Got milk? Maybe not if you’re African-American

theGRIO REPORT - Don’t let milk myths and misinformation prevent you from getting all the health benefits that milk and dairy products bring to the table. Here are some of the most common myths about milk, along with the reality...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

According to the University of California Berkeley Wellness Letter, nearly all the fears about milk have proven to be unfounded. Yet, many African-Americans avoid milk and other dairy products – primarily because they believe they are lactose intolerant, but also because they think pasteurized milk is not safe to drink, or they’ve been told milk contains harmful hormones. And that’s too bad, because African-Americans have the most to lose by avoiding milk. There is an emerging body of evidence that links dairy products to a reduced risk of heart disease, hypertension, obesity and Type 2 diabetes – diseases that affect African-Americans at disproportionate rates.

Milk and other dairy products such as yogurt and cheese are naturally nutrient-rich foods providing calcium, potassium, other minerals and vitamins, and protein which are essential for human growth and development. In fact, the National Medical Association, the nation’s oldest and largest organization of African-American physicians, recommends that we consume three to four servings of low-fat dairy every day.

So don’t let milk myths and misinformation prevent you from getting all the health benefits that milk and dairy products bring to the table.

Here are some of the most common myths about milk – along with the reality.

Myth: Most African Americans are lactose intolerant and should avoid milk and all dairy products.

Reality: Usually, the notion of lactose intolerance and avoiding dairy comes from dietary habits learned early in life. Everything that causes your stomach to rumble is not lactose intolerance. Often, what we self diagnose as lactose intolerance is more closely related to lactose maldigestion – a condition that about 75 percent of all African-Americans have. But by following a few simple strategies you can take dairy foods daily.

Don’t try to drink a glass of milk at one time. Begin with a small portion and slowly increase the serving size. Drink milk with meals and add it to your scrambled eggs or make grits with low-fat milk instead of water. Opt for natural cheeses like cheddar, Colby, Swiss and Parmesan, they are low in lactose and may be better tolerated. Add low-fat cheddar to your favorite cornbread recipe or serve rice and beans with Colby. Also, buy lactose-free or lactose-reduced milk.

Bottom line: Everything that rumbles is not lactose intolerance. See your doctor for a diagnosis of your symptoms. Then, talk to your doctor or consult with a registered dietitian to learn how you can incorporate dairy foods into your diet.

Myth: “Raw” milk (unpasteurized) is safer and more natural than pasteurized milk.

Reality: Consuming unpasteurized or “raw” milk can pose a serious health risk. According to an analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) between 1993 and 2006, more than 1,500 people in the United States became sick from drinking raw milk or eating cheese made from raw milk. The CDC also reported that unpasteurized milk is 150 times more likely to cause foodborne illness and results in 13 times more hospitalizations than illnesses involving pasteurized dairy products.

That’s because raw, unpasteurized milk can carry dangerous bacteria such as salmonella, E. coli, and listeria, which can seriously affect the health of anyone who drinks raw milk or eats foods made from raw milk. However, the bacteria in raw milk can be especially dangerous to people with weakened immune systems, older adults, pregnant women, and children.

Bottom line: To avoid getting sick from the dangerous bacteria found in raw milk, you should choose pasteurized milk and milk products.

Myth: Harmful hormones are added to milk.

Reality: Just like you, cows need the hormones they naturally produce for proper body function. Bovine somatotropin (bST) is a naturally occurring protein hormone in cows that helps young cattle grow and adult cows produce milk. A small amount of this hormone is naturally present in all milk, including organic products. When you drink milk, bST is completely broken down by digestion like any other protein.

Some farmers treat certain cows with a manufactured vesion of bST, known as rbST or rBGH, as a management tool to increase milk production. The use of supplemental bST was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1993 based on an exhaustive review of scientific studies indicating there is no effect on hormone levels in the milk itself.

But, not all dairy farmers use rbST. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), about 15 percent of U.S. dairy farmers use rbST with their herds, accounting for 20 to 25 percent of cows. Many of these farmers will label their milk rbST free.

Bottom line:  All milk sold in the United States is wholesome, safe and nutritious. Additionally, all milk contains the same combination of nutrients that makes dairy products an important part of a healthy diet.

Constance Brown-Riggs, MSEd, RD is an award winning registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She is the author of The African American Guide To Living Well With Diabetes and Eating Soulfully and Healthfully with Diabetes. Follow Brown-Riggs on twitter @eatingsoulfully.