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?

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.