Reconsidering Full Fat Dairy
For years my family has been eating organic whole plain yogurt produced by a local creamery. I chose whole yogurt (over lowfat or nonfat) mostly because it was creamy delicious. In addition, I had read that whole dairy products were important for women during their child-bearing years, and that doctors recommend whole dairy products for children under the age of 2 because young children need lots of fat for their developing brains. Also there is the fact that, as a general rule, we aim to eat foods in their most natural and least processed state as often as possible.
But recently I began questioning the healthiness of whole fat dairy.
First there was the Mother Jones article I came across about elevated hormone levels in dairy products. Now I'm not talking about rGBH (or rBST), the genetically engineered Bovine Growth Hormone injected into lactating cattle to make them produce more milk. We mostly buy organic dairy products, and rGBH is not allowed in organic dairy products. But it turns out that modern dairies, both conventional and organic, milk cows far into their next pregnancies, and milk from pregnant cows has significantly higher estrogen levels than milk from non-pregnant cows (or cows in the earliest months of pregnancy). Some studies suggest that these elevated levels of estrogen in modern milk may affect childhood development and increase a person's risk of cancer. This actually isn't new news. I first read about this in the Harvard Magazine while visiting my sister about 8 years ago. Here is an excerpt from that article:
Mongolian physician Ganmaa Davaasambuu has linked increased tumor formation and growth in laboratory animals with chemically induced cancer to high levels of hormones in commercial milk. Seasonal milking practices among Mongolian nomads ensure that cows produce milk only during the first three months of a new pregnancy, when hormone levels are low. Because modern dairies, on the other hand, milk cows well into their next pregnancy, commercial milk often contains much higher levels of biologically active hormones. (source)But another more recent study found that "women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer who eat full-fat dairy products after diagnosis are more likely to die from breast cancer than women who eat low-fat dairy products after diagnosis." Researchers surmise that the increased risk might be because "dairy products eaten in the United States and other Western countries have high levels of estrogen and progesterone in them because most of the milk is produced by pregnant cows." Estrogen stimulates cell growth in breast cells, including breast cancer cells.
Importantly, these elevated hormones can actually be avoided by drinking skim milk, which has similar hormone levels to milk from traditional Mongolian patterns of milking, according to the research by Mongolian physician Ganmaa Davaasambuu. This makes sense because estrogen is created and stored in fat cells.
Environmental Toxins Accumulate in Fat
On top of that, environmental toxins accumulate in the fat of food-producing animals. For children and adults, consumption of animal fats is a primary route of exposure to many toxic chemicals. I have been aware for some time that toxins were stored in fat, but it seems like every few weeks I come across another article about a different man-made toxic chemical that is found in animal fat. Examples include:
- Dioxins: see the "Meat Eater's Guide, "Other Meat Concerns: Antibiotics, Hormones and Toxins" (EWG). Dioxin exposure leads to "reproductive and developmental problems, cardiovascular disease, increased diabetes and increased cancer."
- Phthalates: see "Phthalates are out of infants’ toys but a heavy dose is still in their food" (Washington Post). Phthalates are well-established as endocrine disruptors.
- Flame retardants: see "Flame Retardants Are Everywhere" (New York Times). Flame retardants have been linked to neurological deficits, developmental problems, impaired fertility and other health risks.
Set aside the question of whether or not saturated fats, and more specifically saturated fats from animal sources, are healthy (I hope to address that debate in a different post). Even if you believe cow's milk to be one of nature's perfect foods, the sad truth is that because of modern farming techniques and environmental pollution, milk just ain't what it used to be. That yummy cream comes with a dose of sex hormones, dioxins, phthalates, flame retardants, and other environmental pollutants.
For these reasons, we have switched to low-fat and non-fat yogurt. It should be noted that our youngest is now approaching 3 years of age and I'm not too concerned about my fertility (otherwise, the pros of whole dairy might outweigh the cons). We were already drinking low-fat (2%) milk, mostly because I prefer it to whole milk, but also because most pediatricians recommend switching from whole to lowfat milk when kids hit 2 years of age. We still consume cheese, but more judiciously (continuing a trend that was inspired both by the higher cost of organic cheese as well as my learning about the high environmental impact of cheese). And we still eat the occasional full fat treat (whipped cream, ice cream, etc.). But in general, we are moving away from full fat dairy.
Do you eat full fat dairy? Why or why not?