Is dairy food good for us? And is it even necessary?

Dairy. There’s no denying it’s delicious. In fact, I’ve been known to steal the cheese from others' slices of pizza to make the ultimate slice and to offer others a sliver or two of soft cheese only to avoid the scandal of eating the whole wheel myself.

But, the tender bonding experience of breastfeeding my daughter led me to cut out cow’s milk 18 months ago and I have been trying – fairly unsuccessfully – to wean myself off my beloved cheese because, even though I knew about the removal of calves from their mothers before, it took on a whole new level of The Handmaid's Tale cruelty in my mind.

Dairy. Is it good? It depends on how you look at it.Credit:SHUTTERSTOCK

Aside from the ethical issue, there are other question marks about dairy.

Deakin University’s Food and Mood Centre is currently running (and recruiting for) a randomised controlled trial looking at the relationship between dairy and mental and gut health in women.

“We're testing the hypothesis that the type of dairy (conventional with A1, or A2 only) has an impact on mood, cognition and gut health,” says Professor Felice Jacka, director of the Food and Mood Centre.

Kefir, like other fermented foods, is seen by many as ‘good dairy’.

“There are a lot of data in animals, and some new data from [trials] in humans (plus a lot of ecological studies), suggesting that the A1 protein (that arose as a result of a genetic mutation in European cattle herds about 10,000 years ago) is problematic for gut health, immune function, and mental and brain health.”

Should we be cutting down on cheese? It’s not entirely clear.

The idea is that the A2 protein (regular cow’s milk contains both A1 and A2 while milk from Guernsey, Jersey, Asian herds, human milk, and sheep, goat, donkeys, yaks, camel, buffalo, sheep, etc. contain mostly A2 protein) is absorbed differently in the gut and, among people with sensitivities to dairy, may be easier to digest.

While many of the trials looking at the different protein in milk, like this new study of Chinese children, are funded by the a2 Milk Company and are contested, it begs the questions: is dairy nutritionally necessary, or even good for us?

Dairy is not essential, but it is enjoyable

The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend “enjoying” milk, cheese, yoghurt and/or their alternatives every day. But is “enjoy” the keyword here?

It seems to be. Dr David Katz, the director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Centre, sliced through much of the nutritional confusion when he said this last year: “For our health, the ‘best’ diet is a theme: an emphasis on vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and plain water for thirst. That can be with or without seafood; with or without dairy; with or without eggs; with or without some meat; high or low in total fat.”

Dairy is a good source of vitamin D, protein and phosphorous. Dietitian Meghan Hockey, who works at the Food and Mood Centre, adds, “For bone strength, it’s the most bioavailable source of calcium”, although calcium is also found in kale and other dark leafy greens, beans, soy, nuts and seeds and fatty fish.

Dairy is not essential – much of the world lives without it – but it is a convenient and tasty source of protein and many nutrients.

Dietitian Dr Joanna McMillan says, “My conclusion is that dairy is not essential – much of the world lives without it – but it is a convenient and tasty source of protein and many nutrients, notably calcium.

The dairy debate includes questions of sustainability and animal welfare, particular of the calves of dairy cows.Credit:Steven Siewert

"There is no evidence to support the arguments that it is harmful … unless you have an allergy or proven intolerance.”

Is it good for us?

Stories about the “dangers” of dairy and anti-inflammatory diets that advocate ditching dairy are all the rage but what’s the reality?

The truth, as with most things, is likely to be far more nuanced than the black and white, yes and no labels we all love.

“It’s likely the type of dairy makes a difference because dairy products are very nutritionally diverse,” says Hockey, who adds that those with intolerances might have “a strong reaction” rather than everyone per se.

As for the dairy-mental health link, it is “incredibly messy”, admits Jacka: “We've just finished a systematic literature review (not yet published) and there's simply no pattern. Some studies show that dairy increases the risk for major depression and others that it is protective.”

Scientists are researching any links between dairy and gut or mental health.Credit:Louie Douvis

Again, this is likely to come down to the individual and the type of dairy (whole versus low-fat milk, fermented versus non-fermented, and a2 versus conventional), as well as how much we consume.

“There is definitely something in fermented dairy – yoghurt always comes up shining for benefits in big studies and even cheese, usually thought of as less healthy food, is not flagged as such in studies,” says McMillan.

“Recent research has also shown that in terms of [cardiovascular disease] and heart disease specifically even full-fat dairy is not related – and that doesn’t mean low fat is bad (as media tends to have suggested) it just means all dairy seems to be neutral as far as heart health goes.”

Is it ethical?

While the industry has introduced an initiative to address the environmental impact, a large study from 2018 found meat and dairy farming takes up 83 per cent of the world’s farmland and produces 60 per cent of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions.

And for those, like me, who are concerned that the repeated forced impregnation of cows and removal of their young is scarily akin to The Handmaid’s Tale, there is both good and bad news.

Most, but not all, farms remove the calves from the 1.6-odd million dairy cows in Australia within 12 hours of birth and those calves travel up to 30 hours to their slaughter.

There are both environmental and ethical implications from eating dairy, but certified organic and biodynamic farms (Sustainable Table has a good guide to the ethics) have strict practices to foster the welfare of the animals and the environment and typically produce less greenhouse gas. So, for those who can afford it, organic and biodynamic are worth the extra cost.

The Food and Mood Centre is currently recruiting women in the Melbourne and Geelong region for the Moo'D study. For more information, go to www.foodandmoodcentre.com/themoodstudy

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