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Moo-ving a Product With Little Demand

Peak Milk?

by MARTHA ROSENBERG

Despite 20 years of “Got Milk?” mustache ads, milk consumption in the US falls more every year. The National Dairy Promotion and Research Program and the National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Program cite competition from calcium-fortified and vitamin-enhanced beverages, milk’s lack of  availability “in many eating establishments” (You can’t find milk anywhere!) and a growing percentage of African Americans and Latinos in the US population who are not traditionally big milk consumers.

Many other groups also shun milk from teenagers and young adults to dieters, athletes and health-food eaters who reject the cholesterol, fat, calories and allergens. Several Asian ethnic groups also avoid milk, as do the lactose intolerant, the allergic, people who drink or smoke (the tastes don’t mix) and animal and environmental activists. In fact, Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose pediatric advice shaped the entire Baby Boom generation, recommended no milk for children after age two, in his later years, to reduce their risks of heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and diet-related cancers.

To sell milk, marketers try to push the button that sells almost everything–It Will Make You Thin. But soon after debuting milk as a diet food, a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition of 20,000 men who increased their intake of low-fat dairy foods found they did not lose weight. “The hypothesis that has been floating around is that increasing dairy can promote weight loss, and in this study, I did not find that,” said Swapnil Rajpathak, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Population Health at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

The research behind the weight-loss claims was largely conducted by Michael Zemel, PhD, director of the Nutrition Institute at the University of Tennessee, who had “patented” the claim that calcium or dairy products could help against obesity. The patent was owned by the university and licensed to Dairy Management Inc., reported USA Today.  Zemel’s coauthor, Sharon Miller, PhD, was later ensnared in a conflict of interest mishap with the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

After investigating, the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Bureau of Consumer Protection directed milk marketers to stop the weight-loss claims “until further research provides stronger, more conclusive evidence of an association between dairy consumption and weight loss.” Milk marketers then claimed that low-fat dairy products do not necessarily add weight and may have “certain nutrients that can help consumers meet dietary requirements”–pretty much the definition of “food,” when you think about it. Soon the marketing had been diluted to, “Soft drinks and othersweetened beverages are now the leading source of calories in a teen’s diet and these nutrient-void beverages are increasingly taking the place of milk.”

Like Big Pharma, Big Food is not above creating false medical benefits to move product. Milk marketers admit that they cite “research” to the medical and scientific press about milk’s value in breast cancer, hypertension, rickets and  osteoporosis, according to their yearly report to Congress. They also admit to wooing African Americans by continuing “to spotlight the high incidence of high blood pressure among African Americans and to promote milk and milk products as a dietary solution as part of the DASH [Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension] diet.” Marketers also educate African Americans and other groups prone to milk allergies about “misconceptions” regarding lactose intolerance and show why “it should not be a barrier to including milk in the diet,” says the report.

Of course chocolate milk has been one of milk producers’ steadiest revenue streams because it tastes a lot better to kids than unflavored milk. But thanks to growing youth obesity grows, some school districts have banned the flavored milks because of their high sugar content. Milk producers have responded by adding controversial artificial sweeteners such as aspartame to the products, despite a different sets of risks they can present. Consumers and school districts have responded negatively and milk marketers and now petitioning the FDA to omit listing them on the label altogether. The government has a long history of not labeling ingredients people want to avoid from Monsanto’s recombinant bovine growth hormone in milk to GMO crops.

Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).