The Whole Milk Libel


Not so long ago, people believed that because walnuts look like brains, eating walnuts must be good for the brain. In just the same way, it’s been easy to persuade people that because skim milk has its fat removed, it must help remove fat from those who drink it. Makes sense, dunnit? Except that was never a shred of scientific evidence to support this marketing claim.


It used to be that there were just 3 main dairy products: butter, cheese, and whole milk. Butter was the troublesome one, because it was made from cream—the high-fat part of milk skimmed off the top when milk has been left to stand. When you take the cream off, what’s left is a tasteless, watery substance that really isn’t good for much.


In the first half of the Twentieth Century, this troublesome waste by-product of butter production was poured into the streams in rural areas around dairies, emitting a foul smell, soiling streams and spoiling the pristine landscape. Although unpleasant to rural inhabitants, the disposal of skimmed milk this way wasn’t a big deal in the days before environmental consciousness. Although contemporary reports don’t say, I wouldn’t be surprised if the acrid odor was the smell of money to many dairy farmers.


That all began to change when automobile owners began taking Sunday drives into the country. Now the noxious smells and irksome sights of skimmed milk threatened milk’s reputation as clean and wholesome. Something had to be done. After World War II, milk marketers discovered that they could sell previously useless skim milk by marketing it as a weight-loss wonder.


Having discovered a useful marketing heuristic, the dairy industry pushed it as far as it could. Given the dairy industry’s image of wholesomeness—the milk of human kindness and motherhood all wrapped up in a clean, white package—this was pretty far. In 1985 the USDA officially endorsed skim milk for the first time, and by 1988 low-fat and skim-milk sales exceeded whole milk for the first time.


Over time, the public health community has aggressively supported the dairy industry in its insistence on skim milk, steadily removing first whole milk and then 2% milk from dietary recommendations, public institutions, and—especially—schools.


Notwithstanding the consistency of these recommendations, there is no evidence that switching from whole milk to reduced-fat milk prevents obesity, and some evidence to the contrary.


An NPR piece the other day presents some additional evidence, quoting researchers who seem very surprised that perhaps whole milk is not the health peril we thought it was. Not only has this been known for years (a similar NPR piece appeared two years ago), it has never been known otherwise. I mean, a bald marketing ploy somehow passed itself off as science, and the public health and medical communities went along with it.


You might argue that low-fat milk could be justified because it has lower caloric content. Yet this claim, too, is misguided. Both fat and sugar promote palatability, and foods that have neither fat nor sugar nor salt are unlikely to be palatable on their own, especially for children. Skim milk and 1% are in fact so distasteful to children that the only way they’ll drink them is if a lot of sugar is added. Even then, they just taste sugary and artificial, so why not drink just drink pop? And lo and behold, milk consumption has been going steadily down ever since this low-fat craziness got going.


In its drive to reduce obesity, the public health community has achieved nothing but helping to change kids’ palates to favor sugary beverages. Nice going!


Public health should aim higher. There are certainly more pressing issues than what kids drink, and whole milk—or even 2%—isn’t to everyone’s taste. But forcing skim milk on kids by restricting what school cafeterias can serve, in the absence of any scientific evidence for doing so, was a mistake. It impairs our credibility on issues—like childhood vaccinations—where there is good evidence. And even a tiny impact on several generations of US kids nationwide has an effect.


Maybe we should be eating more walnuts.

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