The most recent issue of Animal Frontiers, entitled “Milk – Not Just Another Food” (Vol. 4, No. 2, April 2014), edited by P. Yvan Chouinard of Université Laval and Christiane L. Girard of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, enlists an international group of experts to address the controversial issue of the health consequences of increasing human consumption of milk.
As Chouinard and Girard point out in their introduction to the issue, “The … increased availability due to the industrialization of production and processing, has led to high levels of consumption [of milk].” Indeed, because of its nutritional value, 85% of the world’s current population consumes milk and milk products, and in the last 50 years per capita milk consumption in the developing world has increased nearly two-fold (FAO, 2014; last accessed 09-April-14). Nevertheless, per capita milk consumption, and thus the percentage of dietary energy supplied by milk, varies widely by region (>150 kg/capita/yr in some regions compared with < 30 kg/capita/yr in others), and over the last 20 years per capita milk consumption has decreased in sub-Saharan Africa (FAO, 2014). These observations along with the challenge of feeding the world’s rapidly expanding population, emphasize the need to better understand whether increased milk consumption is beneficial or detrimental to human health.
The first article by Givens et al. examines the data concerning the health consequences of increased milk consumption. They conclude, as expected, that milk is an important source of minerals and vitamins, and that adequate milk intake supports growth during childhood. What is perhaps surprising, and not in keeping with the prevailing opinion of the medical community, is that rather than being detrimental milk consumption may even promote health in adults. For example, recent studies indicate that consumption of dairy products by adults is associated with a lower risk of developing overweight and central obesity, diabetes, and hypertension. Moreover, there is no evidence that consumption of dairy products increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, or hypercholesterolemia. What is still questionable, however, and will require more research, is whether fat-reduced milk products are healthy or not.
The remaining articles discuss:
The positive immunological benefits in humans of whole, raw (that is, unpasteurized) milk (van Neerven);
The importance of milk products as a source of vitamins A, D, B2 (riboflavin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B9 (folic acid), and B12 for much of the world’s population – especially for children and pregnant women (Graule; Matte et al);
Milk products as a potential source of selenium in human diets (Cobo-Angel et al.); and
The potential role of bioactive phospholipids present in buttermilk (a byproduct of the churning process that turns cream into butter) in improving cardiovascular function and blood lipid profiles (Conway et al.).
The common theme of these articles is several-fold. First, the evidence is mounting that consumption of milk and dairy products is beneficial, not detrimental, to human health. Second, several opportunities exist for taking advantage of these benefits to improve human health worldwide, and especially in at-risk populations. And, third, support for research on the health benefits of milk and dairy products, as well the health consequences of modified milk products, will be critical for meeting the dietary needs of the world’s rapidly expanding population.
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