Editorial: Health Policy: A High-Stakes Food Fight
The dairy industry is looking more and more like the tobacco industry—secret memos, shady campaigns, and all. Animal protectionists have long criticized the industry because the cruel veal industry is its offshoot—male calves produced by continually impregnated dairy cows are whisked away from their mothers and left in miserable confinement. Dairy cows themselves are slaughtered for hamburger when their productivity slackens, usually before their fourth birthdays. Environmentalists have been scandalized to learn of the chemical contaminants that can end up in milk, and health advocates have been alarmed by the surprising problems posed by what was once thought of as a nourishing food.
Of course, most dairy products are loaded with fat. All contain cholesterol. Milk's lactose sugar can cause significant digestive discomfort, especially for people of African, Asian, Hispanic, or Native American heritage. And the galactose that comes from the breakdown of milk's lactose sugar is linked to ovarian cancer and infertility.
But it's milk's apparent role in prostate cancer that has researchers most worried. In 1997, a major review by the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research cited dairy products as a possible cause of this deadly disease. Two years later, the Harvard Health Professionals Study showed that, indeed, milk drinkers were at higher risk. The explanation goes beyond the fat or contaminants in milk, and relates to dairy's tendency to increase the amount of a substance called insulin-like growth factor or IGF-I in the bloodstream. In test tube experiments, IGF-I makes cancer cells grow like weeds. Recent studies clearly show that men with more IGF-I in their blood are more likely to develop prostate cancer. The same may prove true for women and breast cancer.
At the same time, milk's main selling point, it's presumed ability to stop osteoporosis, has been largely debunked. The Harvard Nurses' Health Study showed no benefit from milk drinking—those with the highest dairy calcium intake actually had more hip fractures than those with the lowest—and a new research report from Penn State, published in Pediatrics on July 1, 2000, showed that a high calcium intake did absolutely nothing for bone integrity in teenage girls.
As PCRM publicized dairy's dangers, the milk industry fought back, particularly regarding sales among racial minorities. An August 11, 1999, memo between contractors in the "milk mustache" campaign, released under the Freedom of Information Act, said, "As you may know, in response to PCRM's recent activity, we have…specific tactics to communicate to the African American and Hispanic communities." Ads featuring singer Marc Anthony, actor Jackie Chan, and tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, among many others, were launched as the industry aimed to convince consumers that, lactose intolerant or not, everyone should be buying milk.
PCRM attorney Mindy Kursban filed a 71-page complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, calling foul on "milk mustache" ads that promise strong bones and good health, yet fail to mention the dangerous load of fat in milk, cheese, and ice cream. Federal regulations also frown on ads suggesting that African Americans or Hispanics, who have been largely excluded from calcium research studies, get any benefit from dairy products.
PCRM's success will not only help the calves who end up as veal, the cows who end up as hamburger, and the environmentalists who are rightly concerned about chemicals in their food. By focusing long-overdue attention on the surprising effects of foods on health, it may well help reveal the contributors to some of the worst epidemics of our time.
Neal D. Barnard, M.D.
President of PCRM