Your bones may need calcium, but here's why it's time to moove on from milk

Because of a growing body of research, there is a dawning appreciation that allergy to the proteins in cow’s milk is behind a range of childhood illnesses.

Thanks in no small part to the efforts of the Milk Marketing Board from the 1950s onwards (do you remember “Full of natural goodness”, “Milk’s gotta lotta bottle”, or “Drinka pinta milka day”?) dairy produce enjoys an almost unassailable position in British dietary culture. Milk is seen as vital, an indispensable source of calcium and vitamin D, the foundation stone for healthy teeth and bones.

The health-care professions have been as taken in as anyone; not even evidence implicating dairy in the development of later-life problems such as heart disease has been able to undermine the belief that, for our children to get the best start, they need to be pumped full of cheese and yogurt, all washed down with a glass of nice-coldice- cold milk.

This cultural enthusiasm for dairy led the medical profession into a collective, decades-long blindness. Even today, parents who believe their child to be allergic to milk are likely to be dismissed as oddballs, clutching at improbable straws in an attempt to understand their offspring’s health problems. Dreadful eczema? That’s a skin disease. Intractable abdominal pain and digestive mayhem? There must be something wrong with the gut. Chronic cough and mucous? That’ll be the lungs.

Milk, after all, is what babies are made of. What could be wrong with such a natural, wholesome food? However, because of a growing body of research, there is a dawning appreciation that allergy to the proteins in cow’s milk is behind a range of childhood illnesses.

The journey towards this understanding has been made difficult by several confounding factors. First, there is more than one type of allergic reaction. Immediate hypersensitivity to milk, which is rarer, is easy to diagnose. Directly after exposure to cow’s milk protein, the affected individual displays a florid response, which includes swelling of the lips, face and eyes; a wheeze and breathing difficulty; and a rash called urticaria, which looks like widespread nettle stings.

Much more common in cow’s milk protein allergy (CMPA) is delayed hypersensitivity. This is tricky. There is no clear link in time between exposure and symptoms. These babies tend to have difficult-to-treat eczema, refractory respiratory problems and a range of digestive disorders such as reflux (where acid stomach contents come back into the gullet and mouth), diarrhoea or constipation, colicky pain and even bleeding into the bowel.

We still do not completely understand delayed hypersensitivity and it is likely to be more common than its currently estimated prevalence of around 5 per cent.

Even when delayed hypersensitivity is suspected, there are a number of factors that can frustrate the diagnosis. Unlike immediate hypersensitivity, there is no blood or skin-prick test that can be given. Confirmation can only come from strict exclusion diets, where one would expect symptoms to resolve over a period of between two and eight weeks.

Exclusion diets are hard to stick to. Doctors frequently advise parents to switch to soya-based products, but there is crossreactivity between cow’s milk and soya protein in around 60 per cent of cases. Failure to improve when on a soya-only diet is often mistakenly interpreted as ruling out CMPA.

Another common misconception is that breastfed babies can’t develop CMPA, yet the offending proteins in a dairy-consuming mother will cross into breast milk and provoke allergy in just the same way as with bottle-fed infants.

From an evolutionary perspective, consuming milk beyond babyhood is unnatural, yet all infants depend on milk in their first year or so. Breastfeeding mothers with allergic offspring can go dairyfree but bottle-fed babies are, figuratively speaking, up a gum tree.

Fortunately, there are now a number of formulas available to treat CMPA. In each, the protein components are hydrolysed – chemically “chopped up” into smaller units –which are less likely to provoke an allergic response. But these are very expensive and their growing use is a source of concern to those responsible for NHS prescribing budgets.

A better long-term solution is to encourage and support breastfeeding – currently fewer than a quarter of new mothers are still exclusively breastfeeding at six weeks.

This needs to be coupled with a thorough rethink of our relationship with dairy foods. Even experts in the field of CMPA remain spellbound by the belief that milk is essential for calcium and vitamin D, advising breastfeeding mothers to take artificial supplements if they are cutting out dairy.

But, in reality, milk is a relatively mediocre source of these nutrients. There are innumerable other foodstuffs that carry more calcium than milk – broccoli, figs, almonds, sesame seeds and leafy green vegetables, to name but a few.

As for vitamin D, getting ourselves and our children out into natural sunlight every day is nature’s time-honoured solution. Who knows, we might even inculcate a renewed enthusiasm for fresh air and exercise into the bargain.

Dairy might not be as good for you as you previously thought. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.