Got milk? Good

Consumers have a hard time today trying to improve their diets. They are bombarded with conflicting advice, dueling studies and “experts” on TV hawking their latest book promising miracle results. Eggs are vilified one month and judged not so bad the next. Margarine is deemed healthier than butter, until newer research undercuts long-held views about saturated fat and butter makes a comeback as a pure and natural food.

And if that’s not enough, here comes the inaptly-named Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, with its animal rights agenda masquerading as nutrition advice. The latest example is Susan Levin’s op-ed in the June 24 issue of The Hill, urging Congress to steer kids away from milk.

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Of course, the problem isn’t that kids drink too much milk. It’s that they don’t drink enough, and don’t receive enough of its important nutrients including Vitamin D, calcium and potassium. To accept Ms. Levin’s argument is to reject both the preponderance of scientific evidence about dairy’s important nutritional contributions, as well as the government’s official diet advice, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).  

The 2010 edition of the Guidelines couldn’t be clearer. It puts low-fat and fat-free milk and milk products in the category of foods Americans – especially school-age kids – should consume more of. The fine print explains that milk and dairy products contribute needed nutrients to the diet and that dairy consumption is associated with improved bone health, lower blood pressure and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. 

The recently redone dietary guidelines for school meals are under attack for being too nutritionally strict. Yet they, too, recommend consuming more dairy products. In fact, the feds go way beyond just encouraging children to drink more milk. Because milk is the number-one source of nine essential nutrients in children’s diets, federal law recognizes this critically important role by requiring that milk be offered with each school lunch and breakfast.

And what do the Guidelines say about Ms. Levin’s alleged link between dairy consumption and cancer? Not a word. The much more detailed backup report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee addresses the issue with a couple of sentences, acknowledging there is inconsistent evidence of a link between “animal protein products” and some cancers. These documents are written by top experts in nutrition science who make recommendations reflecting the best, science-based knowledge.

So where does Ms. Levin get her evidence? She cites a study by her own organization – an activist group promoting a vegan agenda – suggesting an association between dairy consumption and prostate cancer, as well as two studies linking animal-based foods to cancer. Medical experts know by now never to base diet decisions on just one or two studies, especially on a topic as important as cancer. And that’s clearly the case here.

A comprehensive review (Davoodi, H. Effects of Milk and Milk Products Consumption on Cancer:  A Review. Comprehensives Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. 1541-4337. 2013) of all the research on milk and major cancers, including prostate cancer, found the evidence of beneficial effects from consuming milk products far outweighed any evidence suggesting harm. Perhaps that’s why the American Cancer Society, Susan G. Komen Foundation and National Cancer Institute all support including low-fat and fat-free dairy foods as part of an overall heathy diet.

So why is Ms. Levin – a dietitian herself – so opposed to drinking milk? The answer has more to do with her concerns over animals than people. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is widely linked to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the animal rights movement. It lists its twin goals as “to help animals and promote human health.” Note the order of those priorities.

Among PCRM’s list of major 2013 achievements are ending medical experiments on chimpanzees, ending university experiments on dogs and cats and saving animals from pesticide tests. A majority – 10 out of 18 – of what it considers its achievements for the year are identified as helping animals rather than promoting health. Most of the rest are associated with advocating a “plant-based diet.”

Ms. Levin has a right to make her case against milk and dairy products. But she ought to be honest about her motives. Is she expressing a diet opinion or pushing an animal rights agenda? The evidence is clear it’s the latter. If so, she should make her case directly rather than hiding behind arguments that consuming dairy products causes cancer. And in this age of transparency, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine would do well to re-name itself for what it really is: A Group of People Advocating a Vegan Diet.

Mulhern is president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, based in Arlington, Virginia. NMPF’s cooperatives members produce the majority of the U.S. milk supply, making NMPF the voice of more than 32,000 dairy producers on Capitol Hill and with government agencies.