The Truth About Cow’s Milk: Is It Good for You?

Milk Nutrition and Health Benefits

What’s your go-to drink? If you said milk, you’re not alone. Cow’s milk is a popular drink for most North Americans’. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a household that doesn’t carry this beverage. But it wasn’t always this way. How did milk become such a staple?

How it All Began

It all started about 10,000 years ago when dairy farming communities in central Europe first developed the ability to digest lactose, the sugar in milk. As cattle herding was becoming more prominent, a genetic mutation spread throughout Europe gave people the power to produce lactase, the enzyme that digests lactose. 

Today, you’ll find cow’s milk in most European and North American households. In Asia, milk consumption has increased four-fold since 2012. There’s been a recent backlash against milk, but it remains a popular everyday beverage. Today we’ll separate fact from fiction and give you the facts about cow’s milk.

Milk’s Health Benefits

With 16 essential nutrients and minerals, milk is a nutritional powerhouse. It’s an excellent source of:

  • Calcium. One cup contains 30% of your daily calcium requirements, and it does more than build strong bones. Calcium helps regulate muscle contraction and control your blood pressure.
  • Vitamin D. In most countries, it’s mandatory to fortify cow’s milk by adding Vitamin D since it helps you absorb calcium. 
  • Phosphorus. This mineral helps you form bones and teeth, and the carbohydrates and fat provide energy.
  • Protein. Protein is your body’s main building block. It supports a robust immune system and has dozens of other functions. 
  • B vitamins. There are numerous B vitamins in milk. B vitamins like B1, B2, and B12 help maintain your overall well being and have a beneficial impact on your brain function, energy, and metabolism. 

Milk and Your Bone Health

Milk is considered a top food for developing strong bones and teeth, which is why it’s such a popular kid’s beverage. Calcium gets the credit for dense bone mass. Still, you can also thank milk’s many other nutrients: vitamin D, phosphorus, protein, vitamin K2, and potassium, to name a few! 

Drinking milk can lower your risk of osteoporosis, a bone disease where you lose too much bone, increasing your risk for fractures. A lifelong lack of calcium is the primary cause of osteoporosis. Although your bone mass peaks by the age of 30, getting enough calcium is essential in all your life stages. 

milk nutrition facts: calcium content

If you’re over 30 and have never been a milk drinker, don’t fret. You can still minimize bone loss and fracture risk well into your older years. Be mindful of your calcium intake, and remember that milk isn’t the only source, but it’s a convenient and affordable option. If you’d like to get your calcium from a source other than milk, try:

  • Chia Seeds
  • Almonds
  • Soy milk
  • Tofu
  • Dried figs
  • Broccoli rabe
  • Edamame
  • Kale
  • Sweet potatoes

If you’re between 19-50, try to get 1000mg of calcium daily. And If you’re female and over 50 or male and over 70, increase it to 1200mg. For reference, one cup of milk has 300mg of calcium. 

Hormones in Cow’s Milk 

You’ve probably heard the controversy surrounding hormones in cow’s milk. It centers on Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), a human-made hormone that increases milk production in cows. There’s concern that rBGH triggers elevated IGF-1, a growth hormone that’s linked to cancer growth when found in high amounts. However, a study sampled store-bought milk in 48 states and found no significant differences in IGF-1 in organic, no-added-hormone, or conventional dairy. Nevertheless, you might be concerned drinking cow’s milk from cattle treated with rBGH will increase your cancer risk. However, there’s no evidence to support this claim. Nutrition and metabolism are complex sciences that aren’t as cut-and-dried as “drink and absorb.”

Are you thinking, “Why take the risk with manmade hormones?” Very valid question. Although rBGH is approved for use in the US, a USDA study found that less than one in five cattle were injected with this hormone. Plus, many large grocery stores in the US don’t carry milk from cows treated with rBGH. Countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Israel have banned rBGH. If you’d like to ensure your milk doesn’t contain human-made hormones, organic cow’s milk is an option, but no research suggests consuming organic dairy will reduce your risk for disease.

Our best advice? Find what works best for you. If you prefer organic and have the means to purchase it, go for it. If you enjoy regular ole’ milk, that’s great too! 

Milk Types

Raw vs. Pasteurized 

Raw milk is the purest form of cow’s milk since it’s straight from the cow’s udder! It’s highly controversial; advocates say it’s more nutritious, but health agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say raw milk “can pose severe health risks. Milk isn’t pasteurized to kill disease-causing germs.” The pasteurization process heats and cools milk quickly, which kills harmful bacteria like E. coli and salmonella. 

Depending on where you live, raw milk might be challenging to find. Many European countries allow direct farm-to-consumer sales of raw milk, like France, Germany, Denmark, Ireland, and the Czech Republic. Others, like Spain, Poland, and Norway, have banned raw milk sales altogether. In the US, raw milk is illegal in 20 states.

Milk Fat Percentages 

When you visit the dairy aisle, you’ll see 3.25% (whole milk), 2% (reduced-fat milk), 1% (low-fat milk), and 0% (skim milk). These percentages refer to the amount of fat in the milk product. Full fat and 2% will taste creamier and more satiating, plus you’ll absorb more fat-soluble vitamins. Skim milk will taste lighter. 

benefits of full-fat milk for your heart

But remember, dietary fat doesn’t make you fat, and milk contains fat for a reason. Many of the milk vitamins are fat-soluble, which means you need the fat in milk to absorb the vitamins. When you remove some or all of the fat from milk, it becomes a simple carbohydrate because the fat isn’t present to slow down your milk-sugar absorption rate, and that can cause a spike in your blood sugar. Also, whole milk will keep you full longer.

Recent studies show that full-fat milk and other dairy products are beneficial to your heart, not detrimental. So, try to choose full-fat dairy whenever possible.

Should You Drink Milk?

Milk has many health benefits. It’s an easy and affordable way to get protein and calcium, especially if you’re under 18 or over 50 because your calcium requirements increase. If you’re pregnant, calcium is vital. The recommendations don’t rise, but low calcium intake when you’re pregnant can cause pregnancy-induced high blood pressure, increase your risk of osteoporosis and fetal growth disorders. But don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Keep in mind that nutrients in milk can be found in non-dairy food sources, too! Milk is simply a convenient and affordable option.

Lactose intolerance

If you’re lactose intolerant, try to avoid milk. Lactose intolerance is when you don’t have enough lactase, the digestive enzyme that breaks down the lactose sugar in dairy products. It’s not life-threatening, but if you don’t produce lactase, milk and other dairy products can cause uncomfortable digestive symptoms like gas, bloating, and diarrhea. You can have a hydrogen breath test or stool acidity test to see if you’re lactose intolerant, or you can monitor your symptoms. If it hurts, don’t drink it! Opt for lactose-free milk instead, which won’t trigger your symptoms.

Milk protein allergy 

A milk protein allergy is a more severe condition where drinking milk can trigger an abnormal immune response. Casein and whey are the two main proteins in cow’s milk that cause allergic reactions. Signs of a milk protein allergy can vary. If you have hives, difficulty breathing, swelling in your mouth, vomiting, or itching after drinking milk, talk to your doctor about potential testing, and avoid milk.

Milk Alternatives

If you don’t do dairy, there are a variety of popular milk alternatives that provide some of the vitamins and minerals in cow’s milk in varying amounts:

  • Almond milk: Fortified almond milk contains calcium, vitamin D, and B vitamins, but it’s not a significant protein source. 
  • Oat milk: 1 cup = 4g protein, calcium, vitamin D, B vitamins
  • Pea milk: 1 cup = 8g protein, calcium, vitamin D, B vitamins
  • Soy milk: 1 cup = 8g protein, calcium, vitamin D, B vitamins 

*Note: Double-check the nutrition facts to ensure your milk alternative is fortified.

How to Choose and Store Milk

Milk is perishable. It’s best to store it in the fridge under 40 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent spoilage. Pick your milk up last when you shop, so it doesn’t get warm while you shop. Once you get home, refrigerate ASAP in its original closed container. You can also freeze milk for up to three months, but it’s best to drink it within six weeks of freezing for optimal taste and nutrition. Remember to thaw it for 24-36 hours in the fridge and shake well before serving.

Milk isn’t limited to drinking, so get creative with how you use it. Add milk to soups for extra creaminess, cook it into oatmeal for a boost of protein, and enjoy milk-based desserts like rice pudding or custard. Enjoy!

Author's bio

Trista Chan, RD, MHSc

Trista Chan, RD, MHSc

Trista is a Registered Dietitian with her Master of Health Science in Nutrition Communication at Ryerson University, Toronto, and holds an Applied Human Nutrition degree and a graduate certificate in Workplace Wellness. Trista has diverse work experience in organizations both big and small. ...