Why Is Dairy Inflammatory?

If you've read about dairy at all on the internet, no doubt you will read in countless blogs and articles about how dairy is one of the top 10 inflammatory foods. It's ALWAYS on the list. But why is that? What is it inherently about dairy that makes it so inflammatory. The particular proteins? The processing? The cows themselves? I would imagine many of you have no definitive answer, and yet we believe the inflammatory food lists without even thinking. If you are curious, let's investigate.

Civilizations began drinking the milk of animals between 9000 and 3000 BC, once they were less nomadic and began to farm and raise animals in one location. Mainly it was given to children because, interestingly enough, during those times most adults lacked the enzyme, lactase, to break down milk lactose. Eventually people started making cheeses and curds which reduced the lactose sufficiently for adults to consume. In more recent times a mutation occurred which allows lactase production into adulthood, allowing many adults to consume milk on a regular basis.

Milk production and consumption was quite fortunate, actually, as for many civilizations milk (and fermented beverages like wine) was safer than the questionable water sources. At least this source was non-alcoholic! It also provided a ready source of calories if for any reason food should become scarce.

This milk was, of course, raw and fresh. I am sure there were occasionally issues with hygiene and foodborne illness as there is with any fresh animal product but for the most part, as mentioned previously, it was considered safer than the drinking water. Apart from the occasional illness, however, there does not seem to be the same links between dairy and inflammation that we see today. What changed?

Processing: Pasteurization and Homogenization

One of the first ways we treated milk in modern times for safety reasons was with pasteurization. This was meant as a way to prevent illness and death given the often unsanitary methods of collection, storage and distribution that started to occur in modern times. It wasn't until 1860's that pasteurization was first utilized and it became standard practice in the 1890's.

There are currently several approved methods of pasteurization. The original method was to heat milk to 145 degrees F for 30 minutes. Newer methods use much higher heats for a shorter duration of time. The high-temp, short time method (HTST) sees the milk heated to 161 F for 15 seconds, and the ultra high heat method gets the milk up to 280 F for just a couple of seconds. There are other variations of heat and time as well, but the main point is that the milk is heat treated to kill pathogens. Presumably this is a good thing as no doubt it has prevented deaths from contaminated milk, but we will see that this has some unfortunate consequences as well.

Just like breast milk from humans, the milk from animals is "alive." What do I mean by that? There are delicate proteins, enzymes, immunoglobulins, vitamins and minerals all present in fresh, raw milk. Heat can damage or denature these elements, rendering them inactive or potentially harmful. Every parent knows you cannot heat breast milk or you take away its nourishing properties. When we do this to animal milk, we dramatically reduce its ability to work with our body. It is not the intact fluid it once was. While it still can provide helpful nutrients and protein, it may also be harming our body at the same time.

In an article Dr. Mercola wrote on the very same topic, he noted that first of all heat kills the Vitamin C naturally present in raw milk. It also converts the lactose into another form, called beta lactose, which is more rapidly absorbed and may adversely raise blood glucose levels. Pasteurization also destroys some of the naturally occurring iodine as well as alters the Calcium (the very thing we typically drink it for) into a form that is hard to absorb. Many of the natural enzymes are denatured as well, potentially making it harder to digest. While pasteurization may help keep us from falling ill, it seems to produce a product that is nutritionally inferior. Pros and cons, I guess.

The next way we treat milk is with homogenization. This is not for safety concerns but merely for desired consistency. In its natural state, milk is composed of fat and water. When left to sit, this fat will rise to the top. Once milk became commercialized, this was undesirable, and so manufacturers sought a way to prevent this from occurring. Homogenization was born. There are various mechanical methods to do this, but the end goal is to break up the fat globules and prevent them from clumping together. This practice appears to be harmless, however some have noted that during this process some of the proteins (whey and casein) become reassembled with the fats. It believed that these now protein-heavy fat globules may decrease absorption and increase risk for allergies, however there are few studies to back this up. For now it seems homogenization may be the least of your worries when it comes to milk consumption.

Nutrient Profile

The nutrient profile of milk has also changed over the years. Obviously when humans first began consuming milk, all of the cows were grass fed and raised on open pastures. Nowadays, as we all know, most cows are kept in close confines and fed a varied diet, usually consisting of a mixture of grains, dried grass, and random leftovers such as canola meal, almond husks and citrus pulp. This has an effect on the fats, vitamins and minerals that can be found in the milk we end up consuming.

Grass-fed cows, for example, produce milk that is higher in anti-inflammatory Omega 3's, Vitamin E, beta carotene, phytochemicals/antioxidants and conjugated linoleic acid. Cows that are fed more varied diets produce milk with higher levels of inflammatory fats and lower levels of vitamins and antioxidants. Remember, we are what we eat, and this same saying applies to the cow as well. Now, while grass-fed milk might seem more healthy after saying all of that, remember if its pasteurized, many of these beneficial properties may be neutralized as we discussed previously. Just something to ponder given the plethora of organic and grass-fed milks on the store shelves these days.

Apart from diet, the type of cow can also have a significant impact on the nutrients in the milk. Most dairy cows in the US are of the Holstein variety. This variety in particular tends to produce larger amounts of milk than their cousins and hence has been the cow of choice. However, this brings up the A1 vs A2 debate. The A-what? Apparently all cows originally produced A2 protein in their milk, a type of beta-casein that makes up about 30% of the protein in milk. Several thousand years ago a mutation occurred that changed the beta-casein slightly, which we then dubbed A1. Most of the European dairy cows, including Holstein, predominantly produce A1 proteins. It has been purported by several researchers that A1 milk is harder to digest and has been linked to increases in heart disease, Type 1 Diabetes, and leaky gut syndrome. Whether this is indeed true or not is yet to be proved, but it may be another reason why some people have a harder time with milk products than others.

If you want to look for A2 milk, you are in luck. The Jersey, Guernsey and Normande cows produce mostly A2 milk. Some stores carry these varieties and some milks in other countries are even starting to be labeled as "A2." Personally I have Guernsey cow milk and yogurt in my fridge right now. For someone such as myself with a history of dairy issues, it seems to be, at least for now, more digestible.


We likely have all heard about the issues with hormones in cow's milk. But where are those hormones coming from? First, there are natural hormones that pass into the milk from pregnant cows. The later in pregnancy the cow is, the more hormones she passes. One researcher noted that 60-80% of the natural estrogens we consume are from dairy. This can have implications when it comes to cancer. Also, the higher the fat content of the diary product, the higher the amount of estrogens.

In 1993, the FDA approved the use of genetically engineered recombinant growth hormone (rBST) to increase milk yield. Many studies and reviews have shown rBST to be safe, mainly in that it cannot be absorbed by humans via milk consumption. Despite those studies many countries, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and all of the EU have banned it. The main reasons for this involve animal welfare, namely referring to increased illness and infections amongst animals injected with rBST. More antibiotics are then needed, increasing the risk for antibiotic resistance, and these antibiotics may pass into the milk as well. Yet one more thing to consider.

Conclusions? Maybe you, like me, are just as confused as before. The government tells me milk is healthy and beneficial, but health websites are telling me that milk is inflammatory and best avoided... What is one to do?

First, I think it's safe to say that raw milk from grass-fed Guernsey or Jersey cows would be the ideal choice. Of course, there are risks to unpasteurized milk that need to be taken into account. Also there is the problem of finding those types of milk on a regular basis, not to mention the cost. The presence of hormones would also still be a concern. Additionally, even if you find the most perfect milk on the planet, the proteins may still set off your immune system and cause inflammation. Any food can be inflammatory if your immune system chooses to react against it.

The next best choice would be pasteurized milk from organic, grass-fed cows, however again there is potentially an availability issue for some and also cost concerns. Also the allergy issue remains and may even be more of a problem as the milk has lost some of the elements that improves and supports digestion.

The least favored choice would be non-organic, ultra high heat pasteurized milk that is treated with rBST from very pregnant cows (but how would you know this!). Unfortunately, this is the most common milk on the shelf and therefore what most Americans are consuming. This IS inflammatory for all of the reasons described and I would highly recommend to avoid. If this is your calcium source, there are far better ways to get this mineral than milk. Do a quick Google search and you can easily find great lists of non-dairy foods rich in calcium. If you drink milk simply because you like it, try one of the better options discussed above. You may want to drink less of it due to cost, but at least you will be consuming a healthier beverage.

We all have been taught that milk does a body good, but now we know this might not be the case. Do what is right for YOUR body and make your choices regarding dairy accordingly.

Danielle VenHuizen, MS, RD, CLT is a Registered Dietitian who helps her clients achieve health and vitality through food, not pharmaceuticals. She specializes in working with food sensitivities, Diabetes, Cardiovascular health, Digestive Disorders, and healthy pregnancies. For more expert health advice visit her blog at http://www.FoodSense.net.

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