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It’s the milk that does it…

… or not? Is cow’s milk actually good for humans or should one rather fall back on one of the numerous milk alternatives? Pia Funfack and Silvia Bürkle provide answers to these and many other questions about one of the most popular foods in the world.

Cow’s milk – healthy or unhealthy?

It has always been a staple food. Cow’s milk is still very popular today. What do you need to know about milk and what is there to consider from the perspective of Metabolic Balance?


About 6000 years ago, people used cow’s milk in their diet – it has always been a staple food. Cow’s milk is still very popular today, be it only at breakfast in muesli or coffee.

Although milk is a natural food, there are increasing doubts as to whether cow’s milk is actually as good as it is claimed and whether its consumption can be unreservedly recommended. Some scientists warn that increased milk consumption can have adverse health effects. Studies have shown that milk can sometimes lead to obesity, increased acne formation, allergies, diabetes and various types of cancer.  

The valuable nutrients in milk


For the development and intensive growth phase of babies and toddlers, cow’s milk is a wholesome food that contains all the important and necessary nutrients. It supplies the body with energy in the form of lactose (milk sugar), with fat and protein, the most important building material for almost all body cells, and with numerous minerals and vitamins. In particular, the high calcium content is always emphasized and advertised for “strong bones”. Hence the recommendation in adulthood to consume milk and dairy products as often as possible to prevent osteoporosis.

Milk calcium for strong bones?


A publication presented by the scientists Walter Willett (epidemiologist) and David Ludwig (endocrinologist) from the Harvard THCan School of Public Health in Boston in 2020 speaks against the well-known theory that milk and the calcium it contains strengthen the bones. According to their data, collected in the countries of Denmark and Sweden, the higher the consumption of milk and dairy products, the higher the risk of fractures compared to countries like China and Indonesia, where milk and dairy products are hardly consumed.


Another study also showed that an increased risk of fracture in old age is associated with frequent milk consumption in childhood. The scientists explain these results by the fact that for a long time it was not known that the calcium from food can only be stored in the bones in sufficient quantities if sufficient vitamin D and magnesium are available.

Milk Calcium and Cancer


Despite these negative findings, milk’s high calcium content offers health benefits. Scientists believe that milk and milk products can reduce the risk of colon cancer. The reason for this is the fact that the calcium in milk is able to bind and excrete harmful breakdown products of bile acids, which are suspected of promoting proliferation of the intestinal mucosa.


However, after evaluating international data, the World Cancer Research Fund also found evidence that milk can increase the risk of prostate cancer. However, this was only observed in men who consumed extremely large amounts of milk (1 liter) and milk products (100 g hard cheese) per day over a longer period of time. The mechanism responsible for this has not yet been conclusively clarified.

The “bad” fats in milk


Of all the components of milk, its fat is currently the most exciting object of scientific study: Milk fat consists of around 70% saturated fatty acids, which have long been viewed critically because they are considered classic risk factors for arteriosclerosis and heart attacks. However, according to new findings, milk fat is by no means as harmful as it was thought for a long time. The reason for this is now believed to be known, because the tiny droplets of fat are encased in a membrane that also consists of proteins and phosphorus, among other things. Apparently, milk fat seems to be particularly healthy when this structure is preserved. Because in an experiment, nutrition experts and scientists found that butter increases the LDL concentration in the blood, while this effect did not occur with cream.


It is assumed that the membrane of the fat globules is destroyed during the production of butter. Because in order to be able to extract the butterfat from the milk, the milk has to be centrifuged. This creates extremely strong centrifugal forces that destroy the structures.

Milk is not just milk


Different types of cow’s milk are now available in the refrigerated shelves of supermarkets. Milk is almost always pasteurized (15-30 seconds at 72°C). In addition to classic heat treatment, researchers have developed other preservation methods that kill germs. The more rigorously you proceed, the more the milk changes.


There are currently three types of heat-treated milk available in supermarkets, both conventional and organic:


–         “Traditionally produced” fresh milk (pasteurized, refrigerated for 10 days)

–         “longer shelf life” (heated to 127°C for a few seconds, unopened shelf life of 3 weeks)

–         “UHT milk” (135°C heated, unopened can be kept for up to 6 months)


Some of the vitamins are affected by the heat treatment. However, homogenization has a much greater influence on the quality of the milk. The milk is pressed through fine-meshed filters under high pressure. This finely distributes larger accumulations of fat and prevents the milk from creaming. Protein structures are also torn apart by this process. Some of these fragments cannot be broken down by the digestive enzymes and can therefore put a strain on the intestines.


Milk used for cheese making, yoghurt and fermented milk products is not homogenized.

Milk a food not a drink


“The dose makes the poison” – using milk as a drink is out of place. After all, a body needs water and not additional calories to refresh itself. In many studies, three glasses of milk a day are already classified as “greatly increased consumption” with possibly unhealthy consequences. This amount is quickly reached if you have café latte, cocoa, milkshakes or muesli with milk several times a day.


And so the German Society for Nutrition (DGE) recommends consuming only 200 to 250 grams of milk and milk products per day – provided there is no lactose intolerance or milk protein allergy.

How does Metabolic Balance feel about milk?


For Metabolic Balance, too, cow’s milk is a nutritionally high-quality food in well-dosed quantities, the health aspects of which should not be underestimated. Our rule of “a different protein for every meal” also avoids excessive consumption, which could have adverse effects. Cow’s milk should always have a fat content of at least 3.5% – preferably more (cow’s milk straight from the farm). It is also advisable to opt for organic cow’s milk that has been processed as gently as possible.


Despite the many positive aspects, Metabolic Balance also takes into account the fact that many people in the world cannot tolerate cow’s milk. One of the reasons for this is that the enzyme lactase, which breaks down milk sugar, is not formed in the intestine or is only formed insufficiently due to genetic disposition. Undigested, the lactose reaches the large intestine and removes the water from the intestinal mucosa, which leads to diarrhea. In addition, it is decomposed by bacteria. This produces carbon dioxide, hydrogen and methane, among other things, which can lead to severe flatulence.

In addition to soybeans, tofu and fermented foods, there are numerous plant-based foods such as broccoli, kale, Chinese cabbage, pak choi or legumes and sweet potatoes as an adequate substitute for cow’s milk, especially to absorb sufficient calcium.

Sources:

1.Milk       and Health; Walter C. Willett, MD, Ph.D., and David S. Ludwig, MD, Ph.D; N Engl J Med 2020; 382:644-654 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMra1903547

2.       Milk Consumption During Teenage Years and Risk of Hip Fractures in Older Adults

3.      Diane Feskanich, ScD1; Heike A. Bischoff-Ferrari, MD, DrPH2,3; A. Lindsay Frazier, MD1,4; et al; JAMA Pediatr. 2014;168(1):54-60. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.3821

4.      Calcium Intake and the Incidence of Forearm and Hip Fractures among Men

William Owusu, Walter C Willett, Diane Feskanich, Alberto Ascherio, Donna Spiegelman, Graham A Colditz

Plant-based alternatives to cow’s milk

Here you can find out which milk alternatives are available and which ones are included in the nutrition plans at Metabolic Balance from a nutritional point of view.


Oat milk, rice drink, almond milk, hemp milk, and whatever they are called – the supermarket shelves are full of plant-based alternatives to classic cow’s milk.

If you take a look at the nutrition plans from Metabolic Balance, you will only find soy milk alongside animal varieties such as cow’s, sheep’s and goat’s milk. Why is that? Has Metabolic Balance overslept the trend and is sticking to long-established opinions? Isn’t it possible to include another plant-based alternative in the diet plans and thereby replace the classic cow’s milk and the well-known soy milk? The clear answer is: “No”

The assumption that cow’s milk can be “replaced” with a plant-based variant is wrong from the start. A plant drink can be considered a refreshing drink, but it can never be a full substitute for cow’s milk. Cereal or nut drinks consist mostly of water – approx. 90% – therefore their nutrient content is not comparable to that of the original cereal grain or nut, but is far below.

Cow’s milk, on the other hand, serves as the only food for the calves for weeks and provides all the nutrients they need to grow into stately cows. This is not possible with plant-based alternatives. They not only lack important vitamins, but also high-quality proteins that can be easily metabolized by the body.

It is therefore not surprising that, according to a US study, milk from grain products is not suitable for infant feeding and cannot be regarded as wholesome infant food, since it lacks the proteins, vitamins and minerals that are important for children’s development.

But nuts are rich in valuable fatty acids and B vitamins, and oats have lots of fiber and minerals?!


Yes. In terms of nutritional physiology, the starting products of alternative milk drinks in their unprocessed state often contain a large number of valuable vitamins, proteins, fats, as well as minerals and/or roughage. That is absolutely right. But if you look at the preparation of the milk types in the next step, it quickly becomes clear that the end product no longer has the properties of the unprocessed basic product.

manufacturing


The alternative types of milk are usually produced with the help of extreme technological processing methods. The grains/nuts are crushed, mixed with water and then boiled. The resulting pulp is mixed with enzymes that, among other things, break down the starch and thus push the fermentation process, which lasts several hours. An aqueous pulp is obtained, which is finally sieved and filtered. In terms of appearance, this liquid is usually not reminiscent of milk, as it is quite clear. Finally, in order to obtain the desired whitish color of milk, certain vegetable oils are added, which form an emulsion with the liquid and thus produce the typical color of milk.


The manufacturing process of soy milk is similar to that described above. The soybeans are soaked in the first step, then ground, boiled and filtered. However, no enzymes or cooking oils are added. Some of the resulting soy milk, like cow’s milk, is finally pasteurized and homogenized.


The nutrient content of the various plant drinks varies extremely. What most have in common, however, is a very small amount of protein. In addition, the biological value is not very high, ie the protein can only be converted to a fraction of the body’s own protein. Due to the extreme processing and exposure to heat and mechanics, many of the valuable ingredients such as vitamins, minerals and fiber have also been lost.


Of course, the industry knows how to help itself and therefore adds various additives such as calcium, magnesium, zinc, omega 3 fatty acids and the like to many milk drinks. Even if the additives appear to be “useful” and healthy at first glance, appearances are deceptive, because they are often not nearly as easy to absorb as the naturally occurring nutrients in cow’s milk.

Conclusion of Metabolic Balance


Due to the numerous additives that are usually added to plant-based milk alternatives and because of the low protein and nutrient content, most plant-based alternatives cannot be used as a substitute for cow’s milk.


Soy milk occupies a special position here, as far less chemicals are required for production than with other milk alternatives. In addition, at around 3-4%, soy milk still contains a relatively large amount of protein compared to other milk alternatives. Of course, there are also justified objections to the consumption of soy milk, such as genetic manipulation, the clearing of the rain forests or the high concentration of allergens it contains, as well as possible hormonal effects on the organism. Nevertheless, from a nutritional point of view, soy milk appears to be a suitable food to replace cow’s milk to some extent.


If you can’t get used to the idea of ​​cow’s milk and/or soy milk, don’t worry, because Metabolic Balance offers a variety of different breakfast options, so that you can be happy, full and supplied with all the important nutrients even without milk or milk alternatives.

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