“While the 2015 DGAC’s recommendation that Americans eat less meat is promising, the absence of a similar advisory regarding dairy is glaring. Dairy cows, specifically the high-milk yielding Holstein breed, produce more manure than beef cattle. Mix in the fact that dairy operations with 1,000 cows or more are growing in number, and it’s no surprise that dairy farming is a major contributor to ground water contamination in leading milk-producing states such as Wisconsin and California.”
– Alissa Hamilton
Alissa Hamilton is an author, food activist and independent scholar. Hamilton holds a JD from the University of Toronto, and a PhD from Yale University. Her first book, Squeezed: What You Don’t Know about Orange Juice, helped spark a series of class-action lawsuits against orange juice companies in the United States. Hamilton, an expert on food processing and marketing issues, has spoken at TEDx Cambridge and has also been a guest on the Dr. Oz Show and ABC World News with Diane Sawyer. Her work has been featured in the Guardian, The Atlantic, the New York Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, NPR and Martha Stewart Living Radio. Hamilton is a former Food and Society Fellow with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. She lives in Toronto, Canada.
The UC Food Observer caught up with Alissa recently to talk about her new book, Got Milked? The Great Dairy Deception and Why You’ll Thrive Without Milk.
Q: You explore the history of milk consumption in your book. For those who aren’t familiar with it, what are the key points you’d like them to know?
A: I used to think that those who can’t digest the sugar in milk suffer from a weakness akin to, say, asthma. They’re labeled with a medical condition: “lactose intolerance.” History and the reality that the majority of American adults can’t digest lactose tell a different story. In short, adults who can digest the lactose in milk are the freaks of nature. They are the descendants of a relatively small number of dairy farmers, mostly of northern European origin, who were born with a mutation that enabled them to produce lactase, the enzyme that breaks down the sugar in both human and cow’s milk, beyond the years when we really need it: when we’re breastfeeding. Properly speaking, this minority of adults is “lactase persistent.” Everyone else is normal, or “lactase impersistent.” The distinction is significant considering government agencies and health care providers continually talk about “lactose intolerance” as if it’s a disorder.
Q: Your first book, Squeezed, helped spark a series of class-action lawsuits in the U.S. against orange juice companies. Your new book, – Got Milked? – seems poised to also spark important conversations and create change. What are your hopes for this book?
A: Starry-eyed me sees Got Milked? helping to bring about the end of the dairy food group. Milk is the only food that has the distinction of making up an entire food group on the USDA’s MyPlate. It doesn’t merit this special status anymore than pumpkin seeds deserve to be their own food group because they are high in a critical nutrient, magnesium, which American are low in.
As long as the Dairy Group remains on the table, MyPlate signals that dairy is an essential part of a balanced diet. It isn’t. Nobody needs dairy for calcium, protein, or any other nutrient. What’s more troubling, milk is unhealthy for many people, whether because they can’t digest the lactose in it, or because they are allergic or sensitive to it. I like the Harvard School of Public Health’s answer to MyPlate. A tall glass of water rather than a blue circle for dairy completes the HSPH’s Healthy Eating Plate.
There’s still room for dairy on MyPlate without the Dairy Group. The sensible thing to do would be to move dairy products that are high in protein and low in added sugars to the Protein Foods Group. This revision would be more consistent with dairy industry advertising, which tends to emphasize the protein in milk and milk products.
Q: An important part of your work focuses on the need of consumers to think critically about their food choices. What kinds of changes in marketing and labeling regulations might help foster more critical thinking about food? What sorts of educational programs for children might encourage different – and good – food choices?
A: These days you need to take a course to understand packaged-food labels. Start with the Daily Value that is a prominent part of the Nutrition Facts Box. Who, other than a nutrition expert, knows that the FDA has set the DV for magnesium at 400 mg and what that means in practice? Add to that the widespread confusion surrounding the difference between terms such as “organic” that are regulated and those such as “natural” that are not, and clearly it’s time to include food-label literacy in school curriculums.
Restructuring school environments so that healthy eating and drinking choices are the easy ones for children to make is equally critical to bringing nutrition education into the twenty-first century. Ensuring students have on-demand access to clean water, for instance, is a must. Although budgets are tight, we could jumpstart the reform process by redirecting the dollars now funneled toward school milk programs into retrofitting schools with water stations.
Parents are continually encouraged to act as role models for their children. I have more hope for the reverse. When children start asking for water with their dinner we will be well on our way to a healthier America.
Q: The 2015 Dietary Guidelines advisory committee (DGAC) has suggested reducing the consumption of meat because of dietary and environmental concerns. There are environmental consequences related to every food production choice we make; dairy production is no different. What are your thoughts about how to shift public thinking to the environmental consequences of dairy consumption?
A: If the exponential growth in popularity of plant-based milks is any indication, public awareness about the environmental impacts of dairy consumption is spreading rapidly. On this issue consumers seem to be leading the way. Sure some are making the switch because cow’s milk makes them or someone in their family sick, but others are doing so because they’re sickened by the images that are all over the Internet showing the shocking conditions under which most dairy cows are raised in North America.
The dietary policy advisors and makers, and the government agencies that they represent, are the ones who need to get with the picture. While the 2015 DGAC’s recommendation that Americans eat less meat is promising, the absence of a similar advisory regarding dairy is glaring. Dairy cows, specifically the high-milk yielding Holstein breed, produce more manure than beef cattle. Mix in the fact that dairy operations with 1,000 cows or more are growing in number, and it’s no surprise that dairy farming is a major contributor to ground water contamination in leading milk-producing states such as Wisconsin and California.
The Obama administration has spotlighted the need to reduce “U.S. dairy sector greenhouse gas emissions” as a key step in its Climate Action Plan that it released in the spring of 2014. The reality of dairy farming in America cries out for cuts in the production and consumption of milk. In light of its progressive recognition of the relationship between human and environmental health, the DGAC’s failure to heed this call is more evidence of the sacred cow that is dairy.
Q: Milk “substitutes” (i.e., almond and soy milk) are becoming more popular, and the dairy industry is responding to what it perceives as a market threat. What do you think about the recent #milktruth campaign?
A: The message of the dairy industry’s #milktruth and related #GetReal! campaign is that cow’s milk is the real thing. The underlying suggestion that any milk but cow’s is an imitation or imposter is at odds with the fact that humans have been milking plants for centuries. You’d have a hard time finding many in China who would buy the claim that cow’s milk is more authentic than milk made from soybeans. What’s true there and countless other places, is true here. Name your nut, bean, or seed. Any number of them can be turned overnight into milk that is everything that the #milktruth campaign says about cow’s milk. Take almonds for example. The milk you can make by soaking and blending them is: “a nutrient powerhouse”; “contains a lot that’s good…without excess calories and fat”; “is simple”; “provides high-quality protein”; and is a “real, wholesome and local product from family farms across the nation.” Just like commercial cow’s milk, some store-bought non-dairy milk is more processed than others. However, unlike cow’s milk, most plant-based milks can be made simply in your kitchen.
Q: What’s your take on the enhanced milk product, Fairlife, being marketed by Coca Cola? Do you think consumers will buy this kind of product?
A: Not if the #milktruth campaign catches on, which is ironic given that the simultaneous launch of #milktruth and Fairlife milk is not a coincidence. The emergence of the two can be traced to a larger strategy organized around the dairy industry’s partnership with seven major enterprises including Coca Cola to reverse plummeting sales of fluid milk.
Although Coca Cola and the dairy industry have joined forces to revive the dying market for cow’s milk, their disparate approaches are irreconcilable, if not suicidal. At the same time that the #milktruth campaign paints milk as a perfect food, Fairlife is built on the premise that milk needs improving. Using a patented filtration process that separates milk into its major constituents, Coca Cola is offering up a lactose-free milk with 50 percent more protein, 30 percent more calcium, and 50 percent less sugar. I recently wrote a piece about the re-imagined milk, “This is Your Milk on Coke.” Leave it to say that milk that has been taken apart and put back together is hardly a poster child for #milktruth’s message that milk is a simple, farm-to-table product. I expect Coca Cola and the dairy industry will have a hard time selling it both ways, especially at Fairlife’s $4.59 for a 52-ounce plastic bottle.
Q: The recipes you include are creative and delicious. Can you tell us a little about the process you went through to create and vet them?
A: I wanted to create menus that demonstrate how easy it is to get all the nutrients we need, including calcium, from foods other than dairy. When confronted with the fact that milk is not necessary for strong bones and overall health, the dairy industry’s consistent comeback is that milk and milk products are the most convenient sources of calcium. True milk is high in calcium. Not true that it is difficult to obtain all the bone-building nutrients we need from our diet without dairy or calcium-fortified foods. The recipes feature magnesium as well as calcium and protein because magnesium, which milk is relatively low in, is as critical for bone health as calcium, yet studies show the majority of Americans are, as I already mentioned, deficient in it.
Designing the menus wasn’t hard, as many of the recipes are part of my daily vocabulary. The Pudding of Champions is one of my go-to meals. A combination of chia and flax seeds spiced with cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, ginger, anise seeds and orange peel, it stars a few of my favorite things. The Cookie Monster, which I used to make weekly as a teenager to help fuel me through long days training as competitive tennis player, is a giant nut- and seed-packed cookie sweetened with cinnamon and apple cider that travels well and can also pass as granola or an apple-crisp topping.
Other recipes are recreations of childhood memories, such as the Herbed Salmon Amaranth Burgers that remind me of a meal Helena, my parents’ Swedish friend, made me while I was staying with her one weekend while my parents were away.
Then there’s the vinaigrette bursting with the flavor of an assortment of dried herbs that are, ounce for ounce, higher in calcium than milk. There’s even a recipe for turning eggshells into a calcium-rich powder that’s as good for you as your plants. Nothing goes to waste in these recipes.
The resourceful and attentive Katie Mathieu, an avid kitchen gardener and former chef and caterer, tested all of the recipes. She also developed some of them. The early-spring nettle pesto that she made from the prickly plants growing wild in her neighborhood is a creation all her own. Katie also helped me crunch the nutrient numbers that complete each recipe. I think readers will find the recipes, which showcase the untold nutrients in widely available, inexpensive, and often overlooked ingredients, eye-opening as well as body- and belly-pleasing.
Q: How do unmake or challenge food myths most effectively?
A: Myths are by definition more than misunderstanding. They are stories that have become deeply embedded in the national psyche. Appeals to logic and reason are therefore necessary but not sufficient to uproot them. Only equally compelling narratives will set the record straight. Got Milked?, which is as much personal and heartfelt as it is objective and fact-based, is a seed I have lovingly planted in the hopes that the truth will blossom.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: Summer, thank goodness.