Dairy products often get a bad press when it comes to health, but Northern Farmer writer Hannah Chapman argues more attention should be given to its nutritional benefits
THIS month I’ve spent a lot of time reading up on health debate surrounding dairy after a shocking press release landed on my desk at The Northern Echo, sister publication of The Northern Farmer.
Headlined ‘three million young adults putting their future health in danger’, I was expecting the usual scare story about red meat, or alcohol, or sausage rolls, but as I scanned the text, I soon got to the shocking bit.
The press release, from the National Osteoporosis Society, warned that 20 per cent of 18 to 35-year-olds are, or have been, cutting out or reducing the amount of dairy in their diets, often because of the current fad for so-called ‘clean’ eating promoted by bloggers on social media.
It went on to say that as dairy is an important source of calcium, vital in building bone strength, these young people are putting themselves at an increased risk of developing osteoporosis, a painful and debilitating condition which causes bones to become fragile and break easily.
This information is clearly worrying, but the reason I was so surprised is that it’s rare to see information supplied to the media which gives its unqualified backing to the health benefits of dairy.
Of course, I’m not exactly objective when it comes to the subject, being the daughter of a dairy farmer, and lucky enough to have drunk raw, full fat milk all my life.
Among work colleagues now, and years ago at school, this provoked curiosity, and in some cases, utter horror. I distinctly remember one teacher telling me that if continued with this way of life, I would be dead by the time I was 30, my arteries clogged and my heart giving up.
You would think I had confessed to being a crack cocaine addict, not putting raw milk on my Weetabix.
This sort of comment sticks with you though, and had I not been the type of person to think ‘idiot’ and ignore him, it would have been easy to take him at his word and swear off milk altogether. Bearing in mind I was in my mid-teens at the time, it would have been just the point when I needed calcium in my diet the most.
And it’s not just milk. Until a recent about-turn in attitudes on butter, it was akin to devil food. And woe-betide keen cheese eaters. All of us destined to a life of miserable obesity.
So what of these bloggers who are doing so much to promote supposedly healthier alternatives to dairy? Many claim to have cut dairy out altogether and replaced it with plant-based alternatives. In return they are said to have seen improvements in their general health, and sometimes specific conditions such as acne have cleared up.
Good for them. If going dairy free works for some individuals, then of course it’s right that they do that. And if they feel that spreading the word about their changes will help others in a similar situation, then that’s fine – as long as they do so responsibly and make sure they are recommending other sources of calcium to make up the resulting deficit.
Looking past the shiny veneer of the food bloggers, another argument that often gets thrown at dairy is that it’s just not natural for humans to drink the milk of another animal. Well, my reading matter included that fact that it wasn’t natural at all until a few thousand years ago when a genetic mutation gave our farming ancestors the ability to digest lactose.
These mutants often survived when their lactose intolerant cousins died, so much so that now, in Northern Europe, almost 100 per cent of the population can drink milk with no ill effects.
Why those able to digest lactose had such an evolutionary advantage seems to be a bit of mystery.
The final criticism of dairy is always an emotive one about the ‘cruelty’ of the industry’s practices. Recent information campaigns have done much to counter this, added to the current efforts to promote ‘free range’ milk. There are counter-arguments about the benefits or otherwise of designating a small amount of the milk on the market as definitively free-range, when the reality is that a much higher proportion would fit the criteria.
But in my mind, anything that gives a positive profile to dairy products and those who put them on the supermarket shelves has to be a good thing.
Which brings me back to the National Osteoporosis Society. It’s great promoting our own industry as supplying a nutritious product with clear health benefits, but in the same way that I’m not exactly unbiased, we would say that, wouldn’t we?
So when a charity with no agenda other than being concerned in the prevention of a horrible disease warns that dairy is an essential part of our diet, it is to be hoped that the nation sits up and takes notice.