Milking disinformation for all it’s worth

The other day, I got an unsolicited e-mail that read, in part:

Our site’s production team recently released a short video uncovering the local and global impact that milk has on our lives.
After spending some time on your posts, I noticed you talked about milk and dairy products so I thought I’d email you.
Let me know if you’re interested in checking out the video.

The site in question is InsuranceQuotes.org, which didn’t strike me as the sort of advocacy outfit inclined to agitate against milk consumption (and the above text in the e-mail alone informed me of this group’s stance on milk without me having to even load the video). Even more strangely, the only post I believe I’ve ever made to this blog about milk appeared here last July and was plainly something no anti-milk type would want to use as ammunition for her cause.

So, I reckoned I had been fed a promising opportunity to rip something apart by an unsuspecting pseudo-spammer who clearly doesn’t take the time to read the output of bloggers she assumes from keywords alone might be her allies. So I watched the video, just over a minute long and embedded below.

Near the very beginning, the narrator indirectly states perhaps the only genuine fact the video boasts: Milk is good for you because it contains a great many vitamins and minerals. (The narrator doesn’t specify cow’s milk — this clip is so shabbily produced that, at least in the first 30 or so second, it might as well have been referring to soy or almond milk — but it later becomes clear that this is the topic at hand.) But directly on the heels of this, the producers make the claim that 30 to 50 million Americans are lactose-intolerant.

On one hand, this meshes to some extent with the results of a survey of over 3,000 Americans of various ethnic backgrounds published in the January 2011 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (and funded by the National Dairy Council). The authors of that study noted that 12 percent of Americans reported considering themselves lactose-intolerant (24 percent of non-African-Americans, 11 percent of the population at large). 12 percent of 308 million — the estimated number of Americans in 2010 — is about 36 million, near the low end of the range claimed in the video. But on the other hand, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has this to say on the matter (emphasis MINE!!!):

The prevalence of lactose intolerance in the United States cannot be estimated based on available data. None of the potentially relevant studies identified in the systematic review used an adequate definition of lactose intolerance or evaluated a representative sample of the U.S. population. Studies that assessed self-reported lactose intolerance provided limited insight because the self-diagnoses were not confirmed by testing for lactose malabsorption, and the symptoms seen in true lactose intolerance may result from several other conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome. Some studies evaluated only the genetic predisposition to lower than expected levels of lactase in adults (lactase nonpersistence) without assessing lactose malabsorption or intolerance directly.

Furthermore, does the fact that some people can’t comfortably consume milk imply that those who can shouldn’t, either? Why don’t we get rid of peanuts, strawberries and shellfish too? Hell, some people have bed allergic reactions to penicillin and its derivatives, so maybe those need to be taken off the market as well.

The video then predictably invokes one of the many alleged widespread Western dietary evils that has never actually been shown to cause harm to human beings — bovine somatotropin (BST), or as most people know it, Those Dangerous Hormones They Put In Cow’s Milk Nowadays And The Reason Milk Is Poison. Of BST — given to many cows to increase their milk yield, often by as much as 10 to 15 percent — the video states simply that it “can be harmful to humans.” That’s the whole argument: an unsupported assertion. (I’ll leave antibiotics in milk out of this, but know that those have never been proven to cause problems in people.)

So is BST bad for you? On this the NIH is unequivocal:

There are no data to suggest that BST present in milk will survive digestion or produce unique peptide fragments that might have biological effects. Even if BST is absorbed intact, the growth hormone receptors in the human do not recognize BST and, therefore, BST cannot produce effects in humans.

Granted, that statement was made in 1990, but there is also this from 2006:

After careful review, the Food and Drug Administration, World Health Organization,
American Medical Association, American Dietetics Association, and the National Institute of
Health have independently confirmed that dairy products and meat from BST treated cows is
safe for human consumption.

BST is digested by humans just like any other protein. Therefore, even if it were active
in the human body, one would not obtain the active hormone by drinking milk or eating
cheese. About 90% of BST is destroyed during pasteurization and it is also denatured by
processing for baby formula.

The video than goes on to discuss how much money Big Milk makes at the expense of small farmers and how bad milk is for the environment because, in a nutshell, it causes people to shit. The video fails to note what sort of foods people giving up milk would substitute in its place would not have this effect. As for the small-farms-vs.-big-corporations-issue, it’s real, but is not a health concern.

In all fairness, I will say that recombinant BST, while not harmful to humans, can cause significant problems in cows, and to me that alone is a good reason for selecting hormone-free and antibiotic-free cow’s milk at the supermarket, where it’s normally readily available — not, I admit, that I am diligent about this all the time myself. But the video doesn’t even mention this.

So all in all, the video is a bunch of malarkey. And I almost never use that quaint descriptor, but “bullshit” is way too punny here given the subject matter.

For more on BST and cow’s milk, read this report by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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