Thursday, February 12, 2015

Let's Talk About Milk

There's no skirting around the fact that I am somewhat obsessive about food and nutrition when it comes to my kids. Even back in the halcyon Bombay (Take that censor board, I said Bombay) days when I had quite the household staff and barely knew the location of the kitchen, I would make a detailed weekly menu for my (thankfully literate) nanny-cum-cook to ensure that Ayaan's diet was balanced and nutritious, even if I wasn't cooking it.

When I moved to Hyderabad, I had to get deeply acquainted with my kitchen and the intense business of turning out two meals and one set of lunch boxes every single day. Being a total newbie, I picked up much of what I knew from the internet, haunting my favourite food blogs. From there, it was just a small jump to reading articles and posts about the latest research and thinking (and re-thinking) about what constitutes a healthy diet. Over time, these have had a significant influence on the way I feed the kids, including getting rid of my non-stick cookware, doing away with fruit juices and packaged foods and sticking to a predominantly vegetarian diet for 5 days in a week.

However, there is one thing I have not been able to make up my mind about and that is whether milk has a place in a healthy diet for children. There is so much conflicting evidence and experience on this that I just cannot arrive at a conclusion that I feel entirely satisfied with.

On the one hand, there are a lot of positives associated with drinking of milk:
  • It is a cultural thing. Milk has been considered one of the cornerstones of nutrition, especially for children. We have probably been giving it to our children since pre-historical times. It's a habit as old as religion (possibly even older) and probably just as ingrained.
  • It is rich in calcium and potassium, which are essential building blocks for the human body in general and bone health in particular. 
  • It is a good source of protein, especially for people whose diets are not rich in meat.
  • It is an ideal early morning dose of nutrition for kids before they rush off to school. It is gulped down quickly and has the additional benefit of getting their bowels moving pretty past.
  • It is yummy, especially when converted in butter, cheese, custard, yoghurt... need I go on?
But then, milk has also been getting a lot of bad press lately. Many new studies seems to suggest that not only is milk a nutritional dud, it might be doing more harm than good. 
You'd think that was all there was to it. But recently I was educated about the difference between A1 and A2 milk. It appears that most of the milk that we get in India is from imported cows (high yield breeds like Jersey) and cross-breeds, while the indigenous (desi) cow populations are rapidly depleting. The milk from the former category of cows contains the A1 protein, which is supposedly much harder to digest and could be responsible for conditions like schizophrenia, heart disease and diabetes. The milk from desi cows has an A2 protein, which does not come with these adverse affects. But it is not easy to find reliable, regular suppliers of desi cow milk these days.  

Now if this isn't complicated enough, there are so many different options in the market. I have been through a fair number of them in the last 9 years since Ayaan was weaned. As a paranoid first-time mother, the sterilised UHT milk (the kind that comes in a tetrapak) seemed to be the safest, most germ-free option. But then I chanced upon some articles that said that the UHT process severely compromises the nutritional value of this milk, so I moved to the regular dairy milk for a few years. During this phase, I did worry about the adulterants that were rumoured to be present, but I didn't have any other options so I turned a blind eye. Thankfully, I don't have to do that anymore with organic milk slowly coming into its own. Thanks to Akshayakalpa, raw organic milk is now delivered to my doorstep every morning.

So yes, to say that I am confused would be understating things somewhat. On the one hand, there is comfort to be found in the longstanding tradition of daily milk habit. The kids are used to their daily dairy regimen (a cup of milk in the morning, a bowl of curd at dinnertime) and consume it with minimal fuss - I find it hard to imagine being able to adequately substitute this with other (plant-based) sources of calcium. It is also a quick way to get their day (and bowels) kickstarted on school days.

And yet, there appear to be so many reasons to eject milk from their diet. This is something I have been mulling over for the last year at least and I have been unable to arrive at a conclusion. In addition to the reasons mentioned above, I also remain unconvinced because experts seems to often backtrack on these things. Chocolate and butter have been vilified in the past but now the former is supposed to be loaded with antioxidants and the latter is considered a healthy fat. It is not inconceivable that the milk debate might go the same way...

Apologies for the somewhat pedantic post. I would love to hear from you guys on where you stand on this issue. 


  1. Anonymous5:24 am

    I stopped consuming milk for mostly ethical reasons but also for all the health reasons you've listed.
    The thing is I don't miss it because we have something called Rude Health Coconut and Rice milk that is super delicious and nutritious. Next time you're in London try it out.
    I think if you can get healthier alternatives from plant based milks in India then you should definitely try them.
    Once in a while I do cheat and eat kulfi or cake so my ethics aren't that strong! :-)

    1. I made have made almond milk and coconut milk at home but while they are consumed happily in desserts and curries, the kids did not really like them neat. Also, almond milk seems terribly wasteful to me given how many almonds go into producing one cup of milk.

  2. Anamom1:36 pm

    Completely in the same boat as you on this issue : Confused and sitting on the fence. I didn't wean my daughter in a hurry and she was not introduced to cow milk until she was over a year old. She didn't particularly like it and because of all the stuff we read on cow milk, we didn't force it on her either. But we would always second guess ourselves on whether she is getting all of the nutrients she needs or not, because milk does have a whole lot of them and generations of us were brought up on cow milk . Not that we are super healthy for it, but who knows if we really would have turned out healthier by avoiding it. Three generations of women before me in my family have been working women which means the kids were weaned starting around 3 months and put on cow milk. The extended family has all kinds of allergies to show for it and I wonder if it is just a coincidence or not.

    With all of the contradictory information available, you just have to go with your judgement, for better or worse. When nature has given humans the ability to lactate, it doesn't sound like we were meant to consume milk of another species, that too well into adulthood. Also, most adult humans do not produce the enzyme lactase to digest milk which again makes nature's intention clear. For now though cow milk is not a regular part of the toddler's diet but we do include some dairy (curd/butter/cheese) which I think is relatively safer than milk but I don't know for sure.

    I have read that goat milk is the least harmful compared to its counterparts but I don't know how to source it and am not really sure I want to try it. As for plant based alternatives like almond milk, I haven't done a comparison with cow milk in terms of nutritional value per unit and I am yet to see it being regularly sold in superstores. But the moment they are sold in stores, they would have to contain preservatives, right ? There is just no perfect option.

    1. I totally agree with the fact that there are no perfect options. It is such a maze!

      I think I am pretty convinced that adults do not require milk and my milk consumption is limited to the cheese and butter on my toast every morning.

      I would definitely try goat's milk if it was available from a reliable source but I don't see that happening anytime soon. Also, almond milk is not that hard to make at home but it seems wasteful to me.

  3. Anonymous3:08 pm

    I went thru the same dilemma 3 years ago mainly because I was diagnosed with invasive cancer and had to begin eliminating all sources of foods that have extra hormones(my cancer is estrogen positive) and along with milk, soy and edamame which I loved until then milk and its cohorts went out the door. I researched extensively on the positives and negatives of continuing milk and dairy based products in our regular diet and came up with a few dos and don'ts I follow till today.

    1. raw organic milk boiled gently till 115 degrees fahrenheit(using a candy or meat thermometer) and then cooled is ok for us 3-4 times a week by itself and in small quantities in our tea and coffee every day. If drunk by itself no more than 1/2 a regular sized glass for kids and adults alike. Even better if the milk is goats milk or sheep's milk both of which are more expensive but available here because they contain less lactose which causes many of known allergies and in my case means less sugars which is great for an anti cancer diet.

    2. Well fermented cheese from organic milk ok to eat a wedge now and then, not a daily habit. Fermentation brings down the lactose levels depending on how long it was fermented of course. Same with yogurt, home made from raw organic milk boiled to 115-117 deg. fahrenheit. Store bought yogurt continues to tempt us but we now eschew it 100% unless in a bind with nothing else to eat on the go.

    3. organic butter ok now and then on toast or just like that but I don't cook with it. I make my own ghee which I do add to dals etc just for it's luscious taste.

    If your children's vitamin D levels are normal and their diet is otherwise well rounded they will absorb enough calcium and it will be directed to the right places in the body, not to worry. Excess calcium in diet, never a good idea anyways. But other good sources which I use for my 10 year old are- sesame seeds, pumpkin/sunflower seeds, walnuts/almonds, all the leafy greens, broccoli and so on.

    This might be just more of the same you've already read but I thought I'd just chime in with what we've followed so far. Now with the recent news we received of my mum also being diagnosed with cancer(of a different kind) we're going to follow this strictly as she will be coming to live with us here on.

    Your journey from being a mum who eschewed the kitchen completely to becoming this school lunch packing momma has enthralled me over the years because it somewhat echoes my own track from being clueless in the kitchen 14 years ago when I was first married to now knowing a tad too much about nutrition than I'd like to:-)


    1. Thanks for sharing, Deepa. I think your dos and donts are sensible. I think I more or less follow a similar approach, though the options here are more limited - no easy access to goat's milk or organic cheese.

      I know what you mean about knowing a tad too much about nutrition. Feels like a curse sometimes!

  4. Anonymous7:36 pm

    Share a similar obsession for healthy eating after having my kids. I've also been through the same dilemmas regarding milk. Husband who's been having milk since he was a baby developed a bad case of lactose intolerance after 10 years in US. He used to drink the fat free milk from the carton for a long time before that. Son had major food intolerance issues, eczema etc., as a baby. I grew extremely suspicious of milk in US since then (and am averse to processed foods in general). It's almost impossible to find milk from A2 cows in US. Tried organic raw milk, goat milk etc. since then, but didn't stick with those for several reasons.

    We moved back to India since then, and get raw buffalo milk from a milk man. It's boiled the old fashioned way to pasteurize it (at the risk of killing the good bacteria, but we cannot risk the bad ones :). Husband still cannot tolerate milk, but eats yoghurt. I've slowly introduced milk back to my son, but he doesn't drink it like other kids do. We all eat yoghurt for lunch and dinner, milk in tea and ghee for kids. I don't worry much about the higher fat content in buffalo milk. My son gets ragi porridge daily for calcium.

    1. How does buffalo milk compare to cow's milk? Nutrition and health wise, that is?

  5. Anonymous10:15 am

    Nutrition charts say Buffalo milk has lower sodium, potassium, more calcium and protein, lower cholesterol, higher fat content etc. Some sources mention cow milk is better for brain development. I feel there isn't much of a difference other than the higher fat content (and my expanding waistline from consuming full fat yoghurt). I was more concerned about the A1 mutation in cows causing issues.

  6. Anonymous10:23 am

    Another reason why I prefer buffalo milk:

    It's not subjected to intense farming regimes.

    Same reason why I prefer mutton to chicken (not farmed).

  7. Hi Ro - been so long. Just saw all your new posts. I hear you about the confusion regarding milk. I go through that conflict...since son loves milk so much. Daughter - does not like milk. I do give them butter more than I used because of all the healthy fat information. Milk is the hard one - I went from organic to only grass fed/ DHA supplemented milk to stopping even that because it comes in those plastic lined containers...I feel the more I read the more paranoid I get as to what is ok or not. When I now see those worn out non stick tava's people use with metal spoons because "the guy said you can use metal spoons on it" as if he is some authority on the makes me so nervous. Even the deception that goes on in "organic" is endless...the things to worry about.

    1. Mine have a 'take it or leave it' attitude towards milk so the decision is really all mine.

      Yes, agree. The list of things to worry about seems endless. But I am not letting that get in my way :-P