The November/December 2015 issue of Mother Jones has a well-researched and insightful article by Josh Harkinson that connects the dots between federal nutrition guidelines on dairy, evolving nutrition science, industry lobbying, and industry-funded research.
- “While many Americans—perhaps most—don’t pay them any heed, the dietary guidelines are profoundly influential. They determine which agricultural sectors benefit from taxpayer-funded nutrition campaigns and how the billions of dollars in federal food aid flow each year to needy Americans through programs like the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).””Since 2005, the dietary guidelines have advised adults to consume the dairy equivalent of three cups of milk per day—a full cup more than was previously recommended.”
- “A growing body of research has found that for grown-ups, consuming too much dairy can actually be harmful. “We need to realize the economic and health effects of drinking that much milk,” says David Levitsky, a professor in Cornell University’s Division of Nutritional Sciences, “and the role that the dairy industry plays in setting the agenda.”
- “The scientist behind much of the new dairy research is Walter Willett, who leads the nutrition department at Harvard. Willett discovered that adults who drank or ate large amounts of dairy seemed to have a higher risk of certain health problems than their peers who consumed small or moderate amounts. Less clear, however, was the chemical pathway that explained this finding.”
- “Given all the unknowns, Willett recommends that to be safe, adults should consume no more than two servings of dairy a day. Willett is hardly a renegade. The World Health Organization concurs with him (though it suggests higher doses for pregnant women with low-calcium diets).”
- “Why does the Dietary Guidelines [continue to recommend 3 servings of dairy a day]? It’s worth examining the committee members’ industry ties. Tufts University professor Miriam Nelson, the author of best-selling books on osteoporosis, is a member of the Dannon Institute Scientific Council. Steven Abrams served as a paid scientific consultant to the National Milk Processor Education Program, which oversees the milk industry’s national advertising campaigns; he also sat on a medical committee that created calcium consumption guidelines for the National Academies’ Institute of Medicine in 2010. The chair of that group, A. Catharine Ross, has received research funding from Nestlé; Danone, the parent company of Dannon; and Mead Johnson Nutrition, which makes a dairy-based baby formula.”
- “Such ties can sometimes be hard to avoid, since much of the research on dairy is funded by a constellation of industry-backed institutes, including the Nestlé Nutrition Institute, the Dannon Institute, and the Dairy Research Institute, which spends $19 million a year “to establish the health benefits of dairy products and ingredients.” Even Willett acknowledges that he has received a “very small” dairy industry grant. Dairy companies also donate heavily to the American Society for Nutrition, which publishes the influential American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals. Then there are the industry’s donations to politicians. Dairy companies spent nearly $63 million on federal lobbying and gave $24 million to candidates between 2004 and 2014.”
- “Does industry funding ever sway the outcome? In 2007, Lenny Lesser, a doctor at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Research Institute, wanted to find out. He scoured the Medline database, which includes every reputable health-science journal, and came up with 79 studies on milk published between 1999 and 2003. More than one-third of the studies received at least some dairy industry funding. Of the 15 studies funded entirely by companies, not a single paper reached conclusions unfavorable to corporate interests.”
- “Willett says the committee’s evidence for the claim that dairy lowers the rates of cardiovascular disease is “incredibly flimsy” because it’s based on limited data and is contradicted by more recent research he’s seen showing that dairy has no effect on cardiovascular disease rates. What’s more, he says, to suggest even a weak link between dairy consumption and lower bone fracture rates “really misrepresents the literature.”
We especially appreciate this article because it does not turn the dairy issue into a polarizing “it’s the best food on earth!” versus “it’s poison!” dichotomy one often encounters. Walter Willett questions dairy dogma from a science-based perspective, and without alarmism.
It is also important to note the increased dairy recommendation that happened in 2005, largely as a result of industry lobbying.