis that milk and dairy products are major sources of estrogens in the human diet.” [15] Furthermore,

“In Japan, dramatic lifestyle changes occurred after World War II. Over the past 50 years (1947–1997), the age-standardized death rates of breast and ovarian cancers increased about 2- and 4-fold, respectively, and the respective intake of milk, meat, and eggs increased 20-, 10-, and 7-fold. The increase in the annual death rates from breast and ovarian cancers might be due to the lifestyle changes (increased consumption of animal-derived food) that occurred after 1945. Among the food, milk and dairy products should receive particular attention since they contain considerable amounts of estrogens.” [16]

Mounting research continues to find even more cancer associations.

Beyond testicular and breast cancers, many other common cancers are also linked with IGF-1.

“Laboratory experiments demonstrate that IGFs are able to stimulate the growth of a wide variety of cancer cells and to suppress apoptosis. In addition to their direct effects on cancer cells, IGFs also interact synergistically with other mitogenic molecules and counteract antiproliferative molecules that are involved in cancer development and progression. Findings of experimental studies are supported by the observations of epidemiologic studies, which have shown that elevated levels of IGF-I in the circulation are associated with increased risk for several common cancers.” [17]

Drawbacks of dairy go potentially beyond the processed milk and cheese steps, as natural hormones in cows have been associated with several cancers in both men and women. These are a lot of health issues for a food group whose main health benefit comes from its ability to produce strong bones. 

Non-Dairy Bone-Builders

Why is dairy considered the only food group that can achieve strong bones? Our bones are composed of calcium, and it’s well known that this mineral is in dairy products. However, a

“prospective study conducted on 77,761 women (age: 34–59 years), those who consumed the highest amount of calcium from dairy foods broke more bones than those who rarely drank milk. Similarly, in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (HPFS) with 331,234 men (age: 40–75 years), the relative risk of forearm and hip fractures in men was greater among the highest quintile of calcium intake (from foods plus supplements) compared with those in the lowest quintile; such observations were obtained after adjusting for age, smoking status, body mass index (BMI), physical activity, alcohol consumption and total energy intake.” [18]

Additionally, “compared to American women, Chinese women have much less osteoporosis, which investigators attribute to Chinese women avoiding dairy products and taking most of their calcium from vegetables.” [19] Why are these unexpected results being seen?

The main reason is that dairy contains many components, only one of which is calcium. “Many components of dairy products are implicated—casein, calcium, lactose, saturated fat, and cholesterol.” [20] Those other components of milk have been shown to slow calcium absorption and lead to other health complications. What’s interesting, however, is that since yogurt and cheese have different components from milk, these products see positive results when it comes to building bones. “In contrast to high milk consumption, high yogurt and cheese consumption was associated with a significant 25%–32% lower risk of hip fracture, for the highest versus lowest consumption in cohort studies. Unlike milk, yogurt and cheese contain probiotics, which can improve bone formation, increase bone mass density and prevent bone loss.” [21] If you’re not a big yogurt or cheese eater, though, is there a better alternative for calcium than through drinking milk? Is calcium only found in dairy products?

Green leafy vegetables and other fruits and vegetables contain more than enough calcium. What’s more, they’re better absorbed than, and bypass all the other harmful components of, dairy.

“Instead of drinking milk, individuals should focus on bone building through exercise, spending time in the sunshine to promote vitamin D production, eating lots of fruit and vegetables, and getting calcium from plant sources. Calcium from plant foods and supplements tends to be better absorbed, and they do not contain calcium-leaching animal protein. In fact, 1 cup cooked kale has the same amount of absorbable calcium as 1 cup cow milk.” [22]

Others agree. “Green vegetables, beans, tofu, sesame seeds, and even oranges contain lots of usable calcium, without the problems associated with dairy. Keep in mind that you retain the calcium better.” [23] In fact, fruits and vegetable components like phytonutrients work synergistically with calcium to increase bone mineral density.

“A number of animal trials have shown that different classes of phytochemicals can have positive effects by preventing bone loss or by increasing bone mineral density. These include the flavonoids, carotenoids and a plant steroid. Flavonoids have also been shown to have in vivo effects on joint health, reducing inflammation in animal models of arthritis and promoting crosslinking of collagen.” [24]

“1 cup cooked kale has the same amount

of absorbable calcium as 1 cup cow milk.”

– Dr. Amy Joy Lanou

So, what’s your choice, unaltered kale direct from the farm or milk that goes through many potentially health-compromising steps?


While dairy does have calcium, its other components seem to interfere with it’s bone-building effects, and instead deteriorate bones and lead to hip fractures. Luckily, dairy is not the only food group that contains calcium. It is also found in many fruits and vegetables, and the calcium is better absorbed.

More to The Story

Before deciding on your answer, when considering any food or food group debate, it’s important to note both the internal aspects of what composes the food and the external aspects of what the food is connected to. There is a larger picture to each of the topics discussed above.

For instance, when looking closely at the cancer association, look at this data. “Soy milk increased the growth rate of the breast cancer cells. These data indicate that prostate and breast cancer patients should be cautioned about the possible promotional effects of commercial dairy products and their substitutes.” [25] There are no hormones in soy. What is similar between soy milk and cow’s milk here is the processing. When processing of dairy was first introduced, in fact, scientists were in staunch opposition. “The idea of pasteurizing milk (as opposed to boiling it or drinking it raw) met with some fierce resistance when it was first mooted. Strong arguments were raised against its introduction, the main objection being that it would destroy the essential quality of milk.” [26] Indeed, "today, at the University of Pennsylvania, where medical professors once protested that pasteurization 'should never be had recourse to,' medical students are given lessons on the many health benefits of pasteurization." [27] Note, the other drawbacks of dairy discussed in this article are also tied to processing.

Processing helps explain why, for "thousands of years, people who gave their animals the human care they deserved survived and thrived drinking completely fresh, raw milk… no epidemics have ever been traced to raw milk consumption when the cows were healthy and the humans milking them were disease free."[28] Osteoporosis cases were rare, there was no food poisoning beyond the occasional unsanitary practices of farmers, and there were no sad animal treatment concerns.


The reason the studies considered in this article did show drawbacks was because they made no distinction between grass-fed, free-range cows and conventionally-raised ones. It’s no wonder there is so much confusion surrounding dairy. It’s clear that eating unrefined vegetables decreases diseases, but when natural processes are not equally applied to meat products like dairy, no meaningful correlations or conclusions can take place.


Knowing all this information, it’s still understandable if you’re still hesitant to choose kale. Do you love tasting a thick milk shake or gooey cheese pizza; mixing milk in smoothies, teas and coffee; cooking with dairy to create marinades and pasta sauces; waking up with yogurt sandwiched between granola in a parfait; or going to bed with a glass of warm milk? Perhaps you can’t imagine going without these foods and beverages. If so, consider choosing organic, grass-fed dairy, and raw milk (if you can get your hands on it). This goes a long way towards supporting stewardship of animals and increasing the chances of your wellness.

The other solution, of course, is for each one of us to go dairy-free, no matter how much we may love the taste and texture.

By the way, we create many delicious dairy alternatives that taste just as good, and sometimes even better than, your childhood dairy favorites, in our Recipes and Instagram posts.

What are your thoughts and choices regarding dairy? Let us know in the comments below.


[1] Silbergeld, Ellen K., Jay Graham, and Lance B. Price. "Industrial Food Animal Production, Antimicrobial Resistance, and Human Health." Annual Review of Public Health 29, no. 1 (2008): 151-69. doi:10.1146/annurev.publhealth.29.020907.090904. p. 162.

[2] Gilchrist, Mary J., Christina Greko, David B. Wallinga, George W. Beran, David G. Riley, and Peter S. Thorne. "The Potential Role of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations in Infectious Disease Epidemics and Antibiotic Resistance." Environmental Health Perspectives 115, no. 2 (2006): 313-16. doi:10.1289/ehp.8837.P. 315.

[3] Oliver, Stephen P., Shelton E. Murinda, and Bhushan. M. Jayarao. "Impact of Antibiotic Use in Adult Dairy Cows on Antimicrobial Resistance of Veterinary and Human Pathogens: A Comprehensive Review." Foodborne Pathogens and Disease 8, no. 3 (2011): 337-55. doi:10.1089/fpd.2010.0730. pp. 350-351.

[4] "The Life Of: Dairy Cows - Compassion in World Farming." Accessed August 6, 2018. pp. 1-2.

[5] Allen, Kristin, and Lori Marino. "The Psychology of Cows - Commentary Response." Animal Behavior and Cognition 4, no. 4 (2017): 474-98. doi:10.26451/abc. P. 481.

[6] Weary, Daniel M.; Chua, Beverly. “Effects of Early Separation on the Dairy Cow and Calf 1. Separation at 6 h, 1 day and 4 days after Birth.” Applied Animal Behavior Science 69 (2000) 177-188. P. 187.

[7] Fenaille, François, Véronique Parisod, Jean-Claude Tabet, and Philippe A. Guy. "Carbonylation of Milk Powder Proteins as a Consequence of Processing Conditions." Proteomics 5, no. 12 (2005): 3097-104. doi:10.1002/pmic.200401139. P. 3097.

[8] Davoodi, H., S. Esmaeili, and A.m. Mortazavian. "Effects of Milk and Milk Products Consumption on Cancer: A Review." Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety 12, no. 3 (2013): 249-64. doi:10.1111/1541-4337.12011. p. 258.

[9] Weinsier, Roland L., and Carlos L. Krumdieck. "Dairy Foods and Bone Health: Examination of the Evidence." The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 72, no. 3 (2000): 681-89. doi:10.1093/ajcn/72.3.681. p. 687.

[10] Thorning, Tanja Kongerslev, Anne Raben, Tine Tholstrup, Sabita S. Soedamah-Muthu, Ian Givens, and Arne Astrup. "Milk and Dairy Products: Good or Bad for Human Health? An Assessment of the Totality of Scientific Evidence." Food & Nutrition Research 60, no. 1 (2016): 32527-2538. doi:10.3402/fnr.v60.32527. p. 32533.

[11] Ganmaa, Davaasambuu, Xiang-Ming Li, Jing Wang, Li-Qiang Qin, Pei-Yu Wang, and Akio Sato. "Incidence and Mortality of Testicular and Prostatic Cancers in Relation to World Dietary Practices." International Journal of Cancer 98, no. 2 (2002): 262-67. doi:10.1002/ijc.10185. p. 266.

[12] Chan JM, Stampfer MJ, Giovannucci E, Gann PH, Ma J, Wilkinson P, et al. Plasma insulin-like growth factor-I and prostate cancer risk: a prospective study. Science 1998;279:563-6. p. 563.

[13] Qin, Li-Qiang, Jia-Ying Xu, Pei-Yu Wang, Takashi Kaneko, Kazuhiko Hoshi, and Akio Sato. "Milk Consumption Is a Risk Factor for Prostate Cancer: Meta-Analysis of Case-Control Studies." Nutrition and Cancer 48, no. 1 (2004): 22-27. doi:10.1207/s15327914nc4801_4. p. 22.

[14] Davies, Tw, Cr Palmer, E. Ruja, and Jm Lipscombe. "Adolescent Milk, Dairy Product and Fruit Consumption and Testicular Cancer." British Journal of Cancer 74, no. 4 (1996): 657-60. doi:10.1038/bjc.1996.417. P. 660.

[15] Brinkman, M. T., L. Baglietto, K. Krishnan, D. R. English, G. Severi, H. A. Morris, J. L. Hopper, and G. G. Giles. "Consumption of Animal Products, Their Nutrient Components and Postmenopausal Circulating Steroid Hormone Concentrations." European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 64, no. 2 (2009): 176-83. doi:10.1038/ejcn.2009.129. p. 179.

[16] Li, X.m, D. Ganmaa, and A. Sato. "The Experience of Japan as a Clue to the Etiology of Breast and Ovarian Cancers: Relationship between Death from Both Malignancies and Dietary Practices." Medical Hypotheses 60, no. 2 (2003): 268-75. doi:10.1016/s0306-9877(02)00385-7. p. 268.

[17] Herbert Yu, Thomas Rohan; Role of the Insulin-Like Growth Factor Family in Cancer Development and Progression, JNCI: Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Volume 92, Issue 18, 20 September 2000, Pages 1472–1489. p. 1481.

[18] Mahdi, Abbas Ali, Ronald B. Brown, and Mohammed S. Razzaque. "Osteoporosis in Populations with High Calcium Intake: Does Phosphate Toxicity Explain the Paradox?" Indian Journal of Clinical Biochemistry 30, no. 4 (2015): 365-67. doi:10.1007/s12291-015-0524-y. p. 366.

[19] Mahdi, Abbas Ali, Ronald B. Brown, and Mohammed S. Razzaque. "Osteoporosis in Populations with High Calcium Intake: Does Phosphate Toxicity Explain the Paradox?" Indian Journal of Clinical Biochemistry 30, no. 4 (2015): 365-67. doi:10.1007/s12291-015-0524-y. p. 366.

[20]Lanou, Amy Joy. "Should Dairy Be Recommended as Part of a Healthy Vegetarian Diet? Counterpoint." The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 89, no. 5 (2009). doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.26736p. p. 1640S.

[21] Bian, Shanshan, Jingmin Hu, Kai Zhang, Yunguo Wang, Miaohui Yu, and Jie Ma. "Dairy Product Consumption and Risk of Hip Fracture: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis." BMC Public Health 18, no. 1 (2018). doi:10.1186/s12889-018-5041-5. P. 12

[22] Lanou, Amy Joy. "Should Dairy Be Recommended as Part of a Healthy Vegetarian Diet? Counterpoint." The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 89, no. 5 (2009). doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.26736p. p. 1640S.

[23] Fuhrman, Joel. Eat to live: the revolutionary formula for fast and sustained weight loss. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2005. p. 88.

[24] Lister, C.E.; Skinner, M.A.; Hunter, D.C. “Fruits, vegetables, and their phytochemicals for bone and joint health.” Current Topics in nutraceutical Research 5, no.2/3 (2007). pp. 67-82. p. 77.

[25] Tate, Patricia L., Robert Bibb, and Lyndon L. Larcom. "Milk Stimulates Growth of Prostate Cancer Cells in Culture." Nutrition and Cancer 63, no. 8 (2011): 1361-366. doi:10.1080/01635581.2011.609306. p. 1361.

[26] Continuous thermal processing of foods: pasteurization and Uht, Heppell NJ, Springer 2000. p. 194.

[27] Shanahan, Catherine M.D. Deep Nutrition: why your genes need traditional food. S.l.: Flatiron Books, 2017. pp. 269-270.

[28] Ibid. p. 268.