The consumption of dairy products is a point of disagreement in the health world – some believe that milk, cheese, quark and similar products are good sources of protein, vitamins and minerals, and others believe that the inflammatory properties of dairy products outweigh the benefits they provide. In this article, we will go through some of the reasons why dairy products might not be the best alternative, from a health perspective, and end with a couple of practical tips.
People who are intolerant or sensitive to lactose have low levels of the enzyme lactase in their gut, which is the substance that breaks down lactose. All children produce the enzyme lactase because lactose is found in human breast milk. As children get older, however, the production of this enzyme stops, which is why lactose intolerance is very common in adults throughout most of the world. In fact, lactose intolerance in adulthood is most prevalent in people of East Asian descent, with 70 to 100 percent of people affected in these communities. In northern European countries, the ability to process dairy products has at times been crucial for human survival, which has resulted in genes that are adapted so that the enzyme continues to be produced even during adulthood. Lactose intolerance is therefore less common in the Nordic countries compared with other parts of the world.
Lactose consists of the sugars glucose and galactose. In addition to occurring in dairy products, glucose also occurs in berries, fruits, some vegetables and honey. Glucose itself is not harmful, but excessive consumption can result in elevated insulin levels, disorders of the gut flora and, over time, the formation of fat in the liver. The effects of galactose have mainly been studied in animals, and galactose have in these instances been linked to chronic inflammation, a weakened immune system, oxidative stress and premature aging. So far, however, far too few studies have been conducted on humans to be able to comment on the effect of galactose on the human body.
Dairy products mostly contain saturated fat which, according to Nordic nutritional recommendations, we should limit our intake of. These fats are also among the long-chain fats that can increase the levels of blood lipids in our blood and contribute to atherosclerosis in the long run. On their way down to the liver the long-chain fats take a detour (contrary to the short-chain fats) via both the lymphatic system and the general blood circulatory system, where they can stay for such a long time that they make the blood both thicker and more viscous – which can have several adverse health effects.
Milk, regardless of the animal species from which it comes, has a nutritional profile that is optimised for growth and physical development. For this reason, milk is a complete source of protein, which means that it contains all the essential amino acids that the body requires to grow. However, the amount and type of protein present in the milk can vary between different animal species. For example, cow’s milk contains about twice as much protein as human breast milk. Cow’s milk is also dominated by the inflammatory protein casein, which seems to have an inhibitory effect on the benign gut bacteria, while human milk contains more whey protein.
Pasteurisation and heating
All milk sold commercially in Singapore today must be pasteurised to ensure that it is free of infectious agents and harmful microorganisms. Pasteurisation means that the milk is heated to ensure that any bacteria and viruses are neutralised. In addition to pasteurisation, milk is also processed through homogenisation (the fat is comminuted), standardisation (fat is returned to the milk to create dairy products with different fat contents) and vitaminisation (the milk is enriched with, for example, vitamins A and D.).
The problem with pasteurisation, and other heating processes in connection with the processing of milk, is that toxins are formed. These substances are collectively called AGE and ALE, and have pathogenic properties (one example of such a substance is acrylamide). Of all dairy products, milk powder is the biggest culprit, as the process of producing milk powder involves intense heating and processing.
Since milk is supposed to make the calf grow and eventually become sexually mature, it naturally contains both hormones and growth factors such as brain and pituitary hormones, and steroids such as estrogens, progesterone and even testosterone. These hormones are fat-soluble, and fatty dairy products such as butter and cheese, therefore contain larger amounts of hormones.
Our best tips concerning dairy products
- Dairy products are easily replaced with plant-based alternatives made from, for example, oats, almonds, coconut and rice. Butter can be more difficult to replace, as the plant-based alternatives often contain processed oils – hummus and avocado can work as good substitutes.
- If you absolutely want to consume dairy products, then make sure to choose organic dairy products, as these products contain a better balance between omega-3 and omega-6, since the cows involved in the production of organic dairy products get most of their nutrition from natural grazing, silage and hay instead of concentrates.
- Dairy products from goats or sheep are also usually a slightly better alternative as they have a superior fat profile.
- Avoid dairy products that are sweetened with sugar, sweeteners or contain added flavours.
- Exclude milk powder completely