I admit I took fresh whole milk for granted, growing up on a dairy farm.
Anytime we needed more milk, we made a visit to the milk house, turned on the bulk tank agitator, lifted the lid and dipped a clean jug into the tank.
During my teen years in the early 1970s, whole milk started falling out of favor as a choice beverage. At our high school, we got our first pop-dispensing machine, and as a student council member, it was my job to refill it. Then in college, the dorm cafeteria milk dispensers offered low-fat milks, and I gradually became accustomed to their taste. That was the time, too, that dietary research pointed out that saturated fats, found in dairy and meat products, contribute to heart disease, weight gain and some cancers.
1 man turns against tide
Early in my ag journalism career in the mid-1980s, I came across a Wisconsin dairy farmer who bucked the low-fat milk trend and took the national dairy industry to task for not supporting whole milk, especially in schools. The milk checkoff started in 1983, and promotion efforts did not include fluid whole milk. Dairy farmer Andy Huppert, who passed away in 2017, was a one-man promotion effort, getting his local grocery store owner on board with touting the nutritional benefits of whole milk. Andy pushed whole milk wherever he was and with whoever he could.
In my memory of that story interview, I can still hear Andy, lamenting about the need for hungry schoolchildren to have ice-cold whole milk served in cafeteria lines. He deeply believed that growing youngsters needed this nutrient-dense food, not watery servings of skim milk that government and school officials thought they should have. Children’s dietary requirements are different from adults, he noted, and they should be offered foods appropriate for their ages.
Since then, the decades-old research that linked saturated fats and heart disease, which originated at the University of Minnesota Medical School, has been given more scrutiny. Scientists found that the data were never fully analyzed and reported. In fact, the data run counter to current dietary recommendations that advise a diet low in saturated fat to decrease heart risk.
Re-examining whole milk’s health benefits
Recently, I was happy to learn of a study that points to the benefits of consuming whole milk and other full-fat dairy products.
Research from the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, published last summer in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found no significant link between dairy fats and cause of death or heart disease and stroke. In fact, certain types of dairy fat may help guard against having a severe stroke, the researchers reported. You can read this cardiovascular health study at AJCN online.
The study evaluated three fatty acids present in dairy fat and how they related to heart disease and mortality over a 22-year period, beginning in 1992. Nearly 3,000 adults ages 65 years and older participated in the study and had scheduled health checks, including blood samples taken. Using this type of methodology, rather than memory and self-reported consumption of participants, gave more objective insight into the impact of long-term exposure to fatty acids in dairy fats, the researchers noted.
None of the fatty acid types were significantly associated with mortality, the researchers found. Rather, one type was linked to lower cardiovascular disease deaths. People in the study with higher fatty acid levels, suggesting higher consumption of whole-fat dairy products, had a 42% lower risk of dying from stroke.
Studies such as the Texas research are slowly surfacing. How I wish the national dairy industry and promotion groups could get on board and support these efforts for whole milk and full-fat dairy beyond butter.
Low-fat flavored milk returns to school
Alas, the bright object in the room for them — for some time now — has been low-fat flavored milks in school cafeterias.
The national dairy industry was not happy when the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was reauthorized. Included in the act that governs the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs was a provision that in 2012, low-fat flavored milk would no longer be offered in school meal programs. The dairy industry has lobbied to change that decision since then and got what it wanted. USDA implemented a regulatory change for the 2018-19 school year that allows schools to add 1% flavored milk back to the cafeteria line. USDA cited data that implied the flavored milk removal from school cafeterias impacted milk consumption in schools: 288 million fewer half-pints served from 2012-15.
I can think of several other reasons for the decline in consumption. However, that’s a discussion for another day.
With science showing the way, let’s see dairy promotion and processing directions change course.